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Ginseng Helps Patients Fight Cancer Fatigue


High doses of pure American ginseng, taken by cancer patients and survivors for just two months, brought marked improvement in the severe fatigue often experienced both during and after chemotherapy, a new study has found.

Cancer-related fatigue, experienced by up to 90 percent of cancer patients,  is a profound tiredness that is not relieved by sleep or rest. "I t can significantly impact the ability of people to accomplish the things they are used to doing every day," lead researcher Debra Barton of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Rochester, Minn., told Reuters.

The root of the ginseng plant has long been used in Chinese medicine as a natural energy-booster. Cancer-related fatigue is thought to be linked to inflammation of the immune system and ginseng has anti-inflammatory properties -- although there have been some reports of adverse reactions from taking ginseng with some cancer drugs.

Previous smaller studies had shown ginseng had potential for helping cancer fatigue, researchers said. This study was larger, involving 364 patients  from 40 medical centers who had completed or were undergoing cancer treatment, more than half of them for breast cancer.

In the study, published online July 13 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, subjects were split into two groups. Half of the subjects were given 2,000 milligrams of Wisconsin ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) daily for eight weeks; those in the other group took placebo capsules. 

At the beginning of the study, all the subjects rated their fatigue on a specialized 100-point scale. After eight weeks, the ginseng group reported a 20-point improvement -- enough to be felt in daily life, according to the scale --  compared to a 10-point increase for the placebo group. There were no adverse side effects to taking the supplement.

Catherine Alfano, deputy director of the office of cancer survivorship at the National Cancer Institute, cautioned that the study results show promise, but they aren't enough to recommend that doctors tell patients to take ginseng for fatigue, she told Reuters. It's not known how ginseng might interact with other medication -- it can interfere with warfarin and antidepressants -- or even with some cancer treatments, she said.

Barton also cautioned people about simply buying any ginseng they find in stores. Researchers used pure, ground Wisconsin ginseng root. But because supplements are not regulated like drugs by the government, consumers can't always be sure of the purity of a product.

"There may be ginseng available in the local stores that is very different from what this study used, and some that is quite similar," Barton told Reuters. "There are different types of ginseng, different strengths (doses) and since it is a plant, (it) has to be grown, picked, processed and manufactured to get from field to store."

That's critically important with ginseng because it is sometimes processed using ethanol, which can give it estrogen-like properties that could stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells, Barton said. It's important that it be pure ground root of ginseng, not an extraction.

Patients should check with their doctor before trying any supplement that might interfere with cancer treatment or regular medication.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Photo: whiteywaller via flickr

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