April 21, 2000 -- Can a little berry help heal an aching prostate? The answer to that question may be yes. Europeans have long been using the dark red berry of a short shrubby palm tree known as a saw palmetto to treat prostate enlargement. In the past few years, saw palmetto has experienced an unprecedented rise in popularity in the U.S., although most of the health claims made have been anecdotal rather than based on scientific evidence. But according to a new study, saw palmetto appears to actually be an effective and reasonable option for men with enlarged prostates.
Saw palmetto deserves serious consideration as a first-line treatment in men with symptoms of an enlarged prostate, senior author Leonard Marks, MD, tells WebMD. As opposed to prostate cancer, prostate enlargement occurs to some degree in all men as they age. Known by doctors as benign prostatic hypertrophy, or BPH, this condition can lead to frequent urination, especially at night, a feeling that the bladder hasn't completely emptied after urinating, and potential urinary tract infections. Marks is an associate professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding director of the Urological Sciences Research Foundation.
In the first study of its kind in the U.S., the researchers followed 54 men between the ages of 45 and 80 for six months. Some men took a blend of herbs containing 106 mg of saw palmetto in addition to nettle leaf, pumpkin seed oil, lemon bioflavonoids, and vitamin A three times a day. The total dosage was comparable to the standard dose used in Europe. The other men took a placebo three times a day.
Results showed that the men taking saw palmetto did not have any significant improvement in symptoms compared to the men taking a placebo. The researchers did, however, see a significant decrease in size of individual glands in the prostate for those men taking saw palmetto, but again, there was no decrease in overall size of the prostate.
Marks is not concerned that the men did not have any significant relief of symptoms because he says that the study was not designed to test symptom relief. The study was designed to see if saw palmetto actually had any effect on the individual cells in the prostate, which it did, he says. In fact, the researchers found that the saw palmetto blend had a similar effect to the commonly used BPH drug, Proscar.
"I think a lot of people really didn't believe that saw palmetto did anything, but the experience that individuals are seeing now ... many people believe that it probably has some effect," Martin Resnick, MD, tells WebMD. Resnick is professor and chairman of the department of urology at Case Western Reserve University/University Hospitals of Cleveland in Ohio and was not involved in the study.
"Our study has some very important implications," says Marks. "Something like 30% to 40% of the people in the United States are using alternative medicine, often in conjunction with traditional medicine, and this is one that looks like it may have some merit."
Because it is classified as a food supplement, saw palmetto is not as closely regulated as drugs, and the amount of active ingredient may vary considerably. "I think the FDA should be having more stringent regulations on the products that fall under the food categories, to make them more uniform in their product and to have more oversight in their production ... I would like the FDA to take a strong role," says Resnick.
The study is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from the Nutrilite Division of Amway Corp., in which some of the researchers have a financial interest.
- A new study shows that an extract of saw palmetto may be an effective treatment for an enlarged prostate, known as BPH.
- BPH occurs most often in men over age 50 and can impede the flow of urine, resulting in many uncomfortable symptoms.
- The saw palmetto treatment did not significantly improve symptoms, but it was effective in decreasing the amount of tissue in the gland.