Nutritionist Rob Hobson outlines the health challenges facing men and the supplements that can help.
Specific life stages can present particular health challenges, some of which are unique to gender. Among men, prostate health is a prime example of a midlife health challenge.
Although food should always come first, eating a perfectly balanced diet can be a challenge. Dietary supplements can help support men's health when diet may be compromised in some way, through preference, limited time or any other reason. Certain supplements can also help improve health outcomes when taken for a specific reason, such as lowering cholesterol levels.
What is the current state of men's health in Ireland?
Sadly, the overall state of men's health leaves much to be desired. Statistics from the Irish Department of Health show that 66% of men are overweight or obese, and men are more likely to be overweight than women (44% vs 31%).1
Being overweight or obese is the leading risk factor for many diet-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, which is the leading cause of premature death in men. Some health issues also affect day-to-day wellness, such as back pain, joint problems and depression.
Many male health concerns occur after the age of 30 and include fertility problems, libido (erectile dysfunction) and those involving the prostate gland, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH or enlarged prostate) and cancer. Mental health is a growing concern among all adults, exacerbated by the demands of a modern lifestyle.
This is partly a problem of upbringing; the definition of masculinity is imprinted on many men from an early age, as a need to be tough, brave, strong and self-reliant, which can influence their attitudes towards self-care and seeking outside help.
According to a survey of 570 men conducted by the South Eastern Health Board, more than half of Irish men are reluctant to attend their family GP with a health concern. The survey also showed that one in five men would have difficulty talking to their GP about a mental health issue.2 This reluctance to seek help does put men at risk of ill health, particularly regarding early detection of male-specific diseases such as prostate cancer.
Can supplements help to support men's health?
One of the ways men can take control of their health is by eating a healthier diet, and in some cases taking a supplement may help. Food should always come first, but supplements play a role in bridging any gaps that exist within the diet; nutrient intake depends on the nutritional quality of the food you eat, which may fluctuate for many reasons.
Some supplements can also support specific health conditions, such as balancing cholesterol levels or relieving joint pain.
Findings from the National Adult Nutrition Survey (NANS)3 have shown that there is a significant prevalence of low vitamin A intakes among men (21% of men) and high rates of vitamin D deficiency. Research from Trinity College Dublin found that 1 in 8 adults over 50 were low-to-deficient in B12.4 It has also been shown that 27% of men take supplements regularly, the most common being a multivitamin and mineral.3
What supplements support overall health and wellness?
Only 27% of men manage to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, which will impact their vitamin and mineral intake. Fibre intake is also low among men, with over 80% not getting enough.3 The lack of fruit and vegetables and fibre-rich wholefoods in the diet means some men need larger quantities of certain nutrients in their diet. A male-specific multivitamin and mineral supplement is a cheap way for men to ensure their nutrient intake is sufficient.
Vitamin B12 is difficult to get from a vegan diet, so vegan men should find another way to obtain this nutrient. Fortified foods are one option, but vitamin B12 is also available as part of a multivitamin supplement.
The National Adult Nutrition Survey has shown that men do not regularly eat oily fish.3 This is the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. These fatty acids have been shown to help protect the body from heart disease by reducing inflammation and balancing cholesterol levels. Omega-3 supplements can be taken daily and are also available in a vegan form made from sea algae.
Super Strength Omega 3 1,200mg
Highly concentrated, refined and sustainably sourced omega-3 fatty acids
- 240mg DHA and 360mg EPA
- Anti-inflammatory; supports brain, eye and heart health
- Benefits of oily fish for 15c a day
Aside from being overweight, other risk factors for poor heart health include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Heart disease accounts for 30% of premature deaths in Irish men.5 High blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are the leading causes of erectile dysfunction. Addressing these issues with dietary changes can help men with this condition.
Plant sterols are an effective way for men to manage their cholesterol levels. This supplement has been shown to help lower non-HDL (bad) cholesterol by reducing its absorption in the gut.
Plant Sterols 800mg
Proven to maintain or lower cholesterol
- Blocks the absorption of dietary cholesterol
- One tablet a day maintains normal cholesterol levels
- Three tablets a day (2.4g) lowers cholesterol levels
Men's mental health
Ireland has been reported as having one of the highest rates of mental illnesses in Europe, ranking joint third out of 36 countries.6 Statistics from the Central Statistics Office have also shown that 3 out of 4 suicides are committed by men over the age of 18.7
Research has shown that people with low mood also have low circulating vitamin D levels, suggesting a connection between the two. Although you can get the vitamin D you need from the sun, this can be a challenge during the autumn and winter months, so it's worth talking a vitamin D supplement.
Stress and anxiety are common in men, especially during mid-life. Stress causes the body to excrete magnesium, and lower magnesium levels increase anxiety: a vicious circle. Taking magnesium during times of stress can help you to maintain healthy levels.
Magnesium inhibits enzymes that break down an inhibitory brain chemical called GABA: Gamma-Aminobutyric acid. As GABA levels rise, it dampens the over-stimulation that can cause anxiety-driven thoughts.
Reproductive and urinary health
Zinc is essential for men, and the prostate has a higher concentration than any other tissue in the body except for bone. Zinc helps to regulate testosterone levels. It is essential for proper prostate function and has been shown to reduce the risk of enlarged prostate and prostate size in people with BPH (prostate gland enlargement). Low zinc levels have also been shown to affect sperm quality and libido, impacting fertility.
Men trying to conceive or suffering from urinary issues should ensure they get enough zinc in their diet. Studies have shown that zinc levels declined by 61% in prostate tissue in patients with enlarged prostate, compared to normal tissue.6
A zinc supplement can help ensure adequate levels, especially if men do not regularly eat foods such as shellfish, wholegrain, legumes and seeds. Research has shown that this supplement may potentially have benefits in treating male infertility, improving sperm quality.7