The Health Benefits of Saw Palmetto

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A harvester reaches into a saw palmetto plant to pick its medicinal berries.
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Saw palmetto sales contribute about $25 million a year to Florida’s economy, says Ted Helms of the state agriculture department’s marketing division. Demand was so high during the 1998 season that saw palmetto “bandits” ­appeared on the scene, ­illegally scavenging berries from secluded areas in Florida state parks, according to an Associated Press ­report.
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Before scientists turned their ­microscopes to saw palmetto, ­Native Americans used the berries as a general tonic and to treat impotence. In 1892, a ­report in The New Idea ­stated that saw palmetto acts as a ­“vitalizer” for ­reproductive ­organs, including the ovaries and prostate.
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Sharp spines edge the leaves of this low-growing palm, giving it the common name “saw palmetto.”

Dosage: Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

What It Does: Relieves symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), especially the urge to urinate during the night. Preliminary research shows that it may also help women suffering from ovarian and uterine irritations.

How We Know: For BPH–clinical trials. For ovarian and uterine irritations– preliminary research.

Dosage: For BPH, up to three 585-mg capsules daily or 20 to 30 drops of tincture four times daily; products standardized to 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols are taken one or two times a day for a total daily dose of 320 mg. Dosages for treatment of ovarian and uterine problems haven’t been established.

Cautions: Reports of discomfort linked to taking saw palmetto are rare. One source suggests that because of saw palmetto’s possible impact on estrogen, it may affect hormonal treatments, including birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. Additionally, the safety of saw palmetto for women who are pregnant or nursing hasn’t been established, so using it during these times should be avoided.

As I write this, the saw palmetto harvest is under way in Florida, where workers will handpick about seven million pounds of berries this season, according to University of Florida field observers. Most of the crop will be sent to­ ­Europe, but a large portion will return to the United States in the form of standardized extracts.

Saw palmetto is primarily used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), an enlargement of the prostate gland that affects about half of all men older than fifty. The herb has become a popular BPH treatment in the United States, where it’s the fifth top-selling phytomedicine on the market, according to a 1998 survey by Whole Foods magazine.

Still, standard U.S. medical treatment of BPH generally consists of prescribing synthetic drugs or surgery to remove some prostate tissue. The drugs can help offset frequent urination and pain, but they can also have side effects, including hypertension, dizziness, and decreased sex drive.

In Europe, medical doctors for years have prescribed saw palmetto and other herbs to treat mild to moderate cases of BPH. Today in Germany alone, the sale of BPH products totals about $400 million, and 90 percent of those sales are herbal preparations, including saw palmetto, pumpkin seed, and stinging nettle root. Each of these herbs is believed to regulate hormone metabolism, mediate the immune system, fight congestion, and affect bladder muscles.

Given this history, then, it’s no surprise that most scientific research on saw palmetto as a BPH treatment comes from Europe. Last August, just as the saw palmetto harvest was in full swing in Florida, European and U.S. doctors, pharmacists, and researchers gathered in that state to bring each other up to date on the latest research.

A Little Background, Some Recent Research

BPH is a noncancerous growth of the prostate gland. The prostate sits under the bladder and, if the prostate grows in mature men, it pinches the urethra, or urine tube, and problems begin, including painful urination and frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom. Researchers estimate that BPH affects about ten million men in the United States–some in their forties, half of all men older than fifty, and four out of every five men older than eighty.

Research conducted in Europe since the beginning of the 1980s shows that saw palmetto is an effective treatment for BPH. A 1984 clinical trial in France, for example, showed that saw palmetto reduced by nearly 50 percent the number of times BPH sufferers had to get up to go to the bathroom during the night and ­significantly reduced painful or difficult urination. More recently, researchers compared a saw palmetto extract with finasteride, the conventional BPH drug. The study involved 1,098 men diagnosed with BPH, and researchers concluded that both treatments relieved BPH symptoms in about two-thirds of the men. But while finasteride significantly reduced prostate size, it also decreased sex drive and potency. Saw palmetto didn’t reduce prostate size, but the men taking the herb complained less about decreased sex drive and impotence.

At the Florida conference, German researchers said that a three-year study involving 315 men with BPH showed that nearly three-fourths of the men using saw palmetto found relief from frequent nighttime urination, and more than half found relief from frequent urination during the day. Further, more than a fourth of them experienced a reduction in prostate size, and nearly all of those using saw palmetto–98 percent–experienced no side ­effects.

To date, researchers believe that saw palmetto’s fatty acids and sterols contain the active ingredients that relieve BPH symptoms. These active compounds, some researchers say, prevent the conversion of testosterone to DHT, the agent thought to be responsible for prostate enlargement.

Don’t Bypass Cancer Screening

While much of the news about saw palmetto is good, some medical practitioners say they are concerned that its use could be risky: The symptoms of BPH and prostate cancer are similar, so using saw palmetto–which is sold over the counter–may simultaneously relieve symptoms and mask signs of a more serious problem.

However, saw palmetto doesn’t impact a man’s PSA count, a measurement doctors use to test for prostate cancer. Therefore, say medical practitioners, stay in touch with your health-care provider, and don’t bypass screening for prostate cancer. 8

Not Just For Men Anymore?

Last August, when doctors, pharmacists, and other professionals gathered at the International Saw Palmetto Symposium in Florida, much of their discussion focused on saw palmetto as a treatment for men. However, they also turned their attention to preliminary research showing that it may help women who suffer from painful menstruation and other uterine discomforts.

Steven Foster is the author of nine books on herbal health, including 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave Press, 1998), and a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. His articles and photographs appear frequently in Herbs for Health, The Herb Companion, and other publications.

Additional information for this article was provided by the American Herbal Products Association, an industry group based in Silver Spring, Maryland, and sponsor of the 1998 International Saw Palmetto Symposium in Naples, Florida.

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