Saw Palmetto

Saw palmetto is now the second highest-selling herbal supplement in the U.S. Find out more about its history and medicinal uses.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Saw palmetto, sabal, shrub palmetto, dwarf palm
  • Scientific nameSerenoa repens
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionNorth America
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Saw Palmetto

Revered as food as well as herbal medicine for thousands of years, saw palmetto was first used by Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans. Documents from 17th-century English settlers report the fruit's widespread consumption among the indigenous peoples of the southern East Coast, but the practice was not adopted because European palates allegedly abhorred the taste. It was later found to possess important medicinal value and was first manufactured as such in 1907, and has only suffered a slight dip in popularity around 1946 due to patent complications. A European market for the extract appeared around the same time.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory
  • Key constituentsBeta-sitosterol, fatty acids
  • Ways to useCapsules, Liquid extracts, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution

Health Benefits of Saw Palmetto

The main constituents in saw palmetto are phytosterols and fatty acids. These are found in the berry of the saw palmetto tree and are responsible for its purported health properties. Research has shown that saw palmetto can provide moderate benefit to the prostate thanks to its anti-inflammatory and regulatory properties. Its main medicinal benefits include:

  • Reducing enlarged prostates. With its anti-inflammatory properties, one of saw palmetto's main medicinal values is its ability to reduce enlarged prostates.
  • Hormone Regulation. Saw palmetto is believed to be a highly effective anti-androgen as it may play a role in regulating levels of testosterone.

In addition, studies have found saw palmetto can also treat the following conditions:

  • Treating hair loss. In traditional medicine, saw palmetto was used to treat hair loss in men.
  • Treating urinary tract infections. Studies have shown that saw palmetto is an effective treatment for urinary tract infections, especially for men.
  • Relieving benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Research shows that taking saw palmetto in the months leading up to prostate surgery may help with recovery. Saw palmetto may also help treat enlarged prostates by reducing the inner lining of the prostate.
  • Regulating urinary functions. Research has shown that taking drops of saw palmetto in combination with echinacea may increase the amount of urine the bladder can hold, which would reduce frequent urination. The same study also found that the drops of these two herbs also helped people to better empty their bladders.

How It Works

Saw palmetto is primarily used in the management of prostate diseases and their associated symptoms. High levels of testosterone are what causes prostate cells to grow and the organ to enlarge. Although additional research is necessary to determine its true effectiveness, the extract of saw palmetto is believed to be a highly effective anti-androgen as it contains phytoesterols, which are thought to decrease the conversion of testosterone into dihydroxytestosterone (DHT), thus lowering the levels of this hormone in the body.

Several studies have proposed that saw palmetto's anti-androgenic action also reduce inflammation in the body, leading to many of its healing properties. The fatty acids found in saw palmetto can also help reduce the contraction of smooth muscle in the prostate.

Saw Palmetto Side Effects

Saw palmetto is likely safe for most people when orally. However, there is the potential for mild side effects, including dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea.

Cautions

  • For individuals who are about to undergo surgery, taking saw palmetto is not recommended, since it can slow blood clotting
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a physician before taking saw palmetto. Because it can regulate hormonal production, it can inhibit the production of much-needed hormones during pregnancy.

How to Consume Saw Palmetto

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsFruit, Leaves, Seed
  • TasteAcrid, Bitter

While fruit does grow from saw palmetto, its taste is rather unpleasant and is very rarely used in any culinary capacity. The most effective way of obtaining the health benefits from saw palmetto is in medicinal forms of consumption, where the properties are more concentrated and it is more palpable.

Remedies

Main preparations: Capsules, liquid extracts, tinctures

  • Capsules. In its most common medicinal form, saw palmetto capsules are also the most potent. With a general recommendation of 320 mg per day, saw palmetto capsules can regulate hormones, thanks to its antiandrogenic properties, as well as treat hair loss and control bladder functions.
  • Liquid extracts. Liquid extracts are a potent medicinal form, inhibiting the production of androgens, which helps regulate hormones, especially in men.
  • Tinctures. In this medicinal form, saw palmetto tinctures can reduce inflammation in enlarged prostates due to its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as treat urinary tract infections.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores

Because of its unpleasant taste, there is little demand for fresh saw palmetto fruit, and it is therefore relatively hard to find outside of Florida and limited zones of the southeastern United States. In those areas, they can sometimes be found at farmers' markets, sold directly from producers. In other locations, teas and tinctures can be found most readily online or in specialized health food stores. As their popularity continues to grow, more locations than ever are carrying the products in many different brands, types, and concentrations.

AS THE SECOND MOST POPULAR HERBAL SUPPLEMENT IN THE U.S., SAW PALMETTO CAPSULES, EXTRACTS, AND EVEN TABLETS CAN BE FOUND AT MOST HEALTH FOOD STORES.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsFruit
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Soil pH5.6 – 6.0 (Moderately acidic), 6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline), 7.9 – 8.4 (Moderately alkaline)
  • Growing habitatCoastal regions, Subtropical regions
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F)), 9a (From −6.7 °C (20 °F) to −3.9 °C (25 °F)), 9b (From −3.9 °C (25 °F) to −1.1 °C (30 °F)), 10a (From −1.1 °C (30 °F) to +1.7 °C (35 °F)), 10b (From +1.7 °C (35 °F) to +4.4 °C (40 °F)), 11a (From +4.4 °C (40 °F) to +7.2 °C (45 °F)), 11b (From +7.2 °C (45 °F) to +10 °C (50 °F))
  • Plant spacing average1 m (3.28 ft)
  • Potential insect pestsFicus white fly

A tropical plant by nature, saw palmetto requires a warm environment in order to properly develop, never dipping below 45°F (7°C) and preferably staying around 75°F (24°C), especially during its early stages of growth. Once established, however, the tree can handle most types of weather and soil, including drought and poor drainage. For additional tips on how to grow a healthy saw palmetto, follow the growing guidelines below:

Growing Guidelines

  • Make sure it has full sun exposure for optimal growth
  • It can take 3 – 6 years before seedlings become fully established plants.
  • Saturated soils that occur throughout the summer rainy season can stunt early growth of this plant.
  • It is an extremely slow-growing tree, but it has an incredibly long lifespan. Some plants have been reported living up to 500 – 700 years.
  • Three to seven leaves are produced every year and can remain on the tree for two years before harvesting
  • The average temperature should range from 25 – 97 degrees F (-4 – 36 C)
  • Saw palmetto can be sensitive to salt spray

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesFiber

Plant Biology

A truly unique plant, saw palmetto grows in shrub or tree formations. The shrub varieties grow in a horizontal formation, with many branches growing on their stems. As a tree, the crown projects above many tangled branches. Stems run parallel with the soil and can gradually bury to form rhizomes. Flowers are white and borne on stalked panicles growing from leaf axils. Fruit is a yellowish green in the unripe state, gradually turning blue-black as it ripens. Fruit that grows from saw palmetto is fleshy and ellipsoid in shape.

  • Classification
    Saw palmetto, or Serenoa repens, is the most common palm grown in the United States. It is also the sole species currently classified in the Serenoa genus. It can grow as a shrub, attaining a height of 2 - 7 feet (0.6 - 2.1 m), or as a small tree that grows to 20 - 25 feet (6 - 7.5 m). The stems that sprout from saw palmetto's rhizomes can measure 10 - 15 feet (3 - 4-6 m) in length. Two vegetative forms of saw palmetto are recognized. The common type is yellow-green in color, while the less common type is a blue-green color sometimes referred to as the silver form.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Saw Palmetto
    As the only member of its genus, saw palmetto is unique, and no true variations or subspecies have been identified. This may be due to the long life of each individual organism, which can grow for 500 - 700 years under the right conditions. It has been observed, however, that leaves become lighter - more silver-white than green - in sandy, coastal regions.

Historical Information

Saw palmetto has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, first by the Seminole Tribe of Florida for treating urinary symptoms associated with enlarged prostate glands. Its first documented uses by European settlers occurred in the 17th century when, they too, used it for medicinal purposes, such as treating hair loss and bladder disorders.

Saw palmetto was used to make soda in the early 1900s

Economic Data

The largest producer and exporter of saw palmetto is the United States, mainly the state of Florida, where about 5,000 tons of saw palmetto berries are harvested per year. Though still largely unknown in Eastern countries, saw palmetto forms a huge part of the herbal supplement industry and remains in high demand, particularly in the United States and Germany. In 2010, extract from its fruit was the second highest-selling supplement in the U.S., generating just under $19 million and showing signs of steady growth.

Other Uses of Saw Palmetto

  • For Gardening. Saw palmetto is also a common ornamental plant, especially in its native growing region. It is used in both large-scale landscaping and residential areas, though the former is more common due to its tendency to cluster and attract pests.
  • For Habitat Development. The tree's fruit and leaves also provide food for insect larvae.
  • Construction. Leaves were traditionally used as thatching for shelter roofs.

Bibliography

  • MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements, Saw Palmetto
  • American Cancer Society, Saw Palmetto
  • Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Pharmacological characterization and chemical fractionation of a liposterolic extract of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens): effects on rat prostate contractility, 2014
  • University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service: Saw-palmetto: An Ecologically and Economically Important Native Pal
  • Smithsonian Marine Division. (2001). Species Name: Serenoa repens Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Sereno_repens.htm
  • National Institutes of Health. (2009) Serenoa Repens: Does it Have Any Role in the Management of Androgenic Alopecia? Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2840915/
  • National Institutes of Health. (2009) Serenoa repens (saw palmetto): a systematic review of adverse events Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19591529
  • National Institutes of Health. (1996). Serenoa repens (Permixon). A review of its pharmacology and therapeutic efficacy in benign prostatic hyperplasia Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8922564
  • National Institutes of Health. (2011). Serenoa repens extract in the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3175703/
  • Journal of the American Medical Association. (2011). Saw Palmetto Extracts for Treatment of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia Retrieved on May 30, 2016 from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=188142