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Q&A: Saw Palmetto and BPH

One of the guests on an NPR show I recently listened to said that a supplement called saw palmetto could be used to help alleviate urinary symptoms due to an enlarged prostate. Is this true?

Benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH)—the official name for enlarged prostate—is common in older men and can cause a range of urinary symptoms. These include too-frequent urination, trouble starting or maintaining urination, and having to get up several times during the night to urinate. These symptoms arise because the urethra (the tube through which urine exits the bladder) is surrounded by the prostate gland and may be constricted if the gland enlarges.

Saw palmetto has a long history of use by Native Americans to treat a range of conditions. Where BPH is concerned, saw palmetto contains plant-based chemicals that are believed to act on an enzyme that may promote the growth of prostate cells. There are anecdotal reports that the supplement can shrink an enlarged prostate and that it also helps reduce the urinary symptoms that accompany BPH. However, while some studies have pointed to benefits, they were of short duration and considered low quality. Two large, high-quality studies funded by the National Institutes of Health suggested that saw palmetto was no more effective than a placebo when it came to easing BPH symptoms. The supplement has several drug interactions, so if you are considering giving it a try, inform your doctor first.

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