By Janice Neumann, Special to the Tribune
July 4, 2012
Already known as a popular herb for its reputed energy-boosting effects, American ginseng may help reduce symptoms of fatigue for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, according to a new study.
Mayo Clinic researchers found that after eight weeks of receiving 2,000 milligrams of ginseng daily, 340 study patients showed a significant decrease in exhaustion compared with participants in a placebo group. Sixty percent of patients had breast cancer. Researchers used capsules with pure, ground American ginseng root for the study because store-bought ginseng can be processed with ethanol.
Study patients were either receiving chemotherapy or radiation or had completed a course of treatment.
"It's actually one of the most common problems for cancer survivors today," said Debra Barton, associate professor of oncology at Mayor Clinic and lead author of the study. "Studies tell us that as much as 100 percent of patients at some point in treatment have a debilitating fatigue and though it does get better once treatment is over, many patients don't get back to their pretreatment energy level," Barton said.
The study results were presented at an American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago in June. Other researchers on the study were Breanna Linquist and Dr. Charles Loprinzi of Mayo, Dr. Shaker Dakhil of Wichita (Kan.) Community Clinical Oncology Program, Dr. James Bearden and Travis McGinn of Spartanburg (S.C.) Regional Medical Center, Dr. Craig Nichols of Virginia Mason Medical Center, Dr. Greg Seeger of Altru Cancer Center, and Dr. Ernie Balcueva of the Michigan Cancer Research Consortium.
Barton said patients suffered no "discernible side effects" from the herbal treatment.
"We found the group going through cancer treatment actually had more benefits than those who had finished, so we're trying to understand that difference better," Barton said. Researchers will probably repeat the study in a group of patients who had completed treatment and had more chronic fatigue, Barton said.
The findings may be especially helpful to fatigued cancer patients because researchers haven't found any other effective treatment for the problem. Some doctors prescribe psychostimulant medications, but Barton said the drugs have side effects and haven't proved especially helpful. Barton said patients are usually counseled to pace their activities to avoid feeling drained.
The herb could end up being more helpful as a preventive measure against fatigue, rather than a way to fix the problem, Barton speculated.
Dr. Chun-Su Yuan, who directs the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago, said he was excited by the findings.
"We're very encouraged by the Mayo Clinic data about ginseng and fatigue," Yuan said. "It's promising that it potentially may help the quality of life in cancer patients receiving chemotherapeutic agents."
Yuan's center received a $6 million grant from the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine several years ago to study the possible anti-tumor effects of the herbs American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and notoginseng (Panax notoginseng).He said their studies found ginseng was able to kill colon cancer cells in lab cultures, and their team is starting a study on humans.
Yuan, who has studied herbs extensively, found ginseng reduced blood sugar levels in obese diabetic mice and showed cardiovascular benefits in animals. The herb was often used in Chinese medicine as a tonic for helping reduce stress and improve endurance.
While the drug is generally "very benign," Yuan said it should always be used at the recommended dosage range of no more than 2 to 3 grams a day.
"For some people in this country, they have the misconception that botanicals are natural and natural is always safe," Yuan said. "But if they take too much, it may cause adverse effects."
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