Healthy Q & A: Saw Palmetto for Prostate Health

Q:  I’ve been diagnosed with an enlarged prostate.  My doctor has offered me medication for my symptoms, but I thought I might want to try something natural first to see if it would help. Would you recommend anything?

A:  You’re certainly not alone.  Over 50% of men in their 60’s have an enlarged prostate, and that number increases to 90% with men in their 70’s.  Prostate enlargement, also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH, is the most common prostate problem for men over 50. There are prescription medications which can help with symptoms, but there are also natural products which work very well for managing BPH without the side effects that often come with pharmaceuticals.

The prostate is a walnut sized gland that encircles the urethra.  Symptoms of an enlarged prostate include difficulty or pain during urination as well as frequent urination and incontinence.  This happens because as the prostate grows, it can squeeze the urethra and cause pain.  Natural products can be very effective in treating symptoms, although it is still important to get regular checkups from a physician.

When it comes to prostate health, the natural product superstar is saw palmetto.  This herb works to help reduce the swelling of the prostate, allowing for easier urine flow, and also helps to strengthen the neck of the bladder.  A British study found that 320 milligrams of saw palmetto per day was four times more effective than a placebo in improving the emptying of the bladder.  In addition, the men didn’t have as much difficulty and pain in urinating as they had before taking the herb.  A recent Swiss study found that men with varying degrees of prostate enlargement found relief after taking saw palmetto, with a 42% improvement in the mild BPH group, 38% in the medium group, and a 30% improvement in those with the most severe prostate enlargement.  

Saw palmetto is so effective that 90 percent of men in Germany with prostate enlargement take it daily for reducing symptoms.  The herb is best taken in capsule form, since handling saw palmetto in tablet form can be harmful to pregnant women.

Many men avoid having a prostate exam.  In fact, a UK survey determined that six out of ten men would wait to see if a problem went away before going to the doctor, and one out of ten would wait until symptoms became unbearable before seeing a doctor.  Some men said they would refuse to seek help no matter what.  These are alarming statistics, because a prostate exam is important to determine if one is experiencing common benign prostate enlargement or a more serious problem like prostate cancer.

The nutrient lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, is probably the most effective supplement in preventing prostate cancer.  A Harvard study of over 40,000 men found that those who ate ten servings of tomato based foods daily had a 35% reduction in prostate cancer.  Ten servings of tomatoes can be a difficult thing to eat in a day, so it’s nice that lycopene is available in capsule form.  In another study, researchers found that increased levels of lycopene in the blood reduced the risk of developing prostate cancer, especially aggressive forms of the disease which are harder to treat.  The study determined that taking 50 mg of a lycopene supplement was able to significantly increase the amount of lycopene in the blood, and thereby reduce prostate cancer risk.

Some other recommendations would be to make sure to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, since dehydration stresses the prostate gland.  Many men reduce their fluid intake when they are dealing with urinary problems, but doing so can cause more harm to the prostate. Adding pumpkin seeds to the diet can also help with restoring normal flow of urine. Unsweetened cranberry juice can also be beneficial, since it helps to prevent urinary tract infections which are common in men with an enlarged prostate.