The Benefits of Saw Palmetto

Saw palmetto plant
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Lana Gramlich/Moment Open/Getty Images

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens or Sabal serrulata) is a plant used in herbal medicine. Often used to fight hair loss, saw palmetto is also commonly used for conditions affecting the prostate.

Saw palmetto supplements typically contain extracts of the fruit of the plant.

Why Do People Use Saw Palmetto?

In alternative medicine, saw palmetto is said to aid in the treatment of the following health problems: asthma, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), chronic pelvic pain syndrome, colds, coughs, migraineprostate cancer, and sore throat.

Saw palmetto is also thought to increase libido, as well as alleviate stress.

Related: 3 Herbal Supplements for Stress Relief

1)  BPH

One of the most common uses of saw palmetto is the treatment of BPH, a condition marked by enlargement of the prostate. BPH is not considered a serious health issue, but it often causes symptoms such as increased need to urinate. It also may lead to urinary tract infections and other complications.

Several small studies have shown that saw palmetto may help relieve BPH symptoms. However, a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2012 found that saw palmetto may be ineffective in treating urinary symptoms associated with BPH.

For this report, researchers analyzed 32 previously published clinical trials with a total of 5,666 participants. Their analysis determined that use of saw palmetto did not improve urinary flow measures or prostate size in men with BPH-related lower urinary tract symptoms.

Related: Herbs for an Enlarged Prostate.

2)  Hair Loss

Saw palmetto is said to inhibit the activity of 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme involved in converting testosterone to a hormone called dihydrotestosterone. Dihydrotestosterone appears to play a key role in the development of androgenic alopecia, a condition more commonly known as male-pattern hair loss.

While research on saw palmetto's effects against hair loss is limited, there's some evidence that it may help treat androgenetic alopecia.

In a pilot study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002, for instance, a group of males with mild to moderate androgenetic alopecia showed a "highly positive response" to treatment with saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol. The study's authors partly attributed this finding to saw palmetto's possibly blocking the activity of 5-alpha reductase.

More Benefits of Saw Palmetto

Emerging research suggests that saw palmetto shows promise in the treatment of certain other health conditions.

For example, a small study published in the Swiss journal Urologia Internationalis in 2010 found that saw palmetto may be of some benefit to patients with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome.

In the study, 102 patients with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome were split into two groups: the first group received a combination of saw palmetto, selenium, and lycopene; the second group received saw palmetto alone.

After eight weeks of treatment, both groups showed a significant improvement in symptoms. 

There's also some evidence that taking saw palmetto prior to undergoing prostate surgery may reduce the time spent in surgery (as well as blood loss, the development of problems during surgery, and total time spent in the hospital). 

Side Effects & Safety Concerns

Saw palmetto may cause a number of side effects, including:

• bad breath 
• constipation 
• diarrhea 
• dizziness
• fatigue
• headache 
• nausea
• stomach
• vomiting

Additionally, some men taking saw palmetto have reported erectile dysfunction, breast tenderness or enlargement, and changes in sexual desire.

Although it hasn't been well-demonstrated in humans, saw palmetto may influence levels of sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. Therefore, people with hormone-sensitive conditions (including breast cancer and prostate cancer) should consult their physician prior to using saw palmetto. Children and pregnant women shouldn't take saw palmetto.

There have been rare case reports describing liver inflammation, pancreatitis, jaundice, headache, dizziness, insomnia, depression, breathing difficulties, muscle pain, high blood pressure, chest pain, abnormal heart rhythm, blood clots, and heart disease, but they haven't been clearly caused by saw palmetto.

At least two case reports have linked saw palmetto with severe bleeding. People with bleeding disorders or who are taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications such as warfarin (Coumadin®), aspirin, or clopidogrel (Plavix®) should avoid taking saw palmetto unless under medical supervision. It should also be avoided at least two weeks before or after surgery.

Where to Find It

You can purchase dietary supplements containing saw palmetto in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in herbal products. Saw palmetto is also widely available for purchase online.

Sources

Agbabiaka TB1, Pittler MH, Wider B, Ernst E. "Serenoa repens (saw palmetto): a systematic review of adverse events." Drug Saf. 2009;32(8):637-47.

Gerber GS1. "Saw palmetto for the treatment of men with lower urinary tract symptoms." J Urol. 2000 May;163(5):1408-12.

Gordon AE1, Shaughnessy AF. "Saw palmetto for prostate disorders." Am Fam Physician. 2003 Mar 15;67(6):1281-3.

Morgia G1, Mucciardi G, Galì A, Madonia M, Marchese F, Di Benedetto A, Romano G, Bonvissuto G, Castelli T, Macchione L, Magno C. "Treatment of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome category IIIA with Serenoa repens plus selenium and lycopene (Profluss) versus S. repens alone: an Italian randomized multicenter-controlled study." Urol Int. 2010;84(4):400-6.

National Institutes of Health. "Saw palmetto: MedlinePlus Supplements." February 2015.

Prager N1, Bickett K, French N, Marcovici G. "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to determine the effectiveness of botanically derived inhibitors of 5-alpha-reductase in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia." J Altern Complement Med. 2002 Apr;8(2):143-52.

Tacklind J1, Macdonald R, Rutks I, Stanke JU, Wilt TJ. "Serenoa repens for benign prostatic hyperplasia." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Dec 12;12:CD001423.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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