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 Saw Palmetto  
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Natural Medicine Research by . View all columns in series
Ray Sahelian Saw palmetto is an herb that has been shown in clinical studies to have beneficial effects in reducing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia.Ê

Q. What's in saw palmetto?
A. There are a variety of compounds within the saw palmetto berry (Fitzpatrick, 1995). As a rule they are divided into four major categories:
1) Free fatty acids. Quite a number of fatty acids are present in saw palmetto. The ones in highest concentration include oleic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid.
2) Phytosterols (plant sterols). These plant sterols (phyto means plant) have a chemical structure similar to cholesterol. The most commonly found phytosterols in saw palmetto are beta-sitosterol, campesterol, stigmasterol and cycloartenol (Plosker, 1996).
3) Free fatty alcohols. These are usually made up of fatty acids joined to an alcohol molecule.
4) Monoglycerides, which are single fatty acids attached to a three-carbon glycerol molecule (Shimada, 1997).
All of these are fat-soluble. The process of extracting these compounds from the berry involves mostly three methods. The most common are the use of hexane solvent, carbon dioxide, and ethanol.

According to Dr. Jerry McLaughlin, Professor of Pharmacognosy, Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, there are probably more active compounds in saw palmetto than we know of at this time. Dr. McLaughlin has personally analyzed some of these compounds at his University laboratory. He says, "There are hundreds of substances in herbal extracts, and it's going to take a very long time for us to isolate the biologically active ones. It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack. For instance, we have isolated two monoglycerides within saw palmetto that have anti-tumor activities. These are 1-monolaurin, and 1-monomyristin. I'm sure there are others." The active ingredients in saw palmetto are fat-soluble and are thus extracted from the berry. The extracts you buy in vitamin stores, pharmacies, or retail outlets should contain 85% to 95% standardized extract of these fatty acids and sterols (they're called 'liposterolic' extracts). Unfortunately, not all products will be identical since the extraction process varies from laboratory to laboratory. The final constituents of the extracts depend on a number of factors. These include which type of solvent is used in the extraction process, the time of year the berries are harvested, the type of soil the palm trees are grown in, and the skill of the technicians at the processing plant.

Dr. McLaughlin strongly believes that the time of year a plant, flower, or berry is picked makes a difference in the content of the active ingredients. "We did a field study collecting paw paw plants (also known as Indiana bananas) every two weeks throughout the year. We found the peak in activity of the compounds to be between May and July. Much of the folkloric use of plants and herbs developed as a consequence of trial and error. Healers learned with time that there were specific periods throughout the year that a particular plant had its most active ingredients.

"Therefore, if a plant is improperly grown, or harvested at an off time, it would either not have the same active ingredients, or have a different set of ingredients that would work in the body a different way." Let's also keep in mind that almost all of the studies done with saw palmetto extracts have used the European trademarked product Permixon (a hexane extract), or Strogen (a carbon dioxide extract). The saw palmetto products that you buy over the counter may have liposterolic extracts that are similar to these trademarked products, or perhaps slightly different. If the contents of over-the-counter saw palmetto products are different, they may have more active ingredients, or fewer active ingredients. Unfortunately, these are some of the uncertainties we have to deal with when using plant extracts that are not fully standardized. Herbal medicine is not yet a pure science.

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 About The Author
Ray Sahelian, M.D., is a popular and respected physician who has been seen on numerous television programs including NBC Today, Dateline NBC, and CNN, and quoted by countless major magazines such as Newsweek He......moreRay Sahelian MD
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