Yet another supplement bites the dust

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New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that saw palmetto, which was widely believed to relieve symptoms of prostate enlargement called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), is no more effective than a placebo pill.

Led by Dr. Gerald Andriole, chief of urologic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, researchers divided 300 men age 45 and older with moderate symptoms of BPH to receive either a daily dose of saw palmetto extract or a placebo. Participants were followed for 17 months, during which time the dose of saw palmetto was steadily increased. Yet at the end of the study, researchers found that men in both groups had experienced only slight improvements in their symptoms.

BPH affects over half of men in their sixties and up to 90 percent of men in their seventies and eighties. The condition is characterized by symptoms that include difficulty urinating, frequent bathroom trips, and weak or intermittent urinary streams.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava observes that this is yet one more study demonstrating that supplements once thought to have so-called proven effects are actually ineffective. Just as beta-carotene s supposedly beneficial impact on lung cancer was disproven, saw palmetto doesn t pass muster when it comes to treating BPH symptoms. She adds, What s more, when conducting these randomized trials, scientists are more likely to use purer samples of the substance under investigation. But when you buy the same supplement over-the-counter, you don t know what you re actually getting, since they re not held up to the same rigorous quality-control standards that regular drugs are.

Other BPH treatment options include using an alpha-blocking drug therapy and a variety of surgical techniques, which, Dr. Kava advises, would be more worthwhile than investing in saw palmetto supplements. Just because these things are natural, doesn t mean they actually work.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom notes that this is just another example of a so-called supplement that ends up being useless when held up to the scrutiny of clinical trials. Soy, flax seed oil, valerian, and Echinacea have gone down the tubes recently as well.