What Is Saw Palmetto?

Saw palmetto is an herb used to treat symptoms of enlarged prostate, explains Mayo Clinic. Although it is not standard care in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends it as an alternative treatment.

Saw palmetto can treat inflammation, low sperm count, hair loss and low sex drive, notes Mayo Clinic. It can also aid in treating bronchitis, migraines, diabetes and prostate cancer. Patients can take saw palmetto in the form of a tincture, sterol and fatty acid extracts, fluid extract, berries or tea. Only adults should use saw palmetto, and there is no proven effective or safe dose for children. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid saw palmetto to prevent developmental issues in the baby.

Individuals sensitive or allergic to saw palmetto or other members of the Palmae or Arecaceae family should avoid saw palmetto as well, warns Mayo Clinic. While there are few allergic symptoms associated with saw palmetto, a study reports that three out of 70 people developed allergic reactions to a combination product that included the substance. Common negative side effects of saw palmetto include vomiting, stomach pain, bad breath, constipation and indigestion. The role of saw palmetto in more adverse effects, including liver damage, ulcers and jaundice, is not clear as of 2015.

Research results on the effectiveness of saw palmetto for enlarged prostate are mixed, according to Mayo Clinic. However, many studies report the effectiveness of saw palmetto as equivalent to hormonal agent Proscar. Research on hair loss suggests saw palmetto may improve hair density, although more research is needed. Saw palmetto may block cancer cell growth, although human research is limited.

The evidence is conflicting when it comes to treating prostate inflammation and the benefit of saw palmetto over standard drugs is lacking. Research is needed on the effectiveness of saw palmetto alone in treating prostate inflammation. Early research suggests saw palmetto may improve the effectiveness of prostate surgery and reduce bleeding and the duration of catheter use after surgery.

Saw palmetto works by interfering with the body's response to testosterone, states Healthline. Prostate cell growth is subsequently reduced. Saw palmetto also works by shrinking the inner lining of the prostate and reducing pressure on tubes carrying urine, according to Medline Plus.