Ginseng fights fatigue in cancer patients

Volume 1, Issue 2, 2012
Debra L. Barton, R.N., Ph.D.

Debra L. Barton, R.N., Ph.D.

High doses of the herb American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) over two months reduced cancer-related fatigue in patients more effectively than a placebo, a Mayo Clinic Cancer Center-led study found. The findings were presented at the 2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Researchers studied 340 patients who had completed cancer treatment or were being treated for cancer at one of 40 community medical centers. Sixty percent of the study participants had breast cancer. Each day, participants received either a placebo or 2,000 milligrams of ginseng administered in capsules containing pure, ground American ginseng root — not the kind of ginseng consumers typically purchase. The pure form of American ginseng ground root is available from the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin. As with any prescription, over-the-counter medication or herb, patients should check with their doctor before use.

"Off-the-shelf ginseng is sometimes processed using ethanol, which can give it estrogen-like properties that may be harmful to breast cancer patients," said Mayo Clinic Cancer Center researcher Debra L. Barton, R.N., Ph.D.

At four weeks, the pure ginseng provided only a slight improvement in fatigue symptoms. However, at eight weeks, ginseng offered cancer patients significant improvement in general exhaustion — feelings of being "pooped," "worn out," "fatigued," "sluggish," "run-down" or "tired" — compared to the placebo group.

"After eight weeks, we saw a 20-point improvement in fatigue in cancer patients, measured on a 100-point, standardized fatigue scale," Dr. Barton said. The herb had no apparent side effects.

Ginseng has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a natural energy booster. Until this study, its effects had not been tested extensively against the debilitating fatigue that occurs in up to 90 percent of cancer patients. Fatigue in cancer patients has been linked to an increase in the immune system's inflammatory cytokines and to poorly regulated levels of the stress-hormone cortisol. Ginseng's active ingredients, called ginsenosides, have been shown in animal studies to reduce cytokines related to inflammation and to help regulate cortisol levels.

Dr. Barton's next study will look closely at ginseng's effects on the specific biomarkers for fatigue. "Cancer is a prolonged chronic stress experience, and the effects can last 10 years beyond diagnosis and treatment," she said. "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."

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Other investigators included Breanna M. Linquist, R.N., and Charles L. Loprinzi, M.D., of Mayo Clinic; Shaker Dakhil, M.D., of Wichita Community Clinical Oncology Program; James Bearden, M.D., and Travis McGinn of Spartanburg Regional Medical Center; Craig Nichols, M.D., of Virginia Mason Medical Center; Grant Seeger, M.D., of Altru Cancer Center; and Ernie Balcueva, M.D., of Saginaw, Mich.

Ginseng Helps Fatigued Cancer Patients

Watch a video of Dr. Barton discussing this study.

Our study was a phase 3 randomized clinical trial that involved 40 different community cancer centers in the United States. We randomized 364 patients to get either 2000 milligrams of Wisconsin ginseng or placebo over an eight-week period of time. We were looking at the effects of that ginseng on cancer-related fatigue. So overall, our findings were that the patients that had ginseng had an improvement that was significantly better than the patients that took placebo over the eight-week period. We were somewhat expecting that difference to show up at four weeks, but in the entire group, it really didn't show up very strongly until eight weeks.