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Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens/Sabal serrulata) is a palm like plant with berries that were a staple food and medicine for the Native Americans of the southeastern United States. In the early 1900s, men used the berries to treat urinary tract problems, and even to increase sperm production and boost libido. Today, the primary use of saw palmetto is to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. Researchers aren't sure exactly how saw palmetto works, but it contains plant-based chemicals that may be effective for BPH. Researchers think that saw palmetto may affect the level of testosterone in the body, and perhaps reduce the amount of an enzyme that promotes the growth of prostate cells. Saw palmetto is often combined with nettle extract to treat BPH.
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH)
Evidence is mixed about whether saw palmetto works to treat BPH. Several studies suggest that the herb is effective for treating symptoms, including too frequent urination, having trouble starting or maintaining urination, and needing to urinate during the night. The urethra, the tube that empties urine from the body, runs through the prostate gland in men; when the prostate gland is enlarged, men may have trouble urinating.
Some studies show that saw palmetto is as effective in treating symptoms as finasteride (Proscar) without side effects, such as loss of libido. Other studies suggest that saw palmetto may actually shrink the size of the prostate gland. Due to the short duration (usually less than 3 months) of these studies, it is not possible to say for sure whether saw palmetto is truly effective for preventing complications of BPH. In fact, a well-conducted study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that saw palmetto was no better than placebo in relieving the signs and symptoms of BPH.
It is important to receive a proper diagnosis of BPH from your health care provider to rule out prostate cancer.
Animal studies show that saw palmetto inhibits the growth of tumor cells, indicating that it may be helpful in the treatment of prostate cancer. Other studies show that saw palmetto improves urinary tract symptoms related to BPH. While these studies are promising, more research is needed to determine whether saw palmetto is effective for these conditions.
Saw palmetto is a fan palm that grows as a tree or shrub that can reach heights of 10 feet in warm climates, with leaf clusters that can reach 2 feet or more. It has a creeping, horizontal growth pattern. In the United States, it grows in the warm climates of the southeast coast, from South Carolina to throughout Florida. Lush, green, "saw toothed" leaves fan out from thorny stems. The plant has white flowers, which produce yellow berries. The berries turn brownish black when ripe and are dried for medicinal use.
What's It Made Of?
Saw palmetto's active ingredients include fatty acids, plant sterols, and flavonoids. The berries also contain high molecular weight polysaccharides (sugars), which may reduce inflammation or strengthen the immune system.
Saw palmetto can be purchased as dried berries, powdered capsules, tablets, liquid tinctures, and liposterolic extracts. The product label should indicate that contents are standardized and contain 85 - 95% fatty acids and sterols. Read labels carefully, and buy only from reputable companies.
How to Take It
Saw palmetto is not recommended for children.
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
Saw palmetto is generally thought to be safe when used as directed. Side effects are very rare, although mild stomach complaints and minor headaches may occur. In at least one case, significant bleeding during surgery was attributed to saw palmetto. There have been two reports of liver damage and one report of pancreas damage in people who took saw palmetto, but there is not enough information to know if saw palmetto was the actual cause of these effects.
Do not self treat for BPH with saw palmetto; see your health care provider for a proper diagnosis to rule out prostate cancer.
Saw palmetto may have effects similar to some hormones, and should not be used in pregnant or nursing women, or women who have had or are at risk for hormone related cancers.
Saw palmetto may interfere with the absorption of iron.
Finasteride(Proscar) -- Because saw palmetto may work similarly to finasteride (Proscar), you should not use this herb in combination with finasteride or other medications used to treat BPH unless directed to by your physician.
Antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs (blood-thinners) -- Saw palmetto may affect the blood's ability to clot, and could interfere with blood-thinning drugs, including:
Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy -- Saw palmetto may reduce the number of estrogen and androgen receptors, and thus have hormone like effects. It may make oral contraceptives less effective, raising the risk of unplanned pregnancy.
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Review Date: 4/3/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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