The trouble is that as a man ages, the prostate often swells up. Unfortunately, the prostate is wrapped around the urethra, the tube that carries urine. The fire hose of youth now performs like it’s trapped under the wheels of the fire truck. Voiding is slow, incomplete, sometimes even painful. The residual urine may create an urgency to “go” with precious little warning.
All this aggravation and discomfort sends men to urologists in droves, where most will be diagnosed with benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), which means their prostates are overgrown but not because of cancer. The doctor, of course, will try to rule out any more serious cause of the problem, but if common BPH is found, there is surgery, the relatively new drug finasteride, or in less serious cases, learning to live with it.
But there is another alternative these days–an herbal formulation made from a plant called saw palmetto. Growing wild in the American southeast, and long used as a folk remedy here, it’s now cultivated and the berries shipped to Europe.
There, the berries are processed by pharmaceutical firms into a standardized product with guaranteed potency. European men take it in droves. Many doctors there prescribe it. The German “Commission E,” which evaluates natural therapeutic agents, has given its blessing to saw palmetto. The United States has nothing comparable to Germany’s “Commission E.” As far as our Food and Drug Administration is concerned, the lack of American research with the herb makes it ineligible for any kind of approval.
In Europe, though, there’s been lots of research, much of it carried out in a very careful manner.
One of the earliest studies, by a French group, looked at the effect of saw-palmetto extract on 94 men with the usual BPH symptoms. Actually, only half got the herb; the others received a look-alike placebo to rule out the power of suggestion.
After a month, the doctors interviewed and evaluated the men, without being aware of what group they were in–the herb or placebo. What they found was that the herb takers reduced the number of times they had to get up at night by nearly half, increased their flow rate by the same amount, and lessened residual urine by 42 percent. The placebo group fared much worse; their residue, for instance, actually increased by 9 percent (British journal of Clinical Pharmacology, volume 18, 1984).
An Italian study published in Urologia in 1988 found much the same. With saw palmetto (which they refer to by its Latin name, Serenoa repens), nighttime bathroom visits decreased from an average of just over 4 per night to about 1.5 after three months. The placebo group saw no improvement.
Prevention herbal advisor Varro Tyler, Ph.D., reports that good studies on 2,000 BPH patients in Germany confirm the effectiveness of saw-palmetto extract.
If you’re wondering how a berry can be so good for the prostate, scientists have a pretty good idea of how it works.
What triggers prostate growth is a kind of mutated form of the male hormone testosterone. It’s called DHT (for dihydrotestosterone), and when it gets to an older man’s prostate cells, it makes them think they’re going through puberty again, and the gland begins packing on the beef.
As for where this troublemaker comes from–well, from an instigator enzyme called 5 alpha reductase, which causes normal testosterone to switch into the hopped-up DHT.
Saw palmetto seems literally designed to tackle this mess because what it does is:
1. Deactivate the instigator enzyme
2. Prevent DHT from acting on prostate cells, and
3. Serve as a mild anti-inflammatory on the troubled prostate gland.
The basic mechanism here turns out to be the same as in the prescription drug finasteride. Pretty good for a dumb plant, huh?
Now, a few points.
First, any man with prostate symptoms needs to see a doctor. The problems could signify a treatable cancer.
Second, saw palmetto doesn’t “cure” the prostate. Its reported effects are on symptoms only.
Side effects? Reports we’ve seen say they are rare and nonspecific. Still, if and when you use herbs of any kind, be cautious and watch for unexpected reactions.
Can you make a tea from saw palmetto? No, it won’t do anything for your prostate because the active ingredients are not soluble in water. All the research we’ve seen was done with standardized extracts made in Europe (now sold here, too), with a daily dose of 320 milligrams a day (two 80 mg. capsules, twice daily).
Keep in mind that saw palmetto is not approved by the FDA for any use in the United States. Anyone taking it should check with his physician.