As the body ages, changes can be expected. Skin becomes less elastic which brings on wrinkles, and hair thins and turns gray as pigment cells decline. Internally, bones lose mineral content which means greater danger of osteoporosis, and heart, lungs and kidneys become less efficient. How early these changes set in and how they develop – in other words, how your body ages – is different for different people. One change that affects almost all men over age 50 is some degree of prostate enlargement which leads to multiple problems with the urinary and reproductive systems, including an increase in the risk of prostate cancer. While prescription medications are available to reduce symptoms of an enlarged prostate, some men turn to a natural remedy called saw palmetto which in certain cases appears to be better tolerated than pharmaceutical products, is very affordable and in small studies has shown to have some efficacy. What is saw palmetto and does it have potential to mitigate symptoms of enlarged prostate?
First, a quick look at the role of the prostate in the body and what happens when it enlarges. The prostate is a small walnut-shaped gland just below the bladder which produces seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm. A man’s prostate grows during his life which is considered normal, but on reaching their 60s, nearly half of all men experience symptoms from a condition known as benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH) or enlarged prostate. Once they reach eighty, 90 percent of men will experience this condition.
When one considers where the prostate gland is located, it is no surprise that the urinary system will be affected as the gland enlarges. What happens is the layer of surrounding tissue prevents the gland from expanding which causes a clamping effect on the urethra. The bladder usually weakens, resulting in symptoms such as obstructed urine flow, frequent urination, inadequate voiding, frequent discomfort and excessive night urination.
While BPH is inconvenient and even painful, it is a benign (not harmful) condition. However, changes to cells of the prostate can also cause precancerous conditions, meaning that the risk increases that the abnormal changes will become cancer. While prostate cancer usually grows slowly – and physicians inform patients they will probably die of some other cause – it can metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body. Statistics tell us that prostate cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among men in North America. Symptoms begin with difficulty in urinating (which may be attributed to BPH), blood in the urine, and pain in the pelvic area and back.
Saw palmetto is best known for its use in decreasing symptoms of BPH or enlarged prostate (particularly assisting with healthy urination). It has been used to treat prostate infections as well as prostate cancer (often in combination with other herbs). The question, of course, is how effective is saw palmetto in dealing with these conditions?
Saw palmetto is a low-growing plant, resembling a dwarf palm tree. The fruit of the plant or the berries are rich in fatty acids and phytosterols which have been extracted over the years and used in folk medicine to treat a variety of problems including migraine headache and chronic bronchitis but more often as a diuretic (increasing urine flow) and other problems with the bladder.
Shrinks the lining
How does saw palmetto do its work? It appears the herb doesn’t reduce the overall size of the prostate, but rather seems to shrink the inner lining that puts pressure on the tubes that carry urine. The saw palmetto berry also shows anti-inflammatory activity. Thus it makes sense that some studies have shown saw palmetto modestly mitigates conditions such as frequent urination. Research has also shown that ingesting saw palmetto daily for several months before prostate surgery can reduce time spent in surgery and amount of blood flow. However, in both cases there are conflicting reports on the success of saw palmetto and more research is needed.
Since saw palmetto affects testosterone levels – it appears to block conversion of the hormone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) a substance that encourages prostate cell growth – it has been concluded that the herb might help in preventing prostate cancer. However, there have been no conclusive studies that have shown this to be true.
How does one take saw palmetto? Although it is available in the dried form, it is much more convenient to purchase softgel capsules or tablets from stores that carry herbal remedies. Read the labels carefully since saw palmetto often appears in combination with other herbs that may increase its effectiveness.
Saw palmetto is safe for most people, although some have reported side effects such as headache, dizziness, nausea, constipation and diarrhea, but these are usually mild. Caution should be exercised if one is on anticoagulant drugs since saw palmetto may slow blood clotting (and thus increase risk of bleeding and bruising).