Patients who took 1,000 or 2,000 mg per day had more energy.


CHICAGO—Cancer patients who have fatigue may benefit from daily doses of American ginseng, data suggest.

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“Fatigue is a major complaint for many cancer patients and can greatly affect their quality of life,” said lead investigator Debra Barton, PhD, associate professor of oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Identifying options to effectively treat this serious side effect is an im-portant research priority.”


Animal studies and anecdotal evidence in people suggest that ginseng can increase energy and reduce fatigue, but the clinical effectiveness of ginseng has never been rigorously tested in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial.


Different ginseng varieties contain varying amounts of the steroid-like compounds known as ginsenosides. The study by Dr. Barton’s group 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 study, presented here at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting,  included 282 patients with various cancers who were randomized to four arms: placebo and 750, 1,000, or 2,000 mg of ginseng a day. Researchers followed patients for eight weeks. The patients had a life expectancy of at least six months. Patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment at the time of the trial and those who had completed treatment were divided evenly among the study arms.


All patients had a history of fatigue, which they had experienced for at least the previous month. Although fatigue can be caused by both cancer treatment and cancer itself, the study did not differentiate between the two.

Researchers measured fa-tigue in several ways to capture the different aspects of cancer-related fatigue, including the Brief Fatigue Inventory (BFI), the Vitality Subscale of the SF-36, and numeric analogue questions of well being and perceived benefit. The subjects were surveyed about their levels of fatigue at baseline and four and eight weeks. 


The investigators found that 25% of patients taking 1,000 mg and 27% of patients taking 2,000 mg of ginseng reported that their fatigue levels were “moderately better” or “much better,” compared with 10% of patients taking 750 mg of ginseng and the same proportion for placebo.


“It is not surprising that plant products would have some very potent activities. Some of our most popular cancer drugs, like Taxol, come from plants. So, I think there may very well be potential benefits in many herbal products,” Dr. Barton told Renal & Urology News. “However, we don’t know what the mechanisms of action are and we don’t yet know what actual components in ginseng are causing activity.”


She cautioned that clinicians should not generally recommend store-bought ginseng to their cancer patients with fatigue because of the lack of regulation and inconsistent quality and safety in many products widely sold in the United States and more research needs to be done.