Is saw palmetto for hair loss an effective solution and can it really help give your thinning hair a boost?
On this page we look at just WHY saw palmetto is so commonly recommended as a hair loss treatment and whether the facts back up the claims.
Saw palmetto extract comes from the fruit of the serenoa repens, a 'fan' palm that grows as a shrub or a tree in warm climates, including the south-eastern coast of the United States.
It gets its name from its 'saw-toothed' leaves and it yields white flowers. These flowers produce yellow berries which ripen and turn brown/black. They are then dried and used for their medicinal properties.
Saw palmetto has played a part in traditional herbal treatments for many years - according to Wikipedia, native Americans used it to treat urinary problems and conditions affecting the reproductive system, the Seminoles revered it for its antiseptic properties and the Mayans drank it as a tonic!
More recently it has become popular as a treatment for benign prostatic hypertrophy (enlarged prostate) in men (source: Mayo Clinic) and the extract is a licensed product in many parts of Europe. It was also listed from 1906 to 1917 in the United States Pharmacopeia and from 1926 to 1950 in the National Formulary.
Saw palmetto is rich in fatty acids, flavanoids and phytosterols (plant sterols). It also has 'high molecular weight polysaccharides' which may help boost the immune system and may also act as an anti inflammatory.
The recommendation of saw palmetto for hair loss came about when it was discovered that it may stop the testosterone in the body combining with an enzyme called type ll alpha reductase (note: whilst testosterone is seen as a 'male' hormone, we women have it in our bodies too).
When testosterone and type ll alpha reductase get together, they form something called dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
DHT is known to contribute to both male AND female pattern baldness because it binds to scalp follicle receptors, causing them to shrink. By blocking the formation of DHT, saw palmetto is believed to act in a similar way to the medication finasteride, which is commonly given to men as the drug Propecia in order to treat male baldness.
WOMEN are never prescribed Propecia because it can cause birth defects and may affect the hormonal balance - so saw palmetto is sometimes seen as a viable alternative with similar properties to help reduce hair loss.
The Mayo Clinic has saw palmetto rated 'C' as a hair loss remedy - this means that there is 'unclear scientific evidence for this use' and that further studies are needed before it could be recommended by doctors.
One study of saw palmetto for hair loss, focusing on 10 men with mild to moderate male pattern baldness, DID show that saw palmetto produced some improvement in their condition. But 10 participants is considered to be so few that no real meaningful conclusion could be drawn from the research.
In a slightly more encouraging study, during which 50 men were given topical serenoa repens for 24 weeks, hair growth was noted to have increased at weeks 12 and 24. The patients were reportedly satisfied with the products and experienced limited side effects.
In separate research reported here, a group of men and women were given shampoo, dietary supplements and lotion, all enriched with serenoa repens. Again, some improvement was noted and the published conclusion stated
"...this study confirms the effectiveness of serenoa repens extract on hair baldness such as androgenetic alopecia, especially when connected with 5a reductase activity".
But, once again, only a relatively small group of people was studied and over a very short period of time (just 3 months). That's really not long enough to gauge any long lasting benefit of saw palmetto for hair loss!
A further study - the Effect of Gelatin Cystine and Serenoa Repens Extract on Free Radicals and Hair Growth presented at Singapore Dermatology 2000, noted an increase in hair growth and quality. Researchers concluded that
"...this result is undoubtedly due to the activity performed by the extract of seronoa repens which, as is known, opposes the transformation of testosterone in dihydrotestosterone".
They go on to add that this is
"...bound to the contemporary backing presence of l-cystine at level of hair keratogenetic area".
These studies, therefore, represent the rather small amount of research carried out into saw palmetto for hair loss.
That being said, saw palmetto DOES have further support in the medical field.
Naturopath Dr Eric Yarnell quotes the reported success of the research that combined oral cystine with the topical (skin) application of saw palmetto extracts.
The most important factor when looking for ways to stop your hair loss - and the one very often overlooked - is to first determine the cause!
There is no single hair loss solution that will work for all types of hair loss - instead, it's necessary to determine what's triggering the problem, then to seek the MOST APPROPRIATE solution.
For example, if you tend to tie your hair back on a frequent basis, or wear a weave or extension, then you may be suffering from traction alopecia.
Please see our traction alopecia page for more information and remedies
Alternatively, you may be suffering from a scalp condition, such as tinea capitis, that's affecting the growth of your hair.
Or perhaps your iron levels are low, your hormonal levels are off balance, or you may even have a thyroid problem.
Please click here to learn more about the potential causes of hair loss
Saw palmetto is unlikely to be a solution for any of the above problems and - if at all - is really only likely to produce results if you are suffering from female pattern hair loss. But - even then - reports are mixed, with fairly limited mention of success. Some women have even reported seeing INCREASED shedding after the topical use of saw palmetto (applying it directly to the scalp rather than taking it orally).
You may like to give saw palmetto a try to see if it works for you but we strongly recommend you discuss this with your doctor first.
Although few reactions to saw palmetto are reported, it's not entirely without risk.
Side Effects of Saw Palmetto and Precautions to Note
If you decide to try saw palmetto, you should speak to your doctor first.
You should also be aware that - since there is insufficient medical support for its use as a hair loss remedy and it hasn't been extensively studied - there is no 'official' dose, particularly for women.
Saw palmetto comes in various forms. You can buy the dried berries themselves, tablets, powder capsules, or liquid tinctures.
Although it's possible to make a 'tea' from the ground, dried berries, it's not considered to be very effective as the active ingredient of saw palmetto dissolves in water.
Neither tea nor the liquid extract have been tested in studies.
With your doctor's consent, you may want to consider saw palmetto tablets/capsules, made by a reputable company.
You should carefully read the label and ensure the content are standardized to contain 85% to 95% fatty acids and sterols.
This is important, because different brands often contain different amounts of the active ingredients.
Some saw palmetto may be labelled 'standardized', yet still fall short of the these amounts. Be sure to check the label and ensure that the quantity of fatty acids and sterols is not below 85%.
Both natural health practitioner Dr Andrew Weil and authority on healing herbs Dr James Duke PhD recommend the same dosage of standardized saw palmetto for hair loss - 160 mg twice a day.
This can usually be bought in the form of soft or hard gel capsules or tablets from health stores.