Saw Palmetto: Benefits Erectile Dysfunction, Hair Loss and More
Men don’t like to talk about anything related to their prostate gland. The common (and often inaccurate) belief is if you need to talk about it, something must be wrong. Alarm bells start to go off if you’re over 60 and you need to visit the bathroom more frequently in the middle of the night. And if it’s not the frequent bathroom visits that scares men, it’s the strain to get the urine flowing. Before you know it you’ve talked yourself into having cancer. Add in a loss of sex drive or erectile dysfunction and the worries multiply.
As men age, it’s not uncommon for the prostate to enlarge. It’s also not uncommon for men over 60’s to have lost their libido, suffer from ED problems, have a weak stream while urinating or feel as if they didn’t fully empty their bladder. It’s all perfectly normal.
Some men want to avoid going to the doctor and having a finger or ultrasound stuck up their rectums. They also want to try and avoid discussing sexual dysfunction with their doctors so millions turn to an herbal supplement called saw palmetto to treat an enlarged prostate, eliminate extra visits to the bathroom, improve sexual performance, and maybe fill in the bald spot on the top of their head.
What is Saw Palmetto?
Saw palmetto is a dietary supplement that comes from the berries of a palm leaf plant that grows in the southeastern region of the US. It’s believed that saw palmetto was first used for medicinal purposes as early as the 1700’s when native tribesmen carried it around to treat everything from impotence, the relief of painful menstrual cycles and infertility in small breasted women.
Since the 1920’s there’s been a resurgence of interest in using saw palmetto for the treatment of many “male-oriented” disorders.
Current research indicates that saw palmetto is fairly well tolerated sans some vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and headaches. Research groups that tend to be very small (some as small as 25 people, some as large as 300). In some studies, the patients who received saw palmetto experienced mild-to-moderate improvement in urinary symptoms and flow measures. Other trials, generally those conducted by a university medical center or scientific organization that uses a higher methodological quality indicated no performance difference between saw palmetto and the placebo.
The website Healthline.com reports that the FDA “commonly recommends saw palmetto as an alternative for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), more commonly known as an enlarged prostate.” Further, Healthline concluded that more than two million American men use saw palmetto to treat BPH.
The FDA does not recommend or review supplements. Its job is to monitor them.
Saw Palmetto Use in Traditional Medicine
Saw palmetto is an herb that is sold either online or at any of the major drug stores. In a March 16, 2018 interview with Consumer Reports, Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, called saw palmetto “snake oil.”
“It’s touted all over the place and there is zero evidence that it actually works,” he said. Pieter listed five reasons why a patient should not use saw palmetto.
- There may be an underlying medical issue – Taking OTC supplements without having an MD diagnose the cause of the illness can be dangerous.
- Safety Concerns – Supplement makers are not required to prove that their products are safe or that the ingredients on the label are the same as those in the caplet.
- Placebo Effect – A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) determined that saw palmetto was no better at relieving prostate symptoms than the placebo.
- Take Medicines Recommended By Doctors – If you’re being treated for prostate problems it’s best to take medicine that is recommended by doctors, not OTC supplements.
- The Cost – It may be tempting to try saw palmetto before seeing your doctor because the supplements are inexpensive. But if you do additional damage to your body, it might cost you more in the long run.
What Are The Saw Palmetto Benefits
Wellnessresources.com claims that more than two million men use saw palmetto and have experienced better sexual performance. Others have used it as a supplement to their prescribed medication for BPH and have reported that saw palmetto provides pain relief.
Among the more bothersome symptoms of BPH is the need to urinate frequently as well as feeling as if you haven’t emptied your bladder. Both systems are directly related to an enlarged prostate. Users of saw palmetto say that as swelling in the prostate subsides, they no longer need to urinate as frequently, they don’t need to push hard to get the urine flowing and they don’t have the feeling of having a full bladder.
The online supplement site, iLast.net states that saw palmetto works as a testosterone booster but cautions, “researchers don’t fully understand how it works.”
Anabalicmen.com says, “[Saw palmetto] increases testosterone, but it does so by inhibiting the 5-α reductase enzyme, which means that the herb inhibits the conversion from testosterone to DHT. The result is that you will have more testosterone, that it can’t convert into DHT. You will feel like shit as you’re only blocking the testosterone from converting into its more potent form.”
Academic studies on saw palmetto and testosterone have been mum.
Saw Palmetto for Hair Loss Treatment
Research is very limited regarding saw palmetto’s ability to treat hair loss. Still, one small study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (25 participants) showed that men who were treated with topical saw palmetto and trichogen veg complex grew hair within four months of initial treatment.
Saw palmetto berries are thought to block 5-alpha-reductase, which an enzyme that converts testosterone to DHT, the chemical responsible for hair loss and, coincidentally, is sometimes a cause of prostate enlargement. Classic catch-22.
There are many treatments for hair loss, most of which have shown better results than saw palmetto. Men who are suffering from hair loss are generally 50-to-60 years old. Male pattern baldness and problems with the prostate begin around the same time so if you choose to add saw palmetto to your health plan there may not be a correlation between improvement in prostate health and hair growth.
May Improve Urinary Tract Symptoms
In September 2011 the National Institutes of Health and JAMA issued a paper entitled “Effect of Increasing Doses of Saw Palmetto on Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms.” The conclusion was blunt: “Saw palmetto does not reduce lower urinary tract infections even when dosages are increased.” Some men, however, who use saw palmetto as part of their regular health maintenance plan say that the product reduces the swelling of the prostate thus eliminating the urinary tract issues.
May Improve Sexual Function for Men
Wellnessresources.com concluded that when used to treat BPH saw palmetto has a dual beneficial effect. First, it helped men with BPH and it “significantly improved sexual performance.” The study was based on the tests of 82 men who used 320 mg per day. A second study involving 24 men who also reported improved erectile function.
However, in four studies conducted by the University of Michigan School of Medicine came to a different conclusion. Researchers at Michigan say the use of saw palmetto actually decreased the libido of men who use the product and that some men experienced impotence.
May Reduce Prostate Cancer Risk
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center studied the relationship between saw palmetto and prostate cancer. The report concluded that saw palmetto does not cure cancer nor is sal palmetto a treatment to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
In many men, the early prostate tumors are undetectable visually or by feel. They can remain small for years. Elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA blood test) do not rule in or rule out the existence of prostate cancer. Other, more invasive, tests can conduct if prostate cancer is suspected but even those aren’t always conclusive. There’s no way to know if saw palmetto is or is not a cancer blocker.
However, once prostate problems have been diagnosed, some men use saw palmetto to manage the discomfort associated with an enlarged prostate. Along with good news sometimes some bad – the National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that use of saw palmetto can induce apoptosis, which is the killing of “good cells” that the prostate makes.
The best way to avoid prostate cancer is to limit the intake of red meat, cut out high-fat dairy products, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Could Treat Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia
BPH is a common problem as men reach their 60’s. The prostate gland enlarges and it can become very uncomfortable to urinate because it blocks the flow of urine from the bladder to the penis. This is especially prevalent at night resulting in frequent trips to the bathroom. And then many men find it difficult to get the flow of urine going. BPH problems can lead to other issues involving the bladder, urinary tract, and kidneys.
The most common treatments are medication. If prescription meds don’t work doctors may choose to perform nominally invasive treatments or surgery. Online health magazines that focus on natural health have concluded saw palmetto is ineffective with patients with BPH. This conclusion is corroborated by JAMA.
The Saw palmetto Side Effects and Risks
In most instances there are no serious side effects when using saw palmetto. Some users, however, become temporarily dizzy, suffer from headaches, have diarrhea/constipation and vomiting. Some men have stated that use of saw palmetto has caused impotence and loss of sex drive. You should not take saw palmetto if you are taking any of the following types of medication:
- Warfarin or other blood thinners;
- Antiplatelets (e.g. clopidogrel);
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs;
- Substrates of UGT (uridine 5’-diphospho-glucuronyl/transferase);
- Substrates cytochrome P450.
Where to Buy Saw Palmetto Extract and Supplements
Saw palmetto can be purchased online and at local pharmacies. Saw palmetto comes in liquid tablets, capsule, and tea.
How to Determine Your Saw Palmetto Dosage
Consumers should consult with an expert in natural medicine before taking saw palmetto. A report from NaturalProductsInfo.org says the most common dosage is 160 mg twice a day for a total of 320 mg.
Some men have increased their dosage to improve results. A 2011 study conducted by JAMA, studied 309 men, who were 50 years or older, for 72 weeks. Half were given up to 960 mg a day and the other half received the placebo. JAMA concluded that an increase in dosage did not increase the effectiveness of saw palmetto.
Final Thoughts on Saw Palmetto
Some men with BPH have reported positive experiences after taking saw palmetto. The results, however, are either anecdotal or based on a very small research project. Leading medical organizations such as Harvard Medical School, University of Michigan School of Medicine, JAMA, NIH and consumer publications have debunked saw palmetto’s value.
It’s important to remember that if saw palmetto becomes part of your ongoing health maintenance plan, you’ll be taking something that may not be monitored during the manufacturing process depending on where the supplement is made.
For products made in the US, the FDA “monitors” the dietary supplements and states that “Dietary supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe.”