Update 9/2/20. Can saw palmetto cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)? That's the question someone recently asked me. To be frank, it was the first time I'd ever been asked this before. Sure enough, there is some research on this topic. But, should you be alarmed? Is saw palmetto dangerous? In this review, I will summarize the research linking saw palmetto supplements to pancreas problems. Knowing the evidence can help you better decide if this herb is right for you. Skip to the end if you just want to see my conclusions and opinions.
What is Saw Palmetto?
The American dwarf palm tree – also called Saw Palmetto – is technically called Serenoa repens. All names basically refer to the same thing; an herbal preparation that has been used for over a hundred years to treat a variety of health complaints ranging from sleeping difficulty to increasing breast size. These days, however, saw palmetto is mostly promoted to help two seemingly diverse issues:
As odd as it may sound, there is clinical research on each of these issues. It's the research that makes saw palmetto a popular ingredient as well as a standalone dietary supplement.
But, is it possible this herb may have a side effect most don't know about? Recently I was asked whether pancreatitis was linked to saw palmetto supplements. Here is a review of the evidence to help you make sense of it.
What is Pancreatitis
Simply put, pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is the organ that makes the hormone insulin, so this gland is very important for diabetics. The pancreas also makes compounds needed for digestion too. Pancreatitis results when those food-digesting enzymes damage the pancreas. This increases inflammation inside the ,organ which can become serious in some cases.
There are two types of pancreatitis:
- acute – which can last for several days
- chronic – which can last for years
Acute cases that produce mild symptoms may resolve themselves in a few days. However, multiple bouts of acute pancreatitis can cause scarring of the pancreas. This can lead to chronic cases. When the condition becomes chronic, it can be serious. For example, diabetes can result from pancreatitis.
Most cases are treatable. It's estimated pancreatitis causes of over 200,000 hospital visits each year.
Common causes of pancreatitis
- high triglyceride levels
- bile duct obstruction
- some medications (for example statins)
Supplements That Contain Saw Palmetto
Two main classes of supplements contain this herbal ingredient:
The herb is also used in many prostate supplements to help with enlarged prostates – technically called benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). It was once so popular for prostate problems that it was given the name “plant catheter.”
How might this compound work on two different health problems – hair growth and prostate health? The herb interferes with an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase. This enzyme prevents the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
The 5-alpha reductase enzyme is thought to contribute to both hair loss and prostate problems.
This is similar to the drug finasteride which is also used to treat both hair loss and enlarged prostate. One study has noted that saw palmetto and finasteride improved BPH symptoms.
Saw Palmetto Pancreatitis Research
There are no clinical studies that directly prove that saw palmetto causes pancreatitis. The evidence stems from reports of people who developed pancreas problems after taking the supplement. Here is a summary of those reports.
In what appears to be the first documented case, doctors in 2006 reported the case of a 55-year-old man who developed pancreas inflammation and liver problems after taking saw palmetto supplements. He said he took the supplement sporadically for his BPH symptoms. The man was a reformed alcoholic and was sober for over 15 years. Stoping the supplement alleviated his symptoms.
Interestingly, symptoms returned when he started taking the supplement again – and went away after he stopped taking the supplement.
Unfortunately, the doctors did not mention the supplement's brand. In other words, was this a supplement that contained multiple ingredients -including saw palmetto – or was it this herbal ingredient used by itself?
In a second report, a 64-year-old man was treated for pancreatitis after taking the herb for one week. The dosage he used was 160 mg, twice a day (320 mg total per day). The supplement he was taking was from Spring Valley Saw Palmetto, distributed by Walmart.
He was also taking several medications although his issues seemed to have started when he began taking the herbal supplement. He admitted to drinking alcohol occasionally. While he did not appear to be drunk when he was admitted to the hospital, no alcohol testing occurred.
A 61-year-old man was admitted to the hospital with pancreas problems. In addition to saw palmetto, he also took ulcer medicine and multivitamins (specifically, which vitamins he was taking was not mentioned). He said he was taking the herb for 3 years before having pancreas problems.
After spending 4 days in the hospital, he was discharged when his pancreas enzymes normalized. Unfortunately, doctors did not tell what brand of supplement he was taking or the dosage used.
This report is interesting because the man said he took saw palmetto for 3 years before he had pancreas problems.
What Does All This Mean?
The 3 reports summarized above appear to be only cases of saw palmetto-induced pancreatitis. Unfortunately in two of the cases, neither the dosage taken or the brand of supplement was reported. Also, while the men appeared to recover after stopping the herbal supplement, no exact mechanism could be determined to explain what happened. Speculations yes. But no concrete “smoking gun.”
How Does Saw Palmetto Hurt The Pancreas?
The research summarized above tells us that if this is a real thing, it's pretty rare. The are several reasons speculated for why this herbal ingredient may harm the pancreas including:
- inhibiting the cyclooxygenase enzyme (COX enzyme)
- raising triglycerides levels by binding to estrogen receptors
- increasing blood coagulation
At this point it's speculation. No actual research has been conducted to specifically look at this issue.
1 What's the evidence for saw palmetto causing pancreatitis?
So far we have 3 reports of individuals getting pancreatitis after taking saw palmetto supplements. This is very low considering the millions of people who have taken this herb.
All 3 the cases involve white men in their 50s and 60s. While the pancreas problems went away after stopping the supplement, there are questions the reports do not tell us. For example, in one of the reports, a man said he'd been taking the supplement for 3 years before he had any symptoms. Also, only one of the reports describes the dosage that was taken and the brand name of the supplement. So far there are no reports involving women.
2 Saw palmetto vs. Beta-Sitosterol
Beta-sitosterol is one of the compounds in saw palmetto. Like the herb, it also has evidence it may help reduce symptoms of enlarged prostates (BPH) like frequent nighttime bathroom trips. How Beta-sitosterol stacks up to the herb itself needs more study.
3 What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?
Symptoms can vary but in general, here are some possible warning signs:
- upper abdominal pain
- abdominal tenderness when touched
- abdominal pain felt after eating
- fever, nausea, and vomiting
- unexplained weight loss
4 What are pancreatitis risk factors?
- having a family history of pancreatitis
- being male and African American
- abdominal injury
- being overweight/obese
- abusing alcohol
- cigarette smoking
- pancreatic cancer
- cystic fibrosis
5 Is pancreatitis serious?
The condition can be serious especially when it becomes chronic. Scaring of the pancreas can lead to diabetes and kidney failure. Some have died from pancreatitis. This is why it is important to get medical attention if you think you have problems.
6 Can saw palmetto help with hair loss?
Maybe. The hormone DHT is implicated in balding. Saw palmetto appears to reduce DHT levels. Some have noted the herb can promote hair growth and reduce hair loss. Not all studies show these effects, however. While most investigations involve male hair loss, if it works, it may work in women too. This is why the herb is found in many hair growth supplements like Nutrafol.
See the Viviscal Review. This supplement does NOT contain saw palmetto.
7 Does it prevent prostate cancer?
There's no good proof the herb prevents prostate cancer or extends the lives of people with prostate cancer. The herb also does not appear to shrink the size of an enlarged prostate (BPH). Several have told me it helped reduced BPH symptoms such as nighttime trips to the bathroom. This is the product most people told me worked.
Saw Palmetto Side Effects
Generally, the herb is considered safe with few side-effects. Common complaints noted include fatigue, diarrhea, and nausea. Most people may not notice any side effects. Here are some things to think about when taking this supplement. This list is not complete.
- start by taking less than suggested for the first week
- some supplements may contain multiple ingredients. Read the labels carefully.
- speak to your doctor if you are pregnant/breastfeeding
- stop taking at least 2 weeks before surgery
- Saw palmetto may act as a blood thinner. If you take blood thinner medications, speak to your doctor/pharmacist.
- Talk to your doctor and pharmacist if you take any medications
- In one of the reports above, a man developed liver problems along with pancreatitis. Liver problems subsided when he stopped taking the supplement.
- If taking for BPH symptoms, realize saw palmetto may not reduce prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test results.
Children should avoid saw palmetto. There are at least 2 reports of hot flashes in young girls who used saw palmetto.
Can saw palmetto interfere with birth control pills. The idea is the herb may interfere with estrogen levels. While controversial, the evidence stems from cell studies and not human research. See the saw palmetto birth control pill review.
Can saw palmetto cause ED? Because the herb interferes with an enzyme involved in testosterone metabolism (5-alpha reductase), some have wondered if it can cause erectile dysfunction. Conclusive proof is lacking. Some research suggests the herb causes less ED (1%) compared to finasteride (5%). In other words, while it's possible, it may be unlikely to happen.
Does Saw Palmetto Cause Pancrease?
To date, the evidence for pancreatitis stems from 3 reports of men who developed pancreas problems after taking this herbal supplement. The reasons for this occurring are not known. Most reports do not list the brand of supplement used or dosage used. Given the popularity of the herb, if pancreatitis is a side-effect, it may be rare for most people.