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Saw Palmetto and the Joys of Aging

Saw Palmetto and the Joys of Aging
Do these supplements live up
to their promises?

It's estimated that by age 50, half of all men may have a condition known as BPH or benign prostatic hyperplasia. That's a condition where it can become more difficult to urinate. The number of times you feel compelled to go can increase. The urge to go at night can interrupt sleep patterns and contribute to insomnia.

By age 80 the number of men affected may be as high as 75%. With such a huge market, supplement companies have decided to position saw palmetto as a miracle cure.

Taken from the fruit of the saw palmetto plant, saw palmetto supplements are marketed as a way to treat BPH, prostate infections and prostate cancer. Bottles of the supplement claim it can be effective against asthma, chronic bronchitis, colds, coughs and chronic pelvic pain syndrome. Online forums claim it can reduce baldness, reduce complications before surgery, increase urine flow (as a diuretic), relieve migraines, as a relaxant (sedative), to reduce the pain of sore throats and as an aphrodisiac.

The reason it's so confusing is because smaller studies seemed to show modest benefits, for some problems. It's those small studies that have been heavily promoted by the supplement manufacturers. But as the studies have scaled up, the benefits that saw palmetto offered turned out to be no more than a placebo. There are no large scale studies that show saw palmetto to help with BPH.

There was a brief bright spot. Prior to surgery, researchers found that taking 320 mg of saw palmetto daily for two months before prostate surgery could reduce blood loss, surgical complications and recovery time. Unfortunately, the study was not successfully replicated and additional studies that prescribed lower doses before surgery showed no beneficial effect. As follow up studies were conducted, the benefits disappeared. 

It is ironic that the only study that seemed to show a potential benefit was one where people took it before surgery. Saw palmetto has been shown to slow how fast blood clots. That could mean more bleeding during and after surgery, leading to additional complications. Doctors generally recommend you stop taking saw palmetto supplements at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery.

As for the other potential benefits of saw palmetto? There are no reliable studies that show it can help with anything else it's being marketed for. But it's not just a harmless plant you can take without worry.

Women should be especially wary of saw palmetto supplements. Saw palmetto decreases the effect of estrogen in the body. Women who are taking birth control pills with estrogen in them, may experience a lowering of the effectiveness rate of the birth control.

Without any long term studies to rely upon, scientists can only make educated guesses on what other problems may occur. There are documented cases of people who took saw palmetto suffering from liver or pancreas damage. Unfortunately because saw palmetto is a supplement, there are no guarantees of drug levels in any bottle or independent testing for contaminants. It's entirely possible the reported potential problems were from adulterated or fraudulent supplements.

Without any federal oversight, the consumer is completely at the mercy of the supplement manufacturer and few have proven they can be trusted. Remember that in a 2014 study, 1/3 of the "herbal supplements" researchers purchased, didn't have any of the advertised ingredients in the bottle. Product substitution was revealed in 30 of the 44 products tested.

You wouldn't buy milk if 1/3 of the bottles had an "unidentified white liquid" inside. Why buy supplements that have the same track record?

The next time you see, read or hear an ad for saw palmetto, remember this simple statement. There does not appear to be any benefit for people who take saw palmetto supplements. In addition there are potentially serious side effects for people taking it before surgery or for women on birth control. Unless prescribed by a doctor for a specific medical condition, you should avoid taking saw palmetto supplements.

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