Native Americans regularly consumed this herb as a food, so they were probably not plagued by prostate problems. Now one of the ten best-selling supplements in the US, saw palmetto is becoming popular in many other countries as well.
What it is?
The saw palmetto, a small palm tree that grows wild from Texas to South Carolina, gets its name from the spiny, saw-toothed stems that lie at the base of each leaf. With a life span of 700 years, the plant seems almost indestructible, resisting drought, insect infestation and fire. Its medicinal properties are derived from the blue-black berries, which are usually harvested in August and September. This process is sometimes hazardous: harvesters can easily be cut by the razor-sharp leaf stems, and they also risk being bitten by the diamondback rattlesnakes that make their home in the shade of this scrubby palm.
What it does?
Saw palmetto has a long history of folk use. Native Americans valued it for treating disorders of the urinary tract. Early American colonists, noting the vitality of animals who fed on the berries, used the fruits as a general tonic, particularly for the frail or elderly. Through the years, it's also been used to relieve persistent coughs and improve digestion. Today, saw palmetto's claim to fame rests mainly on its ability to relive the symptoms of an enlarged prostate gland – a use verified by a number of scientific studies.
In Italy, Germany, France and other countries, doctors routinely prescribe saw palmetto for the benign (non-cancerous) enlargement of the prostate known medically as BPH, which stands for 'benign prostatic hyperplasia', or 'hypertrophy'. When the walnut-sized male prostate gland becomes enlarged, a common condition that affects more than half of men over the age of 50, it can press on the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder through the prostate and out the penis. The resulting symptoms include frequent urination (especially at night), weak urine flow, painful urination, and difficulty in emptying the bladder completely. Researchers believe that saw palmetto relieve the symptoms of BPH in various ways. Most importantly, it appears to alter the levels of various hormones that cause prostate cells to multiply. In addition, the herb may act to curb inflammation and reduce tissue swelling.
Moreover, studies have found that saw palmetto produces fewer side effects (such as impotence) and faster results than the conventional prostate drug finasteride (Proscar). And saw palmetto took only about 30 days to produce its effects, compared with at least six months for the prescription medication.
Although there is strong evidence that saw palmetto relieves the symptoms of BPH, other potential benefits of this herb are more speculative. Saw palmetto has been used to treat certain inflammations of the prostate (prostatitis). In the laboratory, it has been shown to boost the immune system's ability to kill bacteria, which suggests that it may be a potential treatment for prostate or urinary tract infections. Because saw palmetto affects levels of cancer-promoting hormones, scientists are also investigating its possible role in preventing prostate cancer.
- Eases frequent night-time urination and other symptoms of an enlarged prostate.
- Relieves prostate inflammation.
- May boost immunity and treat urinary tract infections.
- Dried herb/tea.
- If you find blood in the urine or have trouble urinating, see a doctor before taking saw palmetto. These symptoms could be related to prostate cancer.
- Because saw palmetto affects hormone levels, men with prostate cancer or anyone taking hormones should discuss use of the herb with a doctor.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
The usual dosage is 160 mg twice a day. Be careful about taking higher amounts: scientific studies have not examined the effects of daily doses above 320 mg. choose supplements made from extracts standardized to contain 9% fatty acids and sterols – the active ingredients in the berries that are responsible for its therapeutic effects.
Guidelines for use:
Because saw palmetto has a bitter taste, those using the liquid form may want to dilute it in a small amount of water. The herb can be taken with or without food. Although some healers recommend sipping tea made from saw palmetto, it may not contain therapeutic amounts of the active ingredients – and therefore may provide few benefits for the treatment of BPH.
Possible side effects
Side effects from saw palmetto are relatively uncommon. They include mild abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, and headache. Very rarely, breast enlargement may occur. If you experience side effects, lower the dose or stop taking the herb.
- Read the label carefully when buying a 'men's formula'. Although most contain saw palmetto, they usually also include a number of other herbs or nutrients, and some of these may not be right for you. In addition, the amount of saw palmetto in these products may be too small to be of any use.
- In an international study of 1000 men with moderate BPH, two-thirds benefited from taking either a prescription prostate drug (Proscar) or saw palmetto for six months. However, the conventional medication significantly reduced the size of the prostate, whereas the effect of saw palmetto was much less dramatic, particularly in men who had very large prostates. The study authors concluded that the herb may be most appropriate when the gland is only slightly or moderately enlarged.
Did you know?
The cost of daily doses of saw palmetto is one-third to one-half that of prostate medications.