Saw palmetto is a type of small palm tree found in Florida and parts of other southeastern states. It has long, green, pointed leaves like many types of palm trees. It also has branches with small berries.
Native Americans from the Seminole tribe in Florida traditionally ate saw palmetto 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.
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Today people use saw palmetto mostly to treat symptoms of an enlarged prostate. This condition is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Saw palmetto is widely used by medical practitioners in Europe. Doctors in the United States are more skeptical of its benefits.
The American medical community does not strongly embrace saw palmetto. However, 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 the condition.
The fruit of saw palmetto is available in several forms, including liquid tablets, capsules, and tea.
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-size 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, dihydrotestosterone. This byproduct helps the body hold on to more of its testosterone and create less dihydrotestosterone, which can slow or stop the growth of the prostate gland.
Saw palmetto can help alleviate some of the symptoms of BPH by stopping prostate growth. These symptoms include:
- 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 may boost libido by stopping the breakdown of testosterone in the body.
In men, sperm production is guided by testosterone. Too little testosterone results in low sperm count. Similarly, too little testosterone reduces a woman’s egg production. Saw palmetto may increase both male and female fertility by affecting the balance of free testosterone in the body.
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 the 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:
Research on the safety of saw palmetto is ongoing. However, 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 hormone 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:
- clopidogrel (Plavix)
- diclofenac (Voltaren)
As with all supplements, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about whether saw palmetto might be right for you before you begin taking it.