What is a prostate, anyway? What does a prostate do?
Well, as you’ll soon see, the male prostate gland is integral to the ongoing support of many bodily functions, from the production of semen to the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone to support its absorption.
It also supports the passing of urine and bladder control, as an enlarged prostate may press on the urethra and cause unwanted symptoms, such as difficulty passing, stopping, or controlling urine.
Get the low-down on this essential little gland, and what happens to it as you get older, from what it does and where it is to prostate functions and prostate problems.
We’ll cover it all in Prostate 101, your need-to-know guide.
A prostate is a small gland that is only found in men.
It has multiple functions, such as surrounding the urethra, the tube that passes urine, and also supports in the creation of semen, creating a thick, white fluid that combines with sperm.1
The prostate gland, usually the shape and size of a walnut, is found in men directly underneath the bladder.
It surrounds the top section of the urethra, where urine is carried out of the body.2
Here’s the anatomy of the prostate. As you can see, it is highly linked to the passing of urine and semen and is also relatively close to the rectum. It is for this reason that, even though the prostate gland is not in the rectum, prostate exams are often carried out using a rectal examination.3
There are three prostate zones:4
This little gland has three important jobs:
The prostate gland secretes prostate fluid into semen, which helps to thin it.
This both boosts sperm’s swimming powers, and the semen’s ability to reach higher into a woman’s vagina during intercourse.6
During ejaculation, the prostate and sphincter muscles in the bladder work together to close the urethra. This prevents semen from travelling back up into the bladder.7
When urinating, the prostate shuts down entry to the seminal vesicles, where most semen is made,8 so there’s no chance of urine accidentally getting into places where it’s not wanted.9
The prostate gland helps convert the male sex hormone testosterone into a form that the body can use more easily.
It does this by converting testosterone into a hormone called dihydrotestosterone, which is an important hormone in the development of male characteristics.10
In fact, around 10% of testosterone produced by the adult body each day becomes dihydrotestosterone.
The prostate grows naturally as you age – from the size of a walnut to a lemon by the age of 60.11
Around half of men over the age of 50 will experience symptoms of an enlarged prostate,12 which is said to be closer to the size of a baseball.
A review of studies published in Urology in 2005 found the causes of an enlarged prostate – known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) – are still poorly understood.
But researchers think it’s a combination of ageing and a change in the balance of hormones. Your genes may also be a factor.13
An enlarged prostate can cause problems including narrowing of the urethra,14 which can lead to urination problems including:15, 16
As an enlarged prostate presses on the urethra, responsible for carrying urine from the body, the tube becomes narrower and allows less urine to pass at a time.
For this reason, you may have a weaker urine stream.
This is caused by the enlarged prostate pressing on the urethra, the tube responsible for carrying urine out of the body.
As a result, the bladder becomes accustomed to contracting with more strength in order to pass the urine, which over time may lead to an urge to urinate even when your bladder contains little urine.
As the urge to urinate becomes more frequent and urgent, linked to your bladder’s desire to pass small quantities of urinate, it is common to be woken up throughout the night by this urge.
Straining to empty your bladder is a common occurrence with an enlarged prostate as it may feel like your bladder is not completely empty.
This is because of the prostate pressing on the urethra, allowing less urine to pass at one time.
In some cases, an enlarged prostate may press on the urethra to the extent that it stops the flow of urination entirely, or your urethra may have weakened to the point that passing urine is incredibly difficult.
As the enlarged prostate presses on the urethra, the tube through which urine is carried out of the body becomes narrower, which may make it more difficult to pass urine.
When your urethra has been weakened over time, it can be difficult for it to have the strength required to completely void your bladder of urine.
This leads to a prolonged passing of urine, sometimes even after you have stopped trying to urinate, leading to minor incontinence.
This is referred to as “chronic urine retention” and it can develop over time.
With this issue, your abdomen may feel swollen, and the pressure of the urine can eventually stretch your bladder muscle and weaken your bladder further.
In serious cases, an enlarged prostate may block the urethra entirely. As a result, the bladder muscles can become too weak to pass any urine from the body.
This may lead to serious kidney damage and if seeing this symptom, you should see your doctor – or even visit a hospital – immediately.
Doctors may recommend a variety of treatments, drugs, or surgery, depending on the specifics and severity of the prostate problems, which may include:17
There are also a number of lifestyle changes that can be made to support a healthier prostate:18
Researchers from the University of Texas found that regular exercise and alcohol in moderation may help protect the prostate.24
And a 2012 Italian study reported that turmeric can help relieve symptoms of BPH,25 while there’s an increasing amount of evidence to show that eating certain foods – such as tomatoes – can help slow prostate enlargement.26
BPH isn’t dangerous and doesn’t increase your risk of prostate cancer, but see your GP if you are having urination problems or frequent urinary tract infections.27
Didn’t we tell you this article was going to be your need-to-know guide for the male prostate?
Now you have all the information you need for continued prostate health, from what and where a prostate is to prostate function, 9 prostate problems to keep an eye out for, and potential treatments for an enlarged prostate.
For ongoing prostate health, supporting in the production of semen, testosterone absorption, and bladder control, we have a range of articles you might be interested in.
Last updated: 17 August 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: April 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry