Despite its relatively recent mainstream popularity, saw palmetto has been used medicinally for centuries by certain cultures, notably Native Americans. By the early 20th century, saw palmetto had already developed a reputation for being able to treat infections of the urinary tract ant to increase the production of sperm.
More recently, it has been widely used and marketed for its ability to treat a variety of prostate issues although some of the results of many earlier studies have come under scrutiny following some recent research reviews.
What is saw palmetto?
Saw palmetto or Serenoa repens is a palm species, also known as sabal, which grows up to ten feet in height and is native to warm climates of the West Indies and the USA. The extract which is used medicinally is derived from the purple berries which grow on the saw palmetto palm in warm climates.
The plant has long been used medicinally because of its therapeutic compounds which include plant sterols, fatty acids and flavonoids. The plant is also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties which can stave off bodily inflammation and prevent many diseases.
Traditionally it has been used for a wide range of conditions including coughs, sore throat, asthma, bronchitis, headaches and migraine but it is its purported ability to treat prostate issues which has made it such a popular supplement in recent times.
According to reports, saw palmetto was the third highest selling herbal supplement in 2011 with sales in excess of 18 million dollars much of which can be attributed to its ability to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia and its popularity among men suffering from prostate cancer.
Saw Palmetto and Hormones
The reason that saw palmetto is so popular in those with prostate conditions is that it can slow down the production of an enzyme called 5 alpha reductase an enzyme which converts testosterone into a hormone called DHT (dihydrotestosterone).
Although DHT performs important functions in men, it can also contribute towards a number of male health issues including enlarged prostate, hair loss and poor libido which are especially apparent in older males. Supplementing with saw palmetto keeps the production of DHT in check and helps you avoid these issues.
The Role of the Prostate
The prostate is responsible for creating part of the liquid which protects sperm cells and increasing the liquidity of the semen. The prostate gland is unique to males and is located beneath the bladder. As we age, so the size of the prostate increases from walnut size to something far larger in the middle age and late life. DHT is the hormone most responsible for the excessive growth of the prostate. Complications can occur when your prostate becomes too large including BPH or benign prostatic hyperplasia and certain issues with the urinary tract.
Main Therapeutic Benefits
1. Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH)
BPH is a common cause of enlarged prostate; as men age, the prostate gland tends to get inflamed and enlarged. As a result, the urethra is compressed by the prostate which leads to several complications such as difficulty urinating, bladder infections or bladder stones.
Estimates suggest that half the male population will have benign prostatic hyperplasia by the time they reach 60, and a quarter of those with BPH end up with urinary tract problems like prostatitis.
Early research demonstrated that saw palmetto was able to inhibit testosterone from stimulating the prostate cells which prevented enlargement of the prostate gland.
Saw palmetto was also considered to be a much safer, natural alternative to pharmaceutical BPH treatments which can cause sexual dysfunction.
One Swiss study published in 2012 analyzed the effects of saw palmetto supplements on 82 men over the course of 2 months. Patients were given 320 mgs of saw palmetto daily and by the conclusion of the trial they found significant improvements as well as confirming that the extract was well-tolerated. (1)
Despite many positive findings in earlier pieces of research, 2 recent reviews have poured some cold water on the earlier findings and definitely proved damaging to the claims that saw palmetto could help with BPH. One review conducted by The University of Minnesota stated in its conclusion that the effects of saw palmetto were no better in treating BPH than a placebo effect.(2)
There is certainly some controversy regarding these reviews and the methodologies used to come to the conclusions and I would recommend that you read the full reviews and make up your own minds.
2. Prostate Cancer
Saw palmetto is among the most common supplements taken by patients with prostate cancer. Because it may prevent the production of DHT responsible for prostate enlargement, it may also prevent some cases of prostate cancer which are linked to the enlargement of the gland.
The jury is still out regarding the effects of saw palmetto but research has found that men taking 5 alpha reductase inhibitors such as Proscar and Avodart were less at risk from developing prostate cancer.
While these prescription drugs are linked to certain complications like the loss of libido, saw palmetto inhibited DHT naturally and is well-tolerated with few known side effects.
There is also some scientific evidence that saw palmetto could hinder the growth of prostate cancer cells and might even destroy harmful cells. (3)
3. Hair Loss
To date, there is a very limited amount of credible evidence that saw palmetto can help treat hair loss but what evidence we have seems to be promising. The mechanism by which it might work is the same inhibitory action that saw palmetto has on 5-alpha reductose.
This helps keep the production of DHT in check and DHT is responsible for the unfortunate loss of hair men experience as we age. Because earlier studies had demonstrated that saw palmetto could treat prostate enlargement, researchers believed that it could also slow down the progress of hair loss and it may even help treat alopecia.
Saw palmetto is believed to block those enzymes responsible for you losing your hair in similar manner to the chemical ingredients in commercially available hair loss prescription medications.
A small scale study published in 2006 showed that 6 of the 10 participants involved experienced positive results from taking saw palmetto supplements twice daily for 2 months. (4) The researcher concluded by stating that the results justified further larger scale trials.
Another study involving 62 male and female participants found that saw palmetto topically applied when mixed with shampoo improved hair density in 35% of the participants.
4. Urological system
According to various pieces of research, taking saw palmetto supplements helped ease urinary tract complications in men suffering from BPH. BPH is one of the cause of urinary tract complications in men. It has also been recommended for elderly people of both sexes who may be experiencing a weakening of their urinary organs as well as being recommended to treat kidney stones and bladder infections.
A comprehensive review of 18 trials including nearly 3000 patients published in 1998 concluded that saw palmetto extract was effective in treating urological complaints and improving urine flow. (5)
5. Other potential benefits
Because saw palmetto supplements can help control healthy testosterone levels, it may be able to aid weight loss and improve muscle mass. It is also said to be effective in increasing sex drive and to improve pain response. Low levels of testosterone are linked to chronic fatigue, reduced libido and a general feeling of malaise.
Saw palmetto is available in several different forms including whole dried berry form, capsules, tablets and liquid extract.
The generally recommended dose is 160 mgs taken twice a day for prostate conditions though the participants in the hair loss experiment took 200 mgs twice a day.
When it comes to the research, by far the most studied form of saw palmetto is a proprietary extract called permixon.
- Saw palmetto is generally considered safe but infrequent side effects are possible. Reported side effects include stomach pains and mild headaches.
- Saw palmetto is not a recommended supplement for children.
- It may act as a blood thinner and should not be taken if you are due to have surgery.
- Because it might thin the blood, interactions with blood thinning medications like aspirin or warfarin are possible.
- If in doubt, always consult your doctor before taking any herbal supplements.