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STUDY: Those with male pattern baldness may increase hair growth by taking a preparation containing saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
JOURNAL: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2002;8:143–52)
ABSTRACT: Those with male pattern baldness may increase hair growth by taking a preparation containing saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and beta-sitosterol (a compound found in many edible plants), according to a new study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2002;8:143–52).
COMMENTARY: Male pattern baldness is a hereditary condition that most often affects men, but may affect women as well. Hair loss often starts with a receding hairline and continues in a horseshoe pattern, leaving hair on the sides and back of the head mostly unaffected.
Although the exact reason that such hair loss occurs is not clear, some studies suggest that excessive conversion of testosterone to another hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) may be an underlying cause.
Conventional medicines used to treat male pattern baldness are designed to block the conversion of testosterone to DHT. Topical application of minoxidil (Rogaine®) and taking oral finasteride (Propecia®) have been shown to inhibit this conversion and to increase hair growth, but both medications have been linked with several adverse side effects, including fast heart rate, headaches, impotence, and decreased libido.
Saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol have been shown to block the production of DHT in men suffering from enlargement of the prostate (or benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is also due to excessive amounts of DHT), but this is the first study to demonstrate that these compounds also help with hair loss—and without causing significant side effects.
In the new study, 19 men between the ages of 23 and 64 years with mild to moderate hair loss were given either a placebo or a supplement containing 400 mg of a standardized extract of saw palmetto and 100 mg of beta-sitosterol per day. After about five months, hair growth in 60% of the men taking the herbal combination had improved compared with their initial evaluation. In contrast, only 11% of those receiving the placebo improved.
Although the number of men in the study was small and the results were not statistically significant (which means the improvement may have occurred by chance alone), the findings are encouraging for millions of men (and possibly women) with male pattern hair loss, and offers a relatively safe alternative for those who want to take a natural approach to treat this condition. Larger studies are needed to confirm the benefit of saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol, as reported in this preliminary study.
In addition, women of childbearing age should not use saw palmetto without medical supervision because it has not been proven to be safe during pregnancy and lactation.
At the present time, there is no known cure for male pattern baldness. Both conventional and natural treatments can help control the hair loss as long as one maintains the treatment, though it will often recur once the treatment is discontinued. Given the safety of saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol, they seem a reasonable first line of treatment for mild to moderate male pattern baldness before considering conventional medications.