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Saw palmetto is a dwarf palm tree native to North America and mostly found in Southeastern states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina (Shimada, 1997). It has large leaves that can be up to two feet long, and also has reddish-or brownish-black berries. The Latin name for saw palmetto is Serenoa repens.
The medicinal value of saw palmetto has been described in the medical literature since the 1800s. Back in 1898, at least one author reported that tinctures of the fruits and crushed seeds were being used for relief of prostate gland enlargement and possible aphrodisiac qualities (Tanner). It's been reported that American Indian tribes, such as the Seminoles, were quite familiar with saw palmetto and they used the crushed berries in the therapy of certain genitourinary conditions. Women were also given the berries for certain gynecological problems, including painful periods.
Saw palmetto was a problem to the Europeans who settled in Florida and other Southeastern states (Tanner). Since this plant was resistant to fire, the settlers had a great deal of difficulty in establishing crop fields and pastures. Farmers had to physically remove each plant. Eventually various types of mechanical equipment were devised to eradicate the plant. This was unfortunate for the local wildlife. Many animals consume the berries and some birds prefer the plant for nesting and protective cover. Bears may gorge themselves on saw palmetto fruits. A road-killed adult female bear in the Ocala National Forest in Florida was found to have over 30 pounds of palmetto fruit in her stomach (Tanner).
Commercialization of saw palmetto began in the 1960s when its benefits began being scientifically explored.
Vive La France
In the 1960s, French researchers, who were familiar with some of the folklore regarding saw palmetto, started evaluating the chemical constituents of the berries in order to determine whether any of its historical uses had merit. These researchers eventually isolated fatty extracts from the berry and formulated it as a trademarked product called Permixon, which was released in 1981 (Champault, 1984). The Pierre Fabre Medicaments company holds this trademark. Other trademark names include Sereprostat (in Spain), Prostagutt (by German company Schwabe), Capistan, Strogen Forte, and Libeprosta (Ravenna, 1996).
Starting in the late 1970s, various research projects were funded or organized by Pierre Fabre to evaluate the role of saw palmetto extract (hereafter referred to as SP) in the therapy of prostate enlargement. Of course, the trademarked version of SP extract was used in these studies. After a few successful trials, Permixon was gradually incorporated into the ther of prostate symptoms in Europe. It is widely prescribed in many countries, especially France and Germany. The benefits of SP gradually became known in the US and many physicians practicing nutritional or herbal medicine started prescribing SP for their patients with prostate enlargement. Little by little, some of the mainstream media published articles regarding the therapeutic potential of this herb. However, the popularity of a pharmaceutical medicine, Proscar, completely overshadowed SP.
Dozens of American vitamin companies currently sell a non-trademarked version of SP. Many use the actual name of saw palmetto on their bottle while others have made up a specific product name. Most of these companies include 160 mg in their capsule or tablet while others have dosages ranging from 80 mg to 320 mg. Most of the pills are 160 mg because that is the dosage found in the trademarked product Permixon. Many of the studies using SP were done, funded, or sponsored by Pierre Fabre Medicaments, using Permixon. It has not been conclusively proven that 160 mg is the only correct dosage. It's quite possible that a range of dosages could be just as effective, or possibly even more effective.
In 1995, the economic value of SP fruit made the news when the price for the raw fruit exceeded $3 a pound (Tanner, 1997). Previously, SP had been regarded as a pest by many landowners, but the current demand from pharmaceutical and vitamin companies is bound to increase.