Saw palmetto has become one of the most popular herbal products in North America mainly because a few small studies have suggested it can help aging men with problems urinating.
However, new research shows this natural remedy is no better than a placebo in treating the annoying symptoms of an enlarged prostate gland, a common condition that can make urination difficult.
So does this mean men should toss out their saw palmetto capsules and seek relief in other ways? Not necessarily.
The researchers themselves acknowledge they may not have used a high enough dose to produce a measurable effect. "Some people think that . . . more is better," lead researcher Stephen Bent of the San Francisco VA Medical Center said in an e-mail interview.
The year-long study was designed to measure the effects of saw palmetto on an aging male's prostate. The walnut-sized male gland wraps around the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder out through the penis. With age, the prostate tends to swell, putting increasing pressure on the urethra. That means a man has to push harder to get urine to flow. The condition is known as benign prostate hyperplasia, or BPH.
In the study of 225 men with BPH, about half of them took 160-milligram capsules of saw palmetto twice a day. The others were given inert placebos. After a year, there was no significant difference in urinary symptoms between the two groups, according to the results published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Even so, most men take significantly higher doses of the herbal remedy. It is often sold in capsules of 500 mg or more. So this study really didn't address the dosing question. More studies are planned to look at the issue.
"For men currently taking the herb, I would advise them that, if they perceive a benefit, they should continue until more research is conducted," Dr. Bent said. (But they should tell their doctors, because herbal remedies can sometimes interfere with other medications.)
War is hell
Battle fatigue. Shell shock. Post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Over the centuries, the toll that war takes on battle-weary soldiers has been called many different things. But a recent study has shed new light on the lifelong effects of military combat, both psychological and physical.
U.S. researchers studied the medical records of 15,000 veterans of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in that country's history. It is the first study to match combat experiences with diseases that developed during the lifetime of surviving soldiers, according to lead researcher Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine.
The results reveal that soldiers who had the most horrific wartime experiences were more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease as well as gastrointestinal and nervous disorders later in life. And the effects seemed most pronounced on the youngest soldiers.
"In fact, the youngest soldiers who witnessed the bloodiest combat had shorter life spans, despite surviving the war itself," the researchers say in a statement released with the study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
Although the nature of military conflict has change dramatically over time, today's soldiers are just as vulnerable, the researchers say.
"Unfortunately, it's likely that the deleterious health effects seen in a war conducted more than 130 years ago are applicable to the health and well-being of soldiers fighting in wars in the 21st Century," they conclude.