Herbal medicine is the study of the medicinal qualities of plants. Also called phytomedicine (“phyto” = plant), this science has identified hundreds of chemicals in plants (“phytochemicals”) that have been found in vitro to be effective at causing cell death in cancer cells, and stopping their growth. While many phytochemicals are still lacking data from clinical trials, a few herbs have been studied in humans and show many health benefits. Let’s learn about a few below.
Artesunate comes from the herb Artemisia annua and is unique because it is one of the only herbs that can be administered both orally and intravenously. Artesunate is rapidly gaining interest in cancer research as it possesses potent anti-cancer properties against many cancers. It is also an anti-viral and helps to clear stubborn infections, such as epstein barr virus, or cytomegalovirus, which are common in immunocompromised patients.
Ginseng is a well studied herb, and has been found to be safe to use concurrently with chemotherapy. In cancer patients, it can reduce fatigue and improve quality of life during treatment. It has been found to increase levels of natural killer cells, and be a strong anti-inflammatory.
Astragalus has been found to improve tumour response rates when used alongside chemotherapy (Front Oncology, 2019;9:749). It has also been found to decrease side effects of chemotherapy, such as anemia, low white blood cells, low platelets, nausea and diarrhea.
Valerian is wonderful and safe herb to use, and can help improve sleep and fatigue in cancer patients, without accompanying drowsiness or sedation experienced with other sleep medications. Valerian has also been found to reduce hot flashes in women with breast cancer on anti-estrogen medications.
This herb, also known as frankincense, is mostly an anti-inflammatory, and therefore can help with all sorts of pain, from arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease. It has been found to reduce cerebral swelling as a result of radiation to the head in brain cancer, and help patients wean off steroids.
Like the above herbs, this herb shows anti-cancer properties, and also has a role in supportive care. Studies have found that it can reduce liver toxicity from drugs used during cancer, as well as protect against both radiation skin and mucosa damage.
The above information is meant to be just that – information to peak your curiousity about the ways in which herbs can be used during cancer care. Herbs only work if they are from the right species, and the right part of the plant is used. Speak to an experienced practitioner with herbal training, such as myself, to learn more about herbs for cancer care.