Berries from the American dwarf palm, sold as saw palmetto pills in stores, may be an effective treatment for men with lower urinary tract symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate, according to a new study.
"It's been estimated that one man out of four, in his lifetime, will have symptoms related to his prostate that will be bothersome to him and impact on his quality of life," said Dr. John McConnell, a urologist at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
The new study, published in the latest issue of Urology, examined the effects of saw palmetto (160 milligrams taken twice daily) in 85 men over the course of six months. Patients taking the plant supplement were compared to patients taking placebos, or, sham pills.
The study found that the men taking saw palmetto reported a greater improvement in symptoms compared to those taking a placebo. However, the men on saw palmetto did not report an increase in quality of life.
Symptoms of an Enlarged Prostate
The prostate is a walnut-sized gland surrounding the urinary canal at the base of the bladder that produces semen.
Symptoms of an enlarged prostate include frequent urination, a weak or slow urinary stream, and incomplete emptying of the bladder.
For mild symptoms, doctors often find watchful waiting, or doing nothing at all, is the best approach.
If symptoms are more difficult or bothersome to the patient, there are several Food and Drug Administration-approved medications that help alleviate the problem. Some of the conventional drugs available act to decrease symptoms by blocking the nerves around the prostate, while other drugs act by actually shrinking the prostate.
Some doctors hypothesize that saw palmetto works similarly to some of the prescription drugs available; however, as yet there is no scientific evidence to suggest it shrinks the prostate or effects the nerves around it. Therefore, depending on the doctor and the individual patient, saw palmetto can be used by itself for mild symptoms or in conjunction with prescription medication.
Doctors Are Skeptical
Despite the findings of the latest study, many doctors still say the effectiveness of saw palmetto is very controversial, and do not believe the supplement will revolutionize the treatment of enlarged prostates.
"There is increasing evidence that it does more than just the placebo effect," says Dr. Glenn Gerber, lead author of the study and urologist at the University of Chicago. "I think the degree of improvement that you might get with saw palmetto in many cases would be pretty comparable to what you might see with standard prescription products."
Dr. William Steers, chairman of the urology department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, points out that if saw palmetto doesn't improve the patient's quality of life it isn't truly effective.
"There is insufficient evidence to recommend these agents for treatment right now," McConnell adds.
See Your Doctor First
Gerber warns that men should not take saw palmetto, or any other over-the-counter remedy, before seeing their doctor. Urinary symptoms can indicate a much more serious condition than just an enlarged prostate, such as prostate cancer, or diseases of the bladder and kidney.
The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements, so doctors warn that the contents of what you buy might not match what is advertised on the label. Therefore, doctors recommend buying a well-known brand in order to ensure it contains the proper amount of saw palmetto.