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Men’s health check

Every hour, two New Zealand men die of a preventable illness – needless deaths that could be avoided by keeping an eye on a few warning signs, regular health checks and a few lifestyle changes.

If you have noticed any of the following symptoms, bite the bullet and get yourself checked out. The people who love you will thank you. By nutritionist Cindy Williams.

Symptoms

Little interest or pleasure in doing things, reduced sex drive, feeling tired, irritable, anxious, unmotivated, trouble sleeping and concentrating, withdrawing from family and friends.

How common is it?

One in eight men suffer a major depression at some stage in their lives. Many more experience milder depression that may never be diagnosed or treated.

Possible causes

Depression can have many causes, including chronic health problems, relationship problems, alcohol or drug dependency, unemployment, financial problems, separation and divorce and other major life changes.

What to do

  • Exercise regularly. When you exercise your body produces mood-enhancing substances called endorphins which are a natural antidepressant.
  • Take time out for yourself each day to pray or meditate, perhaps while you exercise.
  • Seek counselling. Talking things through with a non-judgemental, impartial expert can really lift the weight of depression.
  • More serious depression may need medication. Get professional help from a doctor.
  • Don’t self-medicate. Some antidepressant herbs such as St John’s wort can have serious drug interactions.

Symptom

Problems in the bedroom? Erectile dysfunction may be the first hint that you have high blood pressure.

Other symptoms include headache, feeling dizzy, irregular or rapid heart beat, breathlessness or nose bleeds. But for most men, high blood pressure is a silent killer because there are no symptoms.

How common is it?

One in five New Zealanders has high blood pressure.

Possible causes

Around five per cent of cases of high blood pressure are caused by kidney disease, diabetes or gland disorders. Although we don’t know the exact cause of the other 95 per cent, we do know that family history and getting older increase risk. Stress also increases blood pressure. This is a normal response designed to help you escape from a dangerous situation fast. But it’s not so healthy if your body constantly switches to stress mode while you are at work, in the car or at home. Even a visit to the doctor can sky-rocket some men’s blood pressure. This is called ‘white coat hypertension’. Most of us eat more salt than our body needs. Salt promotes fluid retention which increases blood pressure.

What to do

  • Exercise moderately for 30 minutes each day. Three 10-minute sessions are just as effective. Swim, cycle, jog, walk, take the stairs instead of the lift or kick the ball with your kids. Don’t push heavy weights.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Eat less salt. Buy reduced-salt foods. Swap the salt shaker for the pepper grinder. Swap the chips or cheese and crackers for a handful of unsalted nuts.
  • Drink no more than five cups of coffee or tea a day. Two double- shot coffees and a cup of tea is about the daily maximum.
  • Limit alcohol to two standard drinks a day. That means no more than two stubbies of beer or 200ml wine – and you can’t save it all up for Friday night.
  • Eat foods rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium such as trim milk, low-fat yoghurt, spinach, vegetables and fruit and wholegrain breads. These minerals help reduce high blood pressure.
  • Eat five or more serves of vegetables and fruit a day. Compared to people who eat only three serves of vegetables and fruit a day, those eating five or more have lower blood pressure and can cut their risk of stroke by one-quarter.

Symptoms

Peeing more often than usual, hard to get started, weak flow or pain when peeing.

How common is it?

Prostate cancer is the third most common cancer after lung and bowel cancer. Over 2500 Kiwi men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and around 600 die from it each year.

Possible causes

Most men with these symptoms don’t have cancer but it is important to get yourself checked out. It’s not known what causes prostate cancer. Your risk increases with age – it is rare in men under the age of 50. You are also more likely to get it if your father or brother has had it.

What to do

  • Be physically active. Inactivity is a possible risk factor for prostate cancer.
  • Eat tomatoes. Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene. A large study of 47,000 men found that eating two to four serves of tomatoes a week reduced prostate cancer by a quarter.

Symptoms

A change in bowel habits, either constipation or diarrhoea, which lasts more than a few weeks. Blood in your stool (poos), abdominal cramps, gas or pain, or a feeling that your bowel hasn’t emptied completely.

How common is it?

Each year almost 3000 Kiwis get bowel cancer and more than 1000 die from it. That’s three times as many people who die from road traffic accidents. Bowel cancer is the second most deadly cancer in New Zealand and it is more common in men than in women. If it is caught early, bowel cancer has a 75 per cent cure rate.

Possible causes

Your risk of bowel cancer increases with age and if your parent/s or other close relative have had it. The risk is even higher if they got it younger than 55 years or if you have more than one relative with it. Inflammatory bowel problems such as ulcerative colitis that irritate the bowel over many years also increase the risk.

What to do

  • Get rid of that beer gut. Being overweight, especially around the stomach, is a real risk factor for bowel cancer.
  • Keep red meat intake to less than 500g a week (700-750g raw) and limit processed meat such as ham, sausages, bacon and salami.
  • Eat fish. A recent study found that people who ate 80g of fish a day (560g a week) had one-third less risk of bowel cancer compared with those who ate less than 80g a week. 560g is a lot of fish and scientists are not sure why it would have this effect. While they are figuring it out, stick with a couple of fish meals a week.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes each day – the more the better. Inactivity accounts for around 14 per cent of colon cancer while physical activity strongly protects against it.
  • Limit alcohol to two standard drinks a day or less. Alcohol is strongly linked to a number of cancers including bowel.
  • Eat a few calcium-rich foods each day, especially low-fat milk and low-fat yoghurt.
  • Eat plenty of fibre. This includes fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals. In a number of studies people who ate the most fibre had 25-40 per cent lower risk of bowel cancer compared to those who ate the least.
  • Swap to wholemeal bread, snack on an apple or pear, eat porridge or muesli for breakfast, snack on nuts.
  • Include dried beans, split peas and lentils in meals. Try baked beans on toast instead of a ham and cheese toasted sandwich. If you love ham, try pea and ham soup. Spread hummus on wholegrain crackers such as Vita-Weat and eat some dhal with your Indian curry.

Symptom

Beer belly. Grab a tape measure and check your waist. If it’s larger than 94cm your health is at risk. If it’s greater than 102cm you seriously need to lose weight to reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, impotence, cancer and diabetes.

How common is it?

Almost one-quarter of Kiwi men are obese and two-thirds (65 per cent) are overweight or obese.

Possible causes

Obesity is caused by eating more food than your body needs. If you don’t burn the kilojoules off they are stored as fat. Men tend to be apple-shaped – any excess fat tends to gather around the middle. Compared to the female pear shape, apples are at greater health risk because this central fat secretes hormones and other substances that promote inflammation and oxidation. Abdominal fat also increases insulin resistance which is associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

What to do

  • Increase physical activity to 60 minutes a day. It doesn’t have to be all at once.
  • Increase incidental activity. Take the stairs, work in the garden, walk or cycle to the shops. Don’t sit for long periods. Whenever possible stand up and move your body.
  • Change your plate proportions to half vegetables, one-quarter lean meat and one-quarter potato, rice, pasta or bread.
  • Cut back on refined carbohydrate foods such as cakes, white bread, pies, pastries, sugar, jam, sweetened drinks. These seem to be especially bad for abdominal fat.
  • Eat low-fat protein at each meal eg. eggs, low-fat milk or low-fat yoghurt, baked beans, hummus, canned tuna or salmon, lean meat, skinless chicken.
  • Don’t diet. Make small changes that become a habit.

The law forces us to take our cars in for an annual warrant of fitness, even if we think are car is running fine. Your body also may seem to be running fine but many serious health problems such as high blood pressure and high blood sugars have no symptoms. By the time you do notice symptoms, the disease may have already wreaked havoc on your body.

If your car breaks down you can fix it or trade it in for a better model. If your body breaks down, there is no trade-in option. If you want this amazing machine to last, you would be wise to take it in for an annual warrant of fitness.

Folate

Folate is a B vitamin. It is essential for making DNA and red blood cells. Scientists think that being low in folate may increase the risk of depression and, for those taking anti-depressants, reduce their effectiveness. Eating plenty of folate-rich foods may reduce the risk of bowel cancer although it’s not certain. What is certain is that eating these foods will give your body a nutrient boost that can only enhance your health.

Folate is found in spinach, citrus fruit, broccoli, wholemeal bread, legumes, wheat germ and liver.

Lycopene

Lycopene is a carotenoid that gives tomatoes their colour. It protects DNA and blood proteins and fats from oxidation. It also has anti-carcinogenic effects especially in the prostate.

Lycopene is more easily absorbed from cooked tomatoes, especially if they are cooked with fat such as olive oil. Spread reduced-salt tomato paste on wholemeal pizzas, add no-added-salt tomato purée and canned tomatoes to meals, pan-fry tomatoes in olive oil and serve with black pepper and avocado on grainy toast.
Watermelon, papaya, apricots, guava and pink grapefruit also provide lycopene.

Calcium

Calcium helps protect against high blood pressure and bowel cancer. With prostate cancer, however, there is a small chance that too much calcium could increase the risk. Eat one or two serves each day but skip the mega-thick shakes and slabs of cheese. Best food sources: low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, sardines, canned salmon with bones, dark green leafy vegetables.

Fibre

Eating high-fibre foods protects against bowel cancer and obesity. High-fibre meals move through the bowel faster which means there is less time for the body to reabsorb any toxic substances. Fibre also fills you up so you don’t feel like eating so much.

Fibre is only found in plant foods: dried beans, baked beans, lentils, split peas, nuts, wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals such as oats and quinoa, vegetables and fruit.

Catechins

Catechins are one of the many flavonoids found in natural foods. They may reduce a number of cancers including prostate and bowel cancer. In the laboratory, catechins work by preventing DNA damage and blocking the growth of tumour cells. They also increase energy expenditure which makes them potentially helpful for losing weight. The best source of catechins is green tea. It has three to 10 times more catechins than black tea. The best results have been in people who drank large quantities of green tea.

Potassium and magnesium

These minerals help reduce high blood pressure and keep muscles such as the heart working properly. Most vegetables and fruit including citrus, bananas and dried fruit, legumes, unsalted nuts, whole-grain cereals and spinach contain potassium and magnesium.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats keep artery walls flexible and resilient, reduce triglycerides, reduce blood clotting and reduce inflammation. Find them in oily fish, walnuts, linseed (flaxseed) and canola oil.

First published: Jul 2011



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