Ginseng_cancer_web

Ginseng and cancer

Cancer is a terrible diagnosis to receive from your health practitioner but treatments of all types of cancer are improving at a dramatic rate. While the treatments are increasing in effectiveness however, they can still be hard on the body. Additionally the cancer itself has effects beyond the area actually impacted by the cancerous tissue. Around 90 per cent of all cancer patients report a debilitating fatigue that results from the immune system battling to balance inflammatory cytokines and the hormone cortisol. The good news is that a new study has shown that American Ginseng can help relieve that all-consuming fatigue.

Ginseng is perhaps one of the master remedies of herbal medicine. It has been used as a medicine for at least 5000 years and is a true representative of a category of herbal medicines known as ‘adaptogens’. These adaptogens are general tonics that have three healing qualities; they increase the body’s resistance to adverse conditions, help the body adapt, and cause minimal (if any) harm. Under the umbrella name of Ginseng there are three major and quite distinct species of plant. There is Panax ginseng (Asian or Korean Ginseng), Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng) and Panax quinquefolium (American Ginseng). In the latest research it was American Ginseng that has shown promise for people dealing with cancer.

In the trial 340 cancer patients from 40 different medical centres were given 2000 milligrams of American Ginseng root per day. After four weeks there were few signs of benefit. However, after eight weeks there was a sudden jump in energy levels reported by those taking ginseng as opposed to those on the placebo.

At that eight week mark on a standardised 100 point fatigue scale there was a 20 point improvement in the cancer patients taking ginseng.

You should only consider taking ginseng while being treated for cancer after discussing the option with your health practitioner but this study is good evidence that the general supportive actions of American Ginseng may have an application in cancer treatment.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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Is ginseng safe for women to take?

In traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng (Panax) has been used for around 4000 years. It is prescribed according to a specific diagnosis, commonly for men and often as part of a formula. As there are more than 3000 published scientific papers on this herb, plus a wealth of practical information contributed by herbal practitioners throughout the world over many centuries, my assessment is there is enough evidence to prescribe it within a Western framework.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is not as well researched but is becoming increasingly popular. These two species of ginseng contain some of the same categories of therapeutic constituents, such as ginsenosides. Other types of ginseng, such as Siberian ginseng, are quite different. There is no evidence that medicinal doses of this plant trigger or cause cancer in humans.
Perhaps some medical researchers report ginseng is harmful and/or ineffective for preventing or treating anything whatsoever because they have not had time to read all the evidence, much of which is published in Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Russian scientific journals and not commonly read in Western countries.

Ginseng and breast cancer

It\’s true that a study published in the journal Menopause (2000, 9: 145-50) concluded that American ginseng \”significantly induced the growth of a human breast cancer cell line (MCF-7)\”. This study was done on isolated cells, in a laboratory. The same researchers also tested ginseng in rats and found no oestrogenic activity. The rats were given the ginseng for four days. When I prescribe ginseng for menopausal women it is for stress rather than oestrogenicity and the minimum duration is one month.

You may be aware that laboratory studies are academically interesting but do not relate to how substances work within the body. For example, any number of naturally occurring substances in fruits and vegetables can be shown, experimentally, to cause cancer, but scientists don\’t send out press releases warning people not to eat fruits and vegetables. Experimentally, even presumed healthy plant components such as chlorophyll and vitamin C can be shown to be mutagenic (disrupt cells). If these studies were pertinent, no plant food would be safe to eat.

Now, let\’s look at a few examples of the published scientific evidence indicating that ginseng or its constituents may actually prevent breast cancer:

  • In a series of experiments, American ginseng was shown to be oestrogenic in breast tissue but, paradoxically, it did not increase cell growth. When ginseng was added to breast cancer medical chemotherapy, this resulted in further decreases of cell growth, suggesting ginseng does not interfere with these cancer drugs but may make them more effective. (Journal of Surgical Oncology, 1999; 72: 230-9). This study also used MCF-7 cells!
  • Laboratory study indicating that ginsenoside has \”anti-cancer proliferation, differentiation and chemopreventive effects in certain breast cancer cell lines\”. (International Journal of Oncology, 14; 869-75: 1999).
  • Bioginseng, panaxel and panexel-5 inhibited the development of mammary tumours in mice. (Journal of Korean Medical Science, 16; S42-53: 2001).
  • Panaxytriol in Asian ginseng inhibits tumour cell growth in cells and in mice. (Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology, 35; 291-6: 1995).
  • Bioginseng decreased the incidence and multiplicity of mammary gland tumours in rats. (Biull Eksp Biol Med; 115; 59-61: 1993).
  • Researchers concluded that Asian ginseng has breast cancer antitumour activity in experimental cell studies and in animals. (Adverse Drug React Toxicol Rev, 19; 223-40: 2000).
  • In Korea, where medical studies have been conducted on humans, Asian ginseng users generally had a 50 per cent lower risk of cancer compared to non-users. In respect of breast cancer, there was no association (positive or negative) with ginseng intake.

Animal and human evidence is more relevant than a study on cells in a laboratory and, considering all the evidence, I prescribe Asian ginseng for women because:

  • There is no evidence that medicinal doses cause or trigger breast or other cancers in humans or animals. Studies using oestrogen binding tests are contradictory or inconclusive. However, a few isolated case reports indicate that ginseng may have some type of oestrogenic effect, so to be on the safe side I do not prescribe it to women with breast problems.
  • Ginseng is an effective anti-stress herb; I have observed over 20 years that menstrual and menopausal symptoms are frequently linked to stress.
  • Ginseng is an effective tonic and fatigue is a common affliction. Tonics such as ginseng are not taken for more than two or three months.
  • I have prescribed Asian and Siberian ginseng in my clinic for over 20 years and can\’t recall any male or female patient reporting adverse effects. I have only recently started using American ginseng, especially for glucose metabolism and concentration problems, and to date the results have been pleasing with no reported adverse reactions.

Ginseng and other cancers

A search of one database (Medline) reveals that 126 scientific and medical papers have been published on the relationship between ginseng and cancer, the majority of studies being on Asian ginseng. My assessment from reading the abstracts is that approximately two per cent of these indicate that ginseng may cause or trigger cancer while 98 per cent indicate that ginseng is likely to be preventive or even helpful as a treatment.

There is insufficient evidence to recommend ginseng as a treatment for cancer and this is likely to be the case indefinitely because there are no funds or incentives for large-scale human trials on herbs. However, there is also insufficient evidence to say this herb is linked to breast or other cancers and the overwhelming evidence is that medicinal doses appear to be cancer-preventive. If you wish to take ginseng, be aware that there are different qualities of products available and I recommend you follow the label or practitioner dosage and take it as a periodic tonic for no more than two to three months without a break. Always take ginseng in the mornings, otherwise it may cause insomnia.

Nancy Beckham is the author of The Australian Family Guide to Natural Therapies and Menopause & Osteoporosis – A Guide to Wellbeing for Australian Women. She runs a clinic in Sydney. Tel: (02) 9150 4907.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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