In a trial led by the Mayo Clinic, the herb commonly known as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), showed good results in helping cancer patients with fatigue, when compared with a placebo.

The findings, which will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, looked at 340 patients who were either in the post treatment phase or under going cancer treatment. 60% of the patients had breast cancer. Each day, the patients who were being treated at one of 40 different community medical centers were given 2,000 milligrams of pure American ginseng root in a capsule.

Researcher Debra Barton, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center is quick to point out that quality of the herb is very important and people shouldn’t necessarily rush to their health food store and start taking any old ginseng. She goes on to say: “Off-the-shelf ginseng is sometimes processed using ethanol, which can give it estrogen-like properties that may be harmful to breast cancer patients.”

There wasn’t a great improvement after four weeks, obviously the herb took some time to work its magic, but at the eight week mark there was a sudden jump in the general energy levels reported by the group on ginseng when compared to the placebo group. General exhaustion diminished rapidly in those taking the Ginseng supplement.

Dr. Barton says the herb had no apparent side effects in the patients taking it, and comments: “After eight weeks, we saw a 20-point improvement in fatigue in cancer patients, measured on a 100-point, standardized fatigue scale.” lists a variety of possible side effects of American Ginseng, including varying blood pressure, headache, nervousness, skin rash and vaginal bleeding. It also makes clear to differentiate between Panax, Siberian and American Ginseng, which are considered to have different properties.

Interestingly, American ginseng contains a chemical group called ginsenosides, presumably a name made up after the name of the herb. These active ingredients are thought to act upon insulin levels to help lower blood sugar. Other chemicals include polysaccharides, which most likely have some effect on the immune system.

Ginseng is well known for its properties in treating a variety of ailments, including fatigue, stress, diabetes, insomnia and it’s often touted as a good for erectile dysfunction, while some people swear by it as a good hang over cure. It’s become so popular in recent years that some states have threatened to add it to a protected list to prevent people picking the wild variety that grows in the United States.

As many as 90% of all cancer patients report a debilitating fatigue, as the immune system struggles against inflammatory cytokines and the hormone known as cortisol becomes unbalanced. Cortisol effects how the body regulates stress. Ginseng has been shown in animal studies to act upon both these factors, reducing inflammation, and regulating cortisol.

Whether by accident or design, many of these kinds of herbal fix alls are ridiculed by the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. Echinacea the old wives cure for the common cold came under attack recently with research showing that it had no effect on helping against flu or a cold. I am sure that many people would disagree with that from their own personal experiences, and it’s nice to see Ginseng, that has been touted for centuries as a trusted herbal remedy, getting the recognition it deserves.

While people should always be wary to avoid snake oil and magic potions, there simply has to be some common sense to some of these old herbal remedies. Until recently, it seems there hasn’t been much incentive for putting the time and money into funding scientific research on a scale comparable to that required for regulating industrially manufactured pharmaceutical products.

Written by Rupert Shepherd