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American Herb with Asian Roots Effective Against Cancer-Related Fatigue, Mayo Study Shows

Tim Boyer's picture

Chronic fatigue related to cancer is a common syndrome during and following cancer treatment that manifests as a constant lack of energy that is not brought on by exertion, nor relieved by sleep. While cancer-related fatigue is not a well understood problem that can be associated with any single cause, consensus by health authorities is that it is a multifactorial problem involving the body’s reaction to both chemotherapy and radiation therapy; anemia resulting from decreased red blood cells that leaves tissues oxygen starved; and/or a decrease of vital nutrients.

One proposed source of a centuries-old treatment for people suffering from fatigue similar to that experienced by cancer patients is the use of adaptogens. Adaptogens are a class of herbal remedies noted for their potency as stress fighters capable of either bringing an overly stressed body back to its normal healthy state or in coping with stressors such as physical exertion, toxins, lack of sleep and psychological distress.

One of the more recognized—and believed to be most powerful adaptogen among all herbs—is the traditional Asian ginseng root. So much so, that American medical researchers are taking seriously the possibility that ginseng may have properties that can be applied in some treatments such as in treating chronic fatigue related to cancer.

The basis for pursuing studies that measure the effectiveness of ginseng is based on cancer related fatigue that has been linked to an increase in the immune system's inflammatory cytokines as well as poorly regulated levels of the stress-hormone cortisol. In animal studies, ginseng’s active components—ginsenosides—have been shown to reduce cytokines related to inflammation and involved in the control of cortisol levels.

In a recent Mayo Clinic-led study being presented this week at an 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, researchers report that high doses of the American ginseng herb Panax quinquefolius is effective in treating cancer related chronic fatigue.

In the study, 340 cancer patients either undergoing or having completed curative intent treatment and experiencing fatigue rated at least a 4 on a numeric analogue fatigue scale of 1-10, were randomly assigned treatment consisting of either a placebo or 2,000 milligrams of American ginseng daily. The administered American ginseng was provided in capsules containing pure, ground American ginseng root.

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"Off-the-shelf ginseng is sometimes processed using ethanol, which can give it estrogen-like properties that may be harmful to breast cancer patients," says the study's lead researcher Debra Barton, Ph.D. of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

During the first 4 weeks of the study, the ginseng regimen demonstrated only a slight improvement toward alleviating fatigue in the cancer patients. However, by week 8 there was statistically significant improvement in cancer patients who began to report feeling less fatigued in comparison to the cancer patients taking a placebo.

According to a news release by the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Barton states that, "After eight weeks, we saw a 20-point improvement in fatigue in cancer patients, measured on a 100-point, standardized fatigue scale. The herb had no apparent side effects,” she added.

Future follow-up studies will attempt to detect specific biomarkers linked to cancer-related chronic fatigue. "Cancer is a prolonged chronic stress experience and the effects can last 10 years beyond diagnosis and treatment," says Dr. Barton. "If we can help the body be better modulated throughout treatment with the use of ginseng, we may be able to prevent severe long-term fatigue."

For information on how exercise can treat chronic fatigue, follow this link to an informative article about the benefits of Yoga for breast cancer survivors.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Reference: 2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting; “Phase III evaluation of American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) to improve cancer-related fatigue” Debra L. Barton et al.