Men are notoriously leery of doctors, especially when it comes to “sensitive” topics like the prostate. So when over-the-counter herbal supplements claim to “promote prostate health,” many men will listen. Over two million men in the United States use saw palmetto for prostate problems, an herb that, among other things, has the reputation of easing the symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate (also known as benign prostatic hypertrophy or BPH). Thousands of men have also sought out herbal remedies for prostate cancer.
Here’s a look at the latest information on these herbal prostate remedies.
This herb, derived from the berry of the American dwarf palm tree, has been used to treat prostate problems since the 1800s. Today, saw palmetto is especially popular among men who experience weak urine flow and frequent urination symptomatic of an enlarged prostate. According to a survey in Consumer Reports, more than half of all men who tried the remedy said it eased their symptoms “a lot” or “somewhat.”
What does science have to say? Some research has found that saw palmetto really does seem to ease urinary symptoms. A study of 85 men published in the December 2001 issue of the journal Urology found that men who took capsules of saw palmetto for six months reported slightly fewer symptoms than men who took a placebo (a “dummy” pill). Other studies, however, have found that saw palmetto and placebos work about equally well.
According to an editorial that accompanied the Urology report, it’s still possible that saw palmetto is, in fact, simply an extra-powerful placebo. Perhaps it works because men expect it to work. A study published in 2006 found that saw palmetto had no effect on enlarged prostates, adding more weight to the idea that the benefits of saw palmetto are all in the mind.
If you do decide to try saw palmetto, here are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, you should stick with the generally recommended dose of 320 milligrams each day. The herb is safe at this level, and there’s no evidence that an extra-large dose will work any better. Also, be aware that herbal supplements tend to vary widely in their purity and potency.
You can help protect yourself by choosing products marked with “NF,” the seal of the United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary.
Finally, saw palmetto is no substitute for a doctor. If you have urinary problems, get a thorough checkup and talk to your doctor before trying saw palmetto or any other herbal product.
The “PC” stands for prostate cancer, and “spes” is Latin for “hope.” PC-SPES had been shown to shrink prostate tumors, but it was taken off the market in February 2002 after it was found to contain traces of the prescription drug warfarin (a blood thinner). Subsequent tests found