Saw palmetto is an extract used in herbal remedies that is thought to affect testosterone levels. But what conditions can it be safely used to treat and does it work?
Remedies containing saw palmetto alone, or mixed with other herbs, are sold widely in the United States and Europe. As with all herbal remedies, it is important to understand what evidence exists to support the safety and effectiveness of saw palmetto.
In this article, we explore the uses, dosage, and side effects of using remedies containing saw palmetto extract.
Saw palmetto is a type of palm tree that grows in the warm climate of the southeast coast of the U.S.
Saw palmetto remedies contain an extract taken from the berries of the tree. Traditionally, Native Americans of the Seminole tribe ate berries from the saw palmetto tree to ease urinary and reproductive problems, among other ailments.
Now, saw palmetto extract is available in tablet, liquid, and tea form. It is consumed widely in the U.S. as an alternative remedy to treat conditions caused by decreased testosterone levels.
Saw palmetto has a range of uses. Most of them relate to the effect it is believed to have on testosterone.
Lowered testosterone levels cause a variety of conditions, which can be treated by stabilizing the levels of this hormone.
Some people think that saw palmetto prevents testosterone from being broken down. When testosterone cannot break down naturally, the levels of the hormone in the body go up.
Some people take saw palmetto to manage benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland.
The prostate is a small walnut-shaped gland in the male reproductive system. As a man ages and his testosterone levels decrease, it is quite common for the prostate gland to increase in size.
Some men may experience BPH, where the prostate becomes larger than it should. When this happens, the prostate can put pressure on the urethra, causing discomfort and other symptoms. These include:
- frequent urination
- problems starting or maintaining urination
- the need to get up in the night to urinate
Because saw palmetto is believed to boost testosterone levels, men with BPH may try taking saw palmetto because they think it will shrink the prostate and relieve urinary symptoms.
As saw palmetto seems to have an impact on male hormone levels, it may also help reduce the growth of cancerous cells in the prostate.
For this reason, some men who have prostate cancer take supplements of saw palmetto in addition to traditional treatment.
Anyone with concerns about prostate cancer should always speak to a doctor. It is important to seek a proper diagnosis and suitable treatment before trying an alternative remedy.
Testosterone plays a role in both men and women's sex drive. It is linked to fertility because it affects the production of both sperm and eggs.
As such, people may take saw palmetto in an attempt to increase their testosterone levels. This can help them experience an increased libido or a greater desire for sex.
As men age, it is natural for them to lose some of their hair. This natural process occurs because of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which is a by-product of the breakdown of testosterone.
Men experiencing hair loss may try taking saw palmetto to stabilize their testosterone levels and slow down the hair loss process.
People may also take saw palmetto for a range of other ailments, including:
The use of saw palmetto to treat these conditions is based on tradition, but researchers know little about its active ingredients, or if it improves the symptoms related to these illnesses.
Many people use herbal remedies, such as saw palmetto, based on anecdotal evidence.
However, it is helpful to understand the science behind the claims and discover what evidence there is to support the safety and effectiveness of saw palmetto.
Shrinking the prostate
Historically, studies have been inconclusive as to whether saw palmetto can offer effective relief from BPH. A study in 2000 found that the effects of saw palmetto on BPH symptoms were no different to that of a placebo.
However, more recently there has been some evidence to suggest otherwise. In 2013, a pilot trial found that saw palmetto causes a slight reduction in the symptoms of BPH and related sexual dysfunction.
People should note, however, that the improvement in symptoms in the 2013 study was minimal and the study involved fewer than 100 participants.
Preventing cancerous cells
A 2007 study suggests that saw palmetto might be helpful in the treatment of prostate cancer, as it appeared to slow down the growth of cells affected by the condition.
However, another study has shown that taking saw palmetto does not, in fact, decrease the risk of prostate cancer.
Further research is needed before saw palmetto can be considered a suitable way to treat or prevent prostate cancer.
A study in 2014 found that a supplement containing saw palmetto increased testosterone levels. However, the researchers noted that further research would be needed to establish the role of saw palmetto in effective testosterone regulation.
As such, experts cannot say with certainty that saw palmetto stabilizes testosterone levels.
When taking saw palmetto, like any remedy, it is important to check the recommended dosage on the packet.
It is a good idea to speak to a doctor when taking saw palmetto for the first time. A doctor can check that it is safe to take saw palmetto alongside existing medicine.
As saw palmetto may interact with other hormones, women who are taking the birth control pill should not take it.
It can also slow blood clotting and people who are taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs, such as aspirin, should also avoid saw palmetto.
Saw palmetto products are available to purchase online, but you should check with a doctor before using them, to ensure they are safe.
Saw palmetto is known to have some mild side effects, including:
Since it acts as a hormone, the American Pregnancy Association advises women not to take saw palmetto during pregnancy or when breast-feeding. Women considering taking a herb or supplement during pregnancy should discuss it first with a doctor.
More research is required to conclude whether saw palmetto is an effective treatment for prostate-related conditions.
While there is some evidence to support the fact that saw palmetto might have a positive impact, its potential side effects have not been well studied.
Although inconclusive, current evidence does not undermine the experience of people who have found saw palmetto helpful. Taken correctly, it may be worth trying as a complementary treatment.