The popular supplement saw palmetto may be safe for men with urinary symptoms, a new study finds - but whether it actually works is a whole other matter.
Saw palmetto is a fruit extract that some men take for the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. The supplement is popular despite a lack of evidence that it works. Two recent clinical trials found that saw palmetto was no more effective than placebo for benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH).
Still, with the supplement readily available over the counter, many men are likely to keep using it, according to Dr Andrew L Avins, a research scientist at Northern California Kaiser Permanente in Oakland.
"From past studies, we know that even without evidence, many people continue to take supplements based on what they believe,"said. So it's important to see whether there's a risk of any serious side effects, Dr Avins said.
How the study was done
For their study, he and his colleagues looked at data from one of the clinical trials that tested saw palmetto for BPH.
The original study was a U.S. government-sponsored trial where 369 men with BPH were randomly assigned to take saw palmetto capsules or a placebo for 18 months.
Urinary symptoms tended to improve, on average - but the benefit was no greater with saw palmetto than with the placebo. On the positive side, the risk of side effects seemed no bigger with the supplement, either.
The most common complaints, occurring at similar rates in the treatment and placebo groups, included upset stomach, muscle soreness and respiratory infections. And most symptoms were not considered to be related to the study itself, Dr Avins and colleagues reported in the Journal of Urology.
Still, that doesn't necessarily mean the supplement is risk-free, Dr Avins cautioned. Men in the trial took anywhere from 320 to 960 mg of saw palmetto per day. "We can only talk about the use of saw palmetto at these doses, over 18 months," he said.
There's also little known about whether saw palmetto might interact with any medications.
Then, of course, there's the other question of whether there's any benefit to gain from using saw palmetto. "On average," Dr Avins said, "it doesn't appear any better than a placebo."
(Reuters Health, October 2012)
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