A range of dietary supplements and herbal medicines claim to offer new ways to prevent or treat prostate disease, and cancer in general. Some supplements show promise and are slowly gaining acceptance in mainstream medicine. But the benefits and risks of many products and practices remain unproved. 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 hemerocallidea, 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.
Unlike other herbal supplements, saw palmetto has been widely tested, and the results show promise in the treatment of urinary symptoms caused by prostate problems. However, it is important to know that saw palmetto is recommended to treat symptoms associated with benign prostate gland enlargement, not prostate cancer.
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 mixture contains eight herbs that have been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine to treat prostate issues and other health problems. Some studies show it may reduce cancer growth, but it can also cause side effects. It was sold as a dietary supplement, but is no longer being manufactured because some batches were found to contain prescription drug ingredients. While the individual herbs are still available, the PC-SPES mixture has not been reintroduced because further studies are needed to determine whether it's safe.
- 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.
Talk with your doctor first
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 you take any dietary or herbal product.