Benign enlargement of the prostate gland (BPH) is a condition that will affect virtually all men who are blessed with a long life span—90 percent of men over 80 years of age have an enlarged prostate. The most well-known symptom of this disorder is the frequent need to urinate, especially at night. If the symptoms become severe enough, which ultimately means a complete blockage of the urethra, surgery is the only remedy. However, before that stage is reached (and it may never be reached for many men), drug therapy is usually the first line of defense in managing the symptoms as they become too annoying to ignore.
Conventional Western medicine relies on two different types of drug to treat an enlarged prostate that is creating moderate symptoms. One of these, finasteride (Proscar), brings relief by shrinking the prostate. The other drugs of choice are known as alpha-blockers and include Minpress, Cardura, and Hytrin. They work by helping various muscles relax, thus easing constriction of the urethra and improving flow.
These drugs do improve the lives of many sufferers, but unfortunately they also have a downside. Finasteride only works well for patients whose prostate is greatly enlarged, being less effective in cases of mild enlargement. It can also take six months before any improvement is seen. Both drug types have unwelcome side effects. Finasteride can cause erectile dysfunction in almost 10 percent of users and it can interfere with the user’s PSA level—a standard prostate cancer-screening index. Alpha-blockers may also interfere with sexual function, but their worst side effect is lowered blood pressure.
Alternative health practitioners, as well as increasing numbers of conventional physicians, offer a third option when it comes to the non-surgical treatment of BPH—naturally occurring saw palmetto. This extract, obtained from a small palm-like plant grown in the West Indies and southeast United States, has a long history of being useful in the treatment of prostate problems. It was widely used in Europe throughout the 20th century and, since the 1990s, has steadily gained a greater following in the U.S. It is now one of the highest selling herbal remedies on the market.
As evidence of the seriousness in which saw palmetto is now being taken by mainstream medicine in the U.S., the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review in 1998 of 18 clinical trials that were designed to test the efficacy of the extract on sufferers of BPH. The reviewers were not overly impressed with the scientific rigor of the trials, but they concluded that saw palmetto was definitely effective in improving the urinary tract symptoms of the subjects involved. In fact, there was an overall improvement in symptoms of almost 40 percent.
At this stage, researchers are not quite sure how saw palmetto achieves its beneficial effects but, hopefully, ongoing research will both shed light on this aspect and provide longer-term clinical trial results. There is no doubt, however, that, for some people, saw palmetto will be at least as effective as prescription drugs in treating their BPH symptoms. It is also considerably cheaper, relatively free of side effects, does not interfere with PSA levels, and is completely natural.