A pilot study presented in Chicago on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology shows that the herb ginseng may decrease fatigue in cancer patients.
Experts believe that fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment. "Fatigue is a major complaint for many cancer patients and can greatly affect their quality of life," said Debra Barton, an associate professor of oncology at the Mayo Clinic and the study's leading author.
"Identifying options to effectively treat this serious side effect is an important research priority," she said.
While ginseng is already used by many cancer patients based on animal experiments and anecdotal human evidence that it can increase energy and reduce fatigue, its effectiveness has never been rigorously tested in people. Different ginseng varieties contain different amounts of the steroid-like compounds known as ginsenosides.
The study used Wisconsin ginseng from a single crop, which was tested to confirm a uniform concentration of ginsenosides. The ginseng was powdered and given in capsule form.
The randomized pilot study traced 282 patients for eight weeks in four doses: placebo, 750 mg of ginseng per day, 1,000 mg per day and 2,000 mg per day. Patients had a variety of cancers and a life expectancy of at least six months. Those actively undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment at the time of the trial and those who had completed treatment were divided evenly with the different dosages.
All patients had a history of fatigue, from which they had suffered at least for the previous month. Although fatigue can be caused by both cancer treatment and cancer itself, this study did not differentiate between the two. The study measured fatigue in several ways in order to capture the different aspects of cancer patient fatigue.
Patients were surveyed about their levels of fatigue at the beginning of the study, at four weeks and at eight weeks. The 1,000 mg and 2,000 mg doses of ginseng were associated with a greater reduction in fatigue than the 750 mg doses and the placebo.
Twenty-five percent of patients taking 1,000 mg and 27 percent of patients taking 2,000 mg of ginseng reported that their fatigue levels were "moderately better" or "much better," compared to 10 percent of patients taking 750 mg of ginseng and the same proportion taking the placebo.
"While the results of this study are very promising, further studies are needed to determine the definitive benefit, and we cannot recommend routine use of ginseng for fatigue in cancer patients at this time," Dr. Barton added.
"Because this was a pilot study, we cannot be certain that ginseng really works to decrease fatigue... Further study will also help us determine which patients are most likely to benefit."
The authors also cautioned against store-bought ginseng supplements, citing the lack of regulation and inconsistent quality, which may cause safety problems.