Saw palmetto is an herbal remedy that has gained a following in fitness and bodybuilding communities. It is a plant native to the United States and is used to produce an extract said to help with an array of health issues. But how many of these benefits are real? Can this extract really do the things that are claimed? And are there any dangers to be aware of?
What is Saw Palmetto?
Known by the generic name Serenoa repens, saw palmetto is a small palm tree that grows incredibly slow, produces leaves no more than 2 metres in length, and can live for hundreds of years. The plants thrive in parts of Florida, but they also grow throughout the US, where use of saw palmetto is at its most popular.
Health Benefits of Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto has a history of use as a traditional medicine. The Seminole tribe used it to clean wounds and aid with the healing process, and the Mayans apparently consumed it as a cure-all. Of course, just because something was popular in ancient times doesn’t mean it’s healthy or beneficial—after all, our ancestors believed that mercury could cure syphilis and lobotomies could cure mental illness.
The problem with saw palmetto in comparison to many of the other herbal remedies we have covered, from the truly miraculous Greek mountain tea to the hidden gem that is cistus × incanus, is that many of the benefits are disputed, many of the claims are contradictory, and it doesn’t possess the depth of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds found in other natural remedies.
Still, there is something here that warrants a further look—questions that need to be answered:
Can Saw Palmetto Improve Prostate Health?
Some of the most widespread beliefs about saw palmetto concern its effects on the prostate. It is believed by many that it can treat non-cancerous prostate enlargement, a condition known as Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH). This condition doesn’t pose a serious health risk, but it can lead to great discomfort as the enlarged prostate places pressure on the urethra and can lead to interrupted urination.
Over a decade ago, there were a number of studies suggesting it could reduce inflammation in the prostate, and these have been backed by some more recent studies.(1)
However, the consensus has shifted recently, and these initial findings have not been replicated, leading many to conclude that saw palmetto doesn’t alleviate the symptoms associated with BPH and is no more effective than a placebo.(2)(3)
So, what’s the truth? Well, it’s hard to say. There were some differences in how these studies were handled, including different extract potencies, but overall it seems more likely that those initial reports were not as significant as once thought. More research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be made, though, and it may be that saw palmetto is effective but not as much as previously claimed or not for all users.
Can it Increase Testosterone and Libido?
Contrary to what you might have seen in your local supplement store, very few herbs and natural remedies can increase libido and boost testosterone. In fact, nothing that is natural, legal, and widely available will boost testosterone enough to actually increase performance in the gym or in the bedroom, and very few natural substances can improve your libido in any notable way.
Saw palmetto has certainly been marketed this way, and there are even anecdotal reports to back up these claims, but research suggests these reports are nothing more than the placebo effect.
Can it Help with Hair Loss?
The hair-growth industry is almost as profitable as the weight-loss industry, and supplement manufacturers are lining up to offer the next big herbal remedy for conditions like alopecia.
As with the other benefits of saw palmetto discussed above, some studies support these claims, but they are few and far between, and just as many suggest it doesn’t do anything. The problem with hair loss is that it can be rooted in many different causes and people can react in many different ways.
You only need to look at reviews for the leading hair-growth product to see this. Half of them claim that it’s the best thing ever and has completely turned their life around—the other half are convinced it’s nothing more than snake oil and fancy marketing. The good thing is that hair growth is pretty easy to monitor and saw palmetto is very safe, so you can try it for yourself and have a good idea if it’s working or not within a couple months.
So, it Doesn’t Work?
Saw palmetto may work, it may not. We can’t be sure either way, but if we side with the evidence, then we have to lean more toward the negative.
Of course, some swear by it and claim it works miracles. And maybe it does. Maybe it just so happens to work for them, maybe it’s the placebo effect, maybe it’s something else. If it works for you and you’re consuming it in safe doses, there’s no reason you shouldn’t continue taking it. But if you’re reading this because you haven’t decided one way or the other and are looking for some hard evidence—there simply isn’t enough.
Saw palmetto is safe for most people when consumed in moderation. There have been a few reports of side effects, including dizziness and nausea, but these are rare. There have also been placebo-controlled studies showing these side effects are no more common than placebos, which means the adverse reactions could be psychological or unrelated to the tablets.
There are some concerns that saw palmetto can cause serious long-term issues in some people, and these have led to rumours that it can cause serious damage to the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. However, while there have been rare cases of such adverse reactions during saw palmetto consumption, there is no reason to believe these reactions were actually caused by the saw palmetto.
It’s important to avoid excessive consumption, though, and we advise you talk with your doctor first if you have a preexisting condition or are otherwise more at risk than the average person. Extracts can vary greatly in potency and quality, and while a herb, spice, or plant may be harmless in its natural form, that isn’t always the case when you isolate it, concentrate it, and consume it as a pill.
Take green tea as an example. It’s one of the healthiest substances on the planet, produces no side effects, and offers an array of health benefits, but highly concentrated green tea extracts, which isolate key antioxidants in the leaf, are linked to multiple cases of liver failure every year.
You should also avoid saw palmetto if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as its hormonal effects may interfere with the pregnancy or harm the baby’s health.
Saw Palmetto Contraindications
Saw palmetto is likely unsafe for consumption by anyone taking oestrogen, including birth control pills. It may also slow the blood clotting process and should therefore be avoided by anyone already taking clotting medication on a regular basis, including common painkillers like ibuprofen, aspirin, and diclofenac.
If you’re concerned about how your medication may interact with a saw palmetto extract, discuss it with your doctor before taking anything.