Whether herbal supplements can help cancer patients avoid common problems such as fatigue and sleeplessness is under study at the Medical College of Georgia.
Ginseng, a perennial found in North America and eastern Asia touted as a safe way to improve the body’s stress resistance, is being tested for its potential in battling common fatigue.
Valerian, a flowering perennial from Eurasia widely used as a sedative, is being studied for its potential in helping cancer patients sleep.
Thirty to 50 percent of cancer patients also have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, a common side effect of chemotherapy, says Darlene Gibson, research nurse.
While anecdotal evidence abounds about the effectiveness of these herbal therapies, scientific studies in animals or humans, particularly those with cancer, are sparse, Dr. Ferris says. “Many cancer patients look for ‘natural,’ non-traditional treatments. We are delighted to offer alternatives that many patients desire in a way that ensures the quality of the supplement and does not interfere with the patient’s cancer treatment.”
How the herbs work is unclear but ginseng may, much like prescription antidepressants, inhibit the re-uptake of neurotransmitters which enable brain cells to communicate. Ginseng also is considered an immune system stimulant. The Valerian root contains an essential oil and alkaloids believed to work as a sedative.
The two protocols, developed by Mayo Clinic-based North Central Cancer Treatment Group in Rochester, Minn., are available to MCG patients through the university’s designation by the National Cancer Institute as a Minority-Based Community Clinical Oncology Program. The 2004 designation strengthened access to the latest cancer treatment and prevention studies for patients of all ages and races at MCG, says Dr. Ferris, a program co-investigator.
Participants in the ginseng trial must be men or women 18 or older with at least a one-month history of cancer-related fatigue and a life expectancy of at least six months. Patients with brain tumors or central nervous system lymphoma are not eligible.
For the Valerian study, patients also must be 18 or older and receiving radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy.
Participants will be randomly assigned to receive the herb or placebo.