Saw Palmetto for Hair Loss
Hair loss affects many of us sooner or later, and the impact of losing hair on your quality-of-life can be severe. Little wonder, then, that a huge range of treatments, from hair plugs to medicated shampoos have arisen over the years.
More recently, however, a natural extract from the saw palmetto plant has attracted considerable interest in the scientific community. But what is saw palmetto, and why do a growing number of people use it to treat hair loss?
What Causes Hair Loss?
There are many different types of hair loss, but the most common by far is so-called “genetic hair loss”. This is most commonly experienced by men, when the hair line moves back, leading to the typical “widows peak”. In more advanced cases the top of the skull may also experience thinning. This is commonly known as “male-pattern baldness”.
Interestingly, women can also experience genetic hair loss, though less commonly.
Experts use the term “androgenic alopecia” (or AGA for short) to describe this condition in both men and women. But what is the science behind how AGA causes hair loss?
We know that both men and women have testosterone in their bodies, though of course testosterone levels in men tend to be much higher. It seems that an enzyme with the catchy name of “5-alpha reductase” (5AR) converts testosterone into a chemical known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
This DHT, in turn, is what is believed to cause baldness. It also explains the name androgenic alopecia rather better; testosterone is classed as an androgen - another name for male sex hormones. DHT seems to affect the hair follicles directly, causing them to produce hairs that are thinner, shorter and more fragile than normal hair.
It has been suggested by experts that this is caused by DHT's effect on the subcutaneous tissue that otherwise keeps hair fully hydrated. DHT is believed to cause a thinning of this tissue, putting pressure on the hair follicles, leading to thinning hair or complete hair loss.
As might be imagined, there are therefore two potential ways to address this types of hair loss; one can either prevent testosterone from being turned into DHT, or alternatively block the receptors of the hair follicles so that DHT has a far smaller effect.
What Is Saw Palmetto?
Saw palmetto is the common name given to Serenoa repens, a palm tree normally found growing in warmer climates. Native to the West Indies, it may also be found growing in more temperate parts of North America also. The supplement we know today as saw palmetto is typically harvested from the berries of the tree, and may be available either in tablet form or as a topical cream.
How Does Saw Palmetto Help Hair Loss?
As yet, saw palmetto has perhaps not received the attention it deserves from the scientific community. As a result, scientists are only now starting to uncover the mystery of how it seems to impact hair loss. Experts now believe that saw palmetto seems to impact hair loss in two ways: It seems to inhibit the activity of 5AR, and as a result helps to prevent the transformation of testosterone into DHT.
Some experts believe that saw palmetto may also decrease the effect of DHT on hair follicles by blocking the hair follicle receptors. Whilst research into saw palmetto is still in its infancy, if the many users of the supplement are proved correct then it may well represent one of the most exciting hair loss remedies discovered recently.
What is the Science Behind Saw Palmetto for Hair Loss?
A number of recent studies have aimed to determine the effectiveness of saw palmetto for reducing hair loss. In one well-known study, participants aged between 23 and 64 years of age were provided with saw palmetto for a period of five months. Their hair coverage was assessed both before and after treatment, with 60% showing improvement. That said, it is important to state that the number of participants was small, so this was far from an extensive study.
In a second, rather more rigorous, experiment 50 participants were provided with 320mg of saw palmetto per day for 24 months. The researchers found that 38% of participants taking saw palmetto experienced an increase in hair growth, with particular gains on the top of the head.
Lastly, one final study divided 62 participants into one of three groups. The first received shampoo and lotion enriched with saw palmetto, as well as a daily oral supplement. The second group received placebo equivalents, while the last group used the saw palmetto shampoo and lotion but a placebo supplement.
The results are intriguing. Unsurprisingly, the group using placebo products saw no additional hair growth. In contrast, both other groups experienced a significant increase in hair growth of between 20% and 35%. Perhaps most interestingly of all, the group taking the oral supplement experienced the most growth, suggesting that saw palmetto supplements may be more effective than topical applications.
In addition to being linked with the treatment of hair loss, saw palmetto has also been linked to treating bladder infections, decreased sex drive and improving prostate health.
How to Take Saw Palmetto
Before taking any new supplement, it's important to consult with your doctor to ensure it is safe for you to take and saw palmetto can come in various forms including tablets, powdered capsules and liquid extracts. Tablets are the most readily available way of taking the supplement and experts recommend taking 1000-2000mg of saw palmetto twice a day.
Side Effects of Saw Palmetto
One of the most appealing things about saw palmetto as a supplement is that so far it seems to be a very safe treatment for hair loss. Due to its growing popularity a number of studies have assessed the potential dangers of saw palmetto supplementation and the results have been almost entirely positive.
One study examining the potential side effects of saw palmetto found that it is “well tolerated by most users and is not associated with serious adverse events”. They further stated that the majority of adverse effects are “mild, infrequent and reversible” and may include nausea, headaches or decreased libido.
Another found that “despite careful assessment, no evidence for serious toxicity of saw palmetto was observed in this clinical trial”. Despite these positive initial findings saw palmetto is not recommended for children or pregnant women until further studies have been completed.
Saw palmetto offers some promising research in its link to fighting hair loss but more research can always be done to show the true effectiveness of this supplement. Lab studies have shown its effectiveness in inhibiting enzymes that promote hair loss, and research has seen positive effects when trialled with men suffering from hair loss.
Saw palmetto can be an effective herbal remedy for both men and women wishing to reduce hair loss and is a popular alternative to more expensive treatments such as medication or surgery. The saw palmetto plant has also been linked to treatments for other conditions such as decreased sex drive and maintaining prostate health.
Although more research is needed to truly test the effects of saw palmetto on hair loss, research so far has been positive as an alternative to more expensive treatments.