Saw palmetto is a small type of palm tree found in Florida and parts of several other Southeastern states. It has long green, pointed leaves like many types of palm trees, but also branches with small berries.
Native Americans belonging to the Seminole tribe in Florida traditionally ate its berries for food and to treat urinary and reproductive problems associated with an enlarged prostate gland. They also used it to treat cough, indigestion, sleeping problems, and infertility problems.
How is it used today?
Today people use saw palmetto mostly to treat the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. This condition is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
The fruit of saw palmetto is available in several forms, including liquid tablets, capsules, and tea.
Saw palmetto is widely used by medical practitioners in Europe. Doctors in the United States are more skeptical of its benefits. While it’s not strongly embraced by the American medical community, it’s still the country’s most popular herbal treatment for BPH. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commonly recommends saw palmetto as an alternative treatment for BPH. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 2 million American men use saw palmetto to treat BPH.
Saw palmetto is also sometimes used to treat:
- low sperm count
- low sex drive
- hair loss
- prostate cancer
The prostate is part of the male reproductive system. It’s a walnut-sized gland located inside the body between the bladder and urethra. Your prostate typically gets bigger with age. However, a prostate gland that grows too large can place pressure on your bladder or urethra. This can cause urinary problems.
Saw palmetto works by stopping the breakdown of testosterone into its byproduct, called dihydrotestosterone. This helps the body hold onto more of its testosterone and create less dihydrotestosterone. This can slow or stop the growth of the prostate gland.
By stopping prostate growth, saw palmetto can help alleviate some of the symptoms of BPH, including:
- frequent urination
- increased urination at night (nocturia)
- trouble starting a urine stream
- weak urine stream
- dribbling after urinating
- straining while urinating
- inability to completely empty the bladder
Low testosterone levels are associated with low libido in both men and women. Saw palmetto can boost libido by increasing the body’s levels of testosterone.
In men, sperm production is guided by testosterone. Too little testosterone results in low sperm count. Similarly, testosterone plays a role in women’s production of eggs, with too little testosterone reducing egg production. In this way, saw palmetto can increase both male and female fertility by increasing the body’s testosterone level.
High levels of dihydrotestosterone are associated with hair loss, while high levels of testosterone are associated with hair growth. Some men take saw palmetto so their body’s level of dihydrotestosterone decreases and level of testosterone increases. This can reduce hair loss and sometimes promote hair regrowth.
While saw palmetto is widely used, it does occasionally cause side effects in some people. These side effects can include:
While research on the safety of saw palmetto is ongoing, the FDA urges pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid using saw palmetto. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it’s probably unsafe for pregnant and breastfeeding women because it affects hormonal activity in the body.
People taking certain medications should avoid saw palmetto. It may interfere with the following drugs:
Birth control or contraceptive drugs
Most birth control pills contain estrogen, and saw palmetto can reduce the effects of estrogen in the body.
Saw palmetto can slow blood clotting. When it’s taken along with other medications that slow blood clotting, it can increase your chances of bruising and bleeding.
Drugs that can slow blood clotting include:
As with all supplements, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about whether saw palmetto might be right for you.