- Posted by jdavis on August 31, 2011
As people take a more active role in their health care, many are exploring options of care that fall outside the realm of traditional medicine. In fact, a range of dietary supplements and herbal medicines offers new ways to prevent or treat prostate disease, and cancer in general. The question is, do these therapies work? Some do show promise and are slowly gaining acceptance in mainstream medicine. But the benefits and risks of many products and practices remain unproven. Unfortunately, the production of these products isn’t well regulated, and the amount of active ingredient may vary from bottle to bottle or even pill to pill.
Herbal products marketed to relieve common prostate problems, such as frequent urination or a weak urine flow, include:
- African plum tree (Prunus africana)
- African wild potato (Hypoxis rooperi)
- Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo)
- Rye grass (Secale cereale)
- Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens)
Taken in small to moderate amounts, these products appear to be safe. But they haven’t been studied in large, long-term trials to confirm their safety or to prove they work.
An exception is the herb saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Unlike other herbal supplements, it has been widely tested, and the results show promise. However, it is important to know that saw palmetto is recommended to treat the symptoms associated with benign prostate gland enlargement, not prostate cancer.
Saw palmetto is thought to work by preventing testosterone from breaking down into another form of the hormone associated with prostate tissue growth. In 1998, researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs reviewed more than a dozen studies involving saw palmetto and concluded that the herb appears to be as effective as the medication finasteride (Proscar) in reducing the size of an enlarged prostate. It also appears to produce fewer side effects. The researchers recommended additional studies to determine the appropriate daily dosage of the supplement and its long-term effectiveness.
Saw palmetto works slowly. Most men begin to see an improvement in their urinary symptoms within one to three months. If after three months you haven’t noticed any benefit from the product, it may not work for you. It appears safe to take saw palmetto indefinitely, but possible effects from long-term use are unknown.
One drawback of this herb, and many other such herbal products, is that it may suppress PSA levels in your blood. This action can interfere with the effectiveness of the PSA test. That’s why if you take saw palmetto or other herbal medicines, it’s important to tell your doctor before having a PSA test.
Lacking scientific evidence
A few herbal and dietary products claim to help cure or prevent cancer. There’s no scientific evidence that these products work, and some may be dangerous. Three popular “cancer-fighting” supplements include:
Chaparral. Also known as creosote bush or greasewood, chaparral (Larrea tridentata) comes from a desert shrub found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. Research hasn’t shown that the herb effectively treats cancer, and it can lead to irreversible liver failure.
PC-SPES. This is an herbal mixture that has been marketed for treatment of prostate cancer. It contains eight herbs: da qing ye (Isatis indigotica), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Glycyrrhiza uralensis), san qi (Panax pseudoginseng), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), chrysanthemum (Dendranthema morifolium), dong ling cao (Rabdosia rubescens) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). A study of PC-SPES in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the product works like estrogen supplements. It reduces concentrations of testosterone that help fuel prostate cancer growth, and in some instances may suppress the cancer, at least temporarily. However, the product commonly produces impotence and breast tenderness. It can also cause blood clots in deep leg veins and, if taken in large amounts, can be toxic. Another concern with this product is that it can mask progression of your cancer. It reduces PSA levels, even when the cancer is advancing. If your doctor is unaware you’re taking PC-SPES, PSA test results may lead him or her to think that your cancer is under control, when it really is not. The product’s manufacturer, BotanicLab, recalled the supplement temporarily beginning in February 2002 after questions were raised by the California Department of Health Services. The California agency said its testing had revealed the presence of undeclared prescription drug ingredients in samples of PC-SPES. BotanicLab then took steps it said would ensure the product’s purity. This product hasn’t been reintroduced because of concerns regarding its safety and its contamination with estrogenic compounds.
Shark cartilage. Shark cartilage contains a protein that has some ability to inhibit the formation of new blood vessels within tumors in sharks. Shark cartilage therapy is based on the theory that capsules containing shark cartilage will do the same in humans — stop and shrink cancerous tumors. However, these benefits haven’t been shown in humans.
Because it’s not always easy to tell which products may be unsafe, interact negatively with other medications or affect your overall cancer treatment, it’s best to talk with your doctor before taking any dietary or herbal product.