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Saw Palmetto Soothes Urinary Problems

But it won't help a man's sex life, says study

THURSDAY, Dec. 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Men, saw palmetto might help your bladder, but don't look for it to jazz up your sex life.

A study of 85 middle-aged men with bladder problems found that those who took the herb, which are the berries of a common fern-like plant that grows in Florida, reported feeling better after six months than did those who took a placebo.

Using standard tests that record urinary symptoms like bladder retention and rate of flow, the men who took 320 mg. daily of saw palmetto reported twice the improvement of men who took a placebo.

The bad news: Other tests given during the study showed the herb did not live up to its anecdotal reputation for improving sex.

"There is a very large placebo effect [to these supplements]. Still, it is a reasonable option for men with mild symptoms who may be helped by taking it," says University of Chicago urologist Dr. Glenn Gerber, director of the study. The study results are reported in the December Urology.

Just don't become your own diagnostician, Gerber adds.

"The biggest problem is if you take it on your own without seeing a doctor. Men still need to see a doctor to see if there is something else causing bladder problems, like prostate cancer," he says.

"There is some data out there that shows that saw palmetto works [for urinary symptoms], but the bottom line is that even if this study is correct, I don't know that I could find the product on the shelf," says C. W. Fetrow, a clinical pharmacist and author of a "Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines."

There are no standards for herbal medicines, Fetrow says. As a result, he adds, there is a wide variety in pill quality, with no regulations for product safety. "We don't know the risks to these products," Fetrow says.

Nutraceutical Corp. of Ogden, Utah, provided the saw palmetto pills and the placebos for this study. Saw palmetto, which grows primarily in Florida, was supposedly used by American Indians to ease bladder problems and increase sexual potency. Some lore suggests the plant's properties were what prompted explorer Ponce de Leon to say that Florida had the Fountain of Youth.

Gerber says he was prompted to do the study "by our patients saying how wonderful it was and seeing how little information about saw palmetto there was in the literature."

He recruited 94 men from clinic patients who had complained of urinary retention and asked them to take a placebo pill twice daily for a month. After the first month, nine men who reported considerable improvement were removed from the study.

The remaining 85 men, ages 45 to the mid-80s, were divided into two groups: one took two 160-mg saw palmetto pills each day; the other group took a placebo pill. The study lasted for six months.

The daily dose of 320 mg is what is usually suggested for men's urinary problems, according to the University of Texas Health Science Center's Center for Alternative Medicine Research in Cancer.

At the beginning, middle and end of the study period, the men filled out questionnaires that asked about urinary symptoms. The seven questions can be answered on a scale of zero to five, so the score ranges from zero to 35, with lower scores signifying symptom relief. The average score for 65-year-old healthy men is between 10 and 15.

At the end of the study, the men who took the saw palmetto reported a decrease in symptoms of 4½ points, down to 12.3 points, while the men who took the placebo reported only a 2.2 point reduction in symptoms, to 13½ points.

Other tests given at the beginning, middle and end of the study included one measuring urinary flow rates, which improved slightly for all the men, and another measuring quality of life, which also improved slightly across the board. A third test, to measure sexual function, showed no improvement for either group.

"I had no strong bias pro or con about saw palmetto and was pleased that it was a positive outcome," Gerber says.

What To Do

Don't take saw palmetto for treatment of your urinary symptoms without seeing a doctor. For information about the saw palmetto plant and supplements, visit 1001 Herbs. A helpful index of the many articles about saw palmetto can be found at Rick Mendosa.

And here's a fact sheet on saw palmetto from the University of Texas.

SOURCES: Interviews with Glenn Gerber, M.D., urologist, and associate professor of surgery, University of Chicago, Ill.; C. W. Fetrow, Pharm.D., clinical specialist, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center Passavant, Pittsburgh; December 2001 Urology
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