What is saw palmetto?

Saw palmetto is an herbal remedy that people sometimes use to treat benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH), which is a condition that occurs in men. BPH is an enlargement of the prostate that isn’t due to cancer. An enlarged prostate puts pressure on the urethra, either blocking urine flow or increasing it.

BPH can be uncomfortable. It may prevent you from being able to urinate, even though you feel the urge. Other times, you may be unable to stop urinating completely, or dribbling might continue after urination.

Early studies showed that saw palmetto might help reduce BPH symptoms. However, when researchers repeated the studies, they didn’t get the same results. Even so, many men continue to use saw palmetto in an attempt to reduce BPH symptoms.

Early studies started with doses of 320 milligrams of saw palmetto every day. Researchers in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association investigated whether doubling and then tripling that dose increased effectiveness. Even at higher doses, saw palmetto remained ineffective. In fact, the study found no difference over placebo. Some evidence suggests that saw palmetto improves nocturia in men, which is a frequent urge to urinate at night, but any noted improvement has been modest.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people use saw palmetto to treat a variety of other conditions. Even though there isn’t sufficient evidence to show that it works for any of these conditions, people use it to treat:

  • alopecia, or hair loss
  • low sex drive
  • urinary problems
  • hormone imbalances
  • prostate cancer
  • pelvic pain

It’s not just men who use saw palmetto. Some women have tried using it to enlarge their breasts, according to the Mayo Clinic. Scientific evidence hasn’t shown it to be effective.

According to the University of Michigan Health Service, people used to think saw palmetto increased sperm production and sex drive in men, but that hasn’t been shown to be true.

Although studies don’t prove saw palmetto’s effectiveness, clinical trials have shown that saw palmetto is safe. Even at high doses, no serious adverse reactions were reported. Minor side effects include a variety of stomach problems, and even bad breath. In extremely rare cases, liver problems have been reported.

Always ask your doctor before taking saw palmetto to make sure that it doesn’t interact with other medications you may be taking.

While herbal supplements may help with some conditions, always talk with your doctor before beginning a regimen.

Other treatments for an enlarged prostate exist. Sometimes, a doctor will closely monitor you and advise you to modify daily habits to improve symptoms. For example, diet and certain prescription medications can cause prostate problems.

If the problem is severe, several medications exist to treat BPH. You can take them either alone or in combination with other therapies. Minimally invasive procedures also can provide relief.

Saw palmetto is a traditional folk remedy with a reputation for helping to treat BPH. People also use it to treat a variety of other symptoms. Scientific evidence doesn’t prove that it’s effective for treating BPH or any condition. It appears that most people can take it with minimal issues, but it can be dangerous for some people. Check with your doctor before taking saw palmetto.