Evidence has long suggested that the herb saw palmetto is an effective alternative treatment for the management of benign prostatic hypertrophy, or enlarged prostate, in men. However, you may have read about the potentially positive health benefits of saw palmetto for women.
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Used by many women to counteract the physical manifestations of hormonal imbalance--particularly one of excess testosterone--saw palmetto has become a popular alternative supplement for both genders. It is important to note that the alternative use of any supplement is just that, alternative. Consult with your doctor before beginning any type of alternative or complementary regimen.
Loss of Scalp Hair
Dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, is a particularly potent form of testosterone produced when testosterone reacts with a substance in your body known as 5-alpha reductase. DHT can build up in the hair follicle, causing gradual thinning of the hair shaft and eventual follicle death. Depending on your genetic tolerance to this hormone, its cosmetic effects can range from minimal hair loss over the course of your life to noticeable hair loss, thinning and balding. It is suggested that saw palmetto is a moderately effective 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, binding with the substance before it can affect the hair follicle.
There are saw palmetto products available in both oral and topical forms to combat the effects of DHT on hair loss. Your health care provider may recommend either of them, or a combination of both for maximal impact.
A buildup of DHT can affect the hair follicles over your entire body. Unfortunately for women, DHT causes a converse effect on follicles--as compared to those on the scalp--on other areas of the body. Women with elevated levels of testosterone may develop excess hair growth (hirsutism) in areas where men characteristically develop it, such as the face, arms and abdomen. There is evidence that saw palmetto can help with the management of excess hair growth by binding with 5-alpha reductase before its combination with testosterone causes worsening of hirsutism. The herb will likely have little effect on already existing areas of excess hair growth, but research suggests that it may cause a deceleration in the ongoing process.
As is the case with scalp hair loss, you have a choice between both oral and topical products containing saw palmetto. Talk to your health care provider about the best regimen for you.
The same DHT that causes scalp hair loss and hirsutism can also cause an excess of sebum, or oil, production in the oil glands of the skin. The more oil produced by those glands and left to sit on your skin, the higher the potential for that oil to clog pores and lead to the blackheads and pustules associated with acne.
Your doctor or naturopath may recommend both an oral form of a saw palmetto supplement, as well as a topical form. The oral form may control the production of sebum; and application of a topical form of the herb may neutralize any DHT remaining on the skin.
Potential Adverse Effects
There are side effects associated with saw palmetto. You should discuss these side effects with your doctor to conclude whether or not the herb's side effects outweigh its potential benefits. Side effects include, but are not limited to, nausea, vomiting, halitosis (bad breath), pain in the stomach, abdominal discomfort and a decreased libido, or sex drive. Another potential effect of saw palmetto therapy is breast discomfort and enlargement, the result of which some woman may not consider adverse. Should you experience any symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as itching, hives, wheezing or difficulty breathing, contact your doctor immediately. The same is true if you should notice a yellowing of your skin and/or whites of your eyes. This may be an indication that your liver cannot tolerate the herb.