MONDAY, June 4, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- The herb ginseng appeared to significantly reduce cancer-related fatigue compared to an inactive placebo, although it took several weeks for the herb's effects to take effect in the patients, a new study reports.
In the study, the researchers gave either a placebo or 2,000-milligram capsules of ground ginseng root to 340 patients who were being treated for cancer or had completed cancer treatment. Fatigue is extremely common among cancer patients; most of those in the study suffered from breast cancer.
The patients took capsules of pure American ginseng instead of some over-the-counter ginseng products that can include ethanol. Ethanol may be potentially dangerous to breast cancer patients, study researcher Debra Barton of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center said in a news release from the clinic.
"After eight weeks, we saw a 20-point improvement in fatigue in cancer patients, measured on a 100-point, standardized fatigue scale," Barton said.
Those who took the ginseng capsules didn't report much improvement at four weeks, but at eight weeks they reported they felt less "worn out," "fatigued," "sluggish" or "tired," compared to those who took the placebo, the investigators found.
The study authors noted that ginseng didn't seem to have any side effects. They didn't specify how much the ginseng treatments would cost.
A previous Mayo Clinic study found that about one-quarter of patients who'd had cancer and suffered from fatigue said they felt "moderately better" or "much better" after taking 1,000-milligram or 2,000-milligram ginseng tablets. By comparison, only 10 percent of those who took the placebo reported those results.
Laura Murphy, a professor of physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who's familiar with the research, said it's a helpful addition to existing knowledge. The cost of ginseng will be inexpensive compared to prescription drugs that could be used to treat fatigue, she said.
Why might ginseng help fatigue? It's not clear, said Murphy, who has studied the herb. "Essentially, when healthy people ingest ginseng, there are no notable effects," she said. "However, when an ill person takes ginseng, they tend to feel more normal."
The study, funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, was scheduled to be released June 4 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.
The data and conclusions of research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For more about American ginseng, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.