Hair loss is common in men and women as they age. Men typically experience an M-shaped pattern of thinning hair, known as male-pattern baldness. Thinning usually occurs all over the scalp in women, and rarely results in complete baldness. Because hair loss is so common, it’s no wonder people turn to herbal remedies, like saw palmetto, to try to slow down hair loss or even regrow hair.
Hair loss in both men and women is called androgenetic alopecia, and it’s related to the hormone testosterone. A conversion of this hormone into a molecule called DHT causes hair follicles to shrink, resulting in hair loss. Men have more testosterone than women do, so balding is more common in men.
Treatments for hair loss, such as topical medications and oral drugs, can help. Surgical treatments like hair plugs are another option. But medications can have side effects, and surgery can be expensive. You might want to try alternative remedies.
Saw palmetto is a plant with small berries that has been used by Native Americans as medicine and food for hundreds of years. There is evidence that this herbal remedy may treat an enlarged prostate. It also has been used to treat hair loss, bladder infections, prostate cancer, and decreased sexual drive.
Research on the effectiveness of saw palmetto in treating hair loss is limited, but promising. An extract of saw palmetto berries may block 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to DHT. DHT is the molecule responsible for hair loss, and also is involved in the enlargement of the prostate.
Because saw palmetto remedies have been shown to successfully treat an enlarged prostate, researchers hope it could slow or stop hair loss too. In fact, the components of saw palmetto that block the enzyme work in a similar way as the synthetic ingredients in prescription medication for hair loss.
Minimal research has been conducted on how well saw palmetto could treat hair loss in men or women, but one small study showed positive results for six out of 10 participants. Men with moderate cases of male pattern baldness were given a saw palmetto oral supplement to take twice daily for a few months. When asked to rate their balding patterns before and after the study, sixty percent reported that their condition improved.
Before taking any new supplement, it’s important to consult with your doctor to be sure it’s safe to take and confirm a recommended dosage. Experts recommend 160 milligrams twice daily for treating an enlarged prostate. (The participants in the study for hair loss took 200 milligrams twice daily.)
Saw palmetto comes in several different forms, including:
- whole dried berries
- liquid extracts
- powdered capsules
Tablets and capsules are easiest to find, and are the only forms that have been investigated by researchers. Tea made from the dried berries of the saw palmetto is unlikely to be effective, because the active compounds aren’t water soluble.
Saw palmetto generally is considered to be safe, but it’s not recommended for children. Rare side effects that have been reported include mild headaches and stomach pains. Stomach irritation can be avoided by taking the extract with food.
Saw palmetto may thin the blood and may have caused a few cases of excessive bleeding during surgery. Always inform your doctor of all supplements you take before beginning any new type of treatment—including surgery.
Interactions may occur between saw palmetto and a few other medications. Because saw palmetto has been shown to thin the blood, it should never be taken simultaneously with other blood thinners such as aspirin and prescriptions like warfarin.
Saw palmetto works in a similar manner as the medication finasteride, which is used to treat hair loss and enlarged prostate. You should not take them together, unless directed by your doctor. Saw palmetto may reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives because it interacts with hormones.