Ginseng May Relieve Cancer Fatigue

Popular Supplement Also Appears to Boost Energy Levels

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 04, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

June 4, 2007 (Chicago) -- The popular dietary supplement ginseng appears to relieve fatigue and boost energy levels in people with cancer, preliminary research shows.

The researchers studied 282 people with breast, colon, and other types of cancer. They were randomly assigned to take 750 milligrams, 1,000 milligrams, or 2,000 milligrams of American ginseng or placebo daily for eight weeks.

About 25% of those on the two highest doses reported their fatigue was “moderately or much better,” compared with only 10% of those taking lowest dose or placebo. Also, energy levels were about twice as high in those taking the 1,000-milligram dose as those taking placebo.

People taking the two highest doses also reported generally feeling better, with improvements in mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. And they said they were more satisfied with their treatment.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Cancer-Related Fatigue a Common Problem

More than 90% of people with cancer suffer from extreme lethargy and low energy levels before, during, or after treatment, says researcher Debra Barton, PhD, an associate professor of oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“If the results are confirmed, our hope is that ginseng would help us to improve their quality of life,” she tells WebMD.

The researchers tested the Wisconsin species of American ginseng, which is different from Chinese ginseng and other forms of American ginseng sold in health food stores. The ginseng was powdered and given in capsule form.

Wisconsin ginseng is available only through the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, which monitors quality, according to Barton.

The ginseng was derived from a single crop, which was tested to confirm a uniform concentration of ginsenosides, the active compounds thought to offer health benefits.

Barton says that’s important because unlike drugs, supplements are not monitored by the FDA and can vary in consistency.

“You really don’t know what you’re getting,” she explains. “Some supplements may contain little or none of the active ingredient on the label, while others may have harmful contaminants.”

It is important to talk to your doctor about using supplements since there could be interactions with other medications or treatment.

Exercise Still Only Proven Option for Cancer Fatigue

Bruce Cheson, MD, a cancer doctor at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, says that while promising, it is too soon to recommend ginseng to people with cancer.

“We still don’t know whether it interferes with their cancer treatment,” he tells WebMD.

Cheson says that patients often “pull out big bags of this stuff from their bags and ask whether it will help me. Until we have more rigorous trials, we can’t answer their question,” he says.

Barton recommends that until the findings are confirmed, people suffering from cancer-related fatigue talk to their doctors about starting an exercise program. “Currently, the only intervention we know that works is exercise,” she says.

She believes that ginseng confers its benefits by helping the body to modulate the physiological stress associated with cancer and chemotherapy.

Her research team hopes to start a new trial next year, with the goal of confirming the results in a larger number of people over a longer period of time.

  • Undergoing cancer treatment? How do you fight fatigue throughout? Talk about it on the WebMD Cancer Support Group Board.
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SOURCES: 43rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Chicago, June 1-5, 2007. Debra Barton, PhD, associate professor of oncology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Bruce Cheson, MD, head of hematology, Georgetown University Hospital, Washington.

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