Originally published in Issue 3 2006 icon
The Use of Herbs, And Natural Plant Compounds, in the Fight Against Cancer
Alan N Hopking MA MNIMH MRCHM FINEH
Alan has been a Herbal Medicine Practitioner for 25 years and is a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (Great Britain) (founded in 1846).
As few as seven per cent of all cancers are inherited. However, expert medical opinion teaches us that all cancers are generic, that is, they develop because something in a cell´s genes makes mistakes during the copy of each cell´s entire blueprint of the person. This is frequent throughout our lives; however, the mechanisms that repair these mistakes get less efficient with age. It is estimated that within every eighteen months the entire cellular structure of our bodies is replaced. To help the body repair these generic mistakes there have been some remarkable advances in cancer drugs. For instance, Herceptin in breast cancer recurrence; Glivec for leukaemia, Avaslin for metastatic colorectal cancer has led to a major increase in survival, and likewise, Velcade for myeloma, Tarceva for lung cancer, Aldara for basal cell skin cancers, Gardasil for early cervical cancer, among others, have all shown remarkable survival rate increase.
Meanwhile the Cancer Genome Project at the Sanger Institute near Cambridge, England, has reported it has already identified over 100 gene mutations that may lead specialists to be able to detect cancer, or increased risk of cancer, long before people become ill with the disease. There are also new developments in discovering clues (biomarkers), detectable as traces of protein produced by rogue genes through testing the blood, urine and saliva which can give early diagnosis of the onset of cancer.
Drugs shouldn´t be regarded as ´magic
However, even with these recent and impressive pharmaceutical developments such drugs shouldn´t be regarded as ´magic bullets´. Furthermore, these new cancer therapies have a serious thorn in their side: There is often generic blueprint reversion. This means that the cancer cells usually develop resistance to such drug treatment, (just as bacteria in the body do), according to Professor Paul Workman of Cancer Research UK´s Centre for Cancer Therapeutics. So despite all the advances in pharmaceutical medical science there is something in our body that has a natural reversion to old type-models.
Rather than imposing repair to the blueprint that is not sustainable with drugs, there needs to be a complete shift in lifetime health management. This is where both therapeutic holism in general, and herbal medicine in particular, have a strong voice in the prevention and treatment of disease and cancer. And, let us be clear: both conventional drugs and complementary therapies aim, in their own way, to eradicate not only cancer but all diseases.
Herbs: Traditional Medicine
In the United States, herbal medicine is regulated not as medicine but under the category of Dietary Supplements. There is no recognition of herbal medicine as a clinical practice nor that the herbs themselves have any legal or regulatory framework as a healthcare profession. On the other hand, herbal medicine (phytotherapy) in Europe is legally recognised as a legitimate healthcare system under ´Traditional Medicines´ and the UK Medicines Act 1968. A traditional medicines category for herbs is important for two reasons. It legitimises the obvious fact that herbs have medicinal value (whereas in America and the EU medical claims are not allowed for dietary supplements) and it also asserts that valid evidence and support for efficacy and safety derives from traditional use over many years.
Traditional use evidence does not replace scientific or clinical trial data, but is a unique category of evidence, which separates herbs with many years of medicinal use from modern, synthetically engineered products that are promoted as ´natural´ dietary supplements. For example, antioxidants in capsule form have come under fire recently in the New Scientist. In her article, Lisa Melton writes that studies show that antioxidants, from beta-carotene to vitamin E to grapefruit extract in tablet or capsule form, simply do not work when taken into the body, and that only whole fruits, vegetables and herbs give us the huge antioxidant benefit when eaten.
Chemotherapy also acts in a harmful way
With chemotherapy, whilst it attacks the rapidly dividing cancer cells, it also acts in a harmful way upon the structure and function of normal cells, tissues or organ systems of the body. The resultant side effects are all too familiar - mouth and throat soreness with metallic taste, loss of hair, poor appetite with nausea, weight loss, bowel dysfunction, and so on.
Here lies the fundamental difference between herbal medicine and chemotherapy. In chemotherapy the chemicals act on the body, causing harm to the body, actively disrupting the vital processes, interfering, interrupting, impairing, in a dynamic manner whereas, in contrast, the body acts on herbs resulting in the restorative, curative and yet passive influences of herbal medicine.
Herbs v Poisons
Poisons are ubiquitous in the environment and food chain, and are detectable in large numbers in our bodies. Meanwhile food, or at least much of what is sold as food, can arguably be categorised as poison in terms of industrial processing, synthetic additives, colourings and preservatives, pesticide residues, and a nutrient composition emphasising bad fats and simple sugars and lacking in beneficial minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients.
Many plants have furnished modern medicine with drugs that are used in cancer therapy as cytotoxic agents. Plants are the original source of most pharmaceuticals, one of the earliest examples being William Withering´s use of the cardiac glycosides from foxglove for dropsy in 1785. Well-known modern examples include Taxol that is used for breast cancer (which gets its active constituents from the Pacific Yew tree) and the vinca alkaloids used for leukaemia (from the Madagascar Periwinkle).
These compounds, are effective as anti-cancer agents by virtue of their nature
These compounds, unlike the chemopreventive compounds, are effective as anti-cancer agents by virtue of their nature as poisons that disrupt the cell cycle. Their destructive action as poisons is clear. But this can blur the distinctions between two very different kinds of agents - medicines and poisons. It is uncontroversial to conclude that regular medicines (that is modern pharmaceutical drugs), have become a major killer and are quite properly defined as poison, and are a leading cause of death among US citizens . Herbs are inherently curative; chemo and drugs in general are inherently destructive. Notwithstanding, both chemotherapy and specific medicinal herbs can be valuable partners when taken together in the fight against cancer.
Natural Compounds in Chemoprevention
Botanical medicines are complex mixtures of natural pharmacological agents, simultaneously exerting influence on different phases of cancer via diverse mechanisms, but which are harmonious with the body´s functions. As they are similar to dietary or food ingredients, such medicinal herb compounds can assist the stabilisation, arrest and even reversal of cancer. By contrast, pharmaceutical drugs are classically single synthetic compounds, ideally interfering or disrupting a single specific mechanism, whilst minimising collateral damage, (i.e. side effects). However, this ideal model is rarely achieved.
Chemoprevention was originally defined by Sporn in 1976 to be "the pharmacological enhancement of mechanisms (physiological or pharmacological) whereby progression of preneoplastic lesions can be stabilised, arrested or reversed". Retinoids were the earliest compounds investigated for their potential to prevent the development of epithelial cancers. Recently, numerous reviews of plant derived chemopreventive compounds or phytopharmaceuticals have identified their potential role in the treatment of cancer. These chemo preventative compounds are dietary ingredients which, being food derived, are considered pharmacologically safe. These dietary ingredients contain a wide range of different molecules such as organosulphur compounds from garlic, polyphenols in green tea and curcumin in turmeric.
Basic science research is confirming that many chemopreventive dietary compounds are active at precisely the molecular targets that drug designers seek to affect with the newer generation of targeted drugs, typically the monoclonal antibody (MCA) agents. Worse, the latter have significant side effects, as reported in Lancet Oncology and icon. Yet despite massive investment in time and money, only a handful of such drugs have been licensed to date - such as Herceptin and others mentioned above. Of these, probably Herceptin is the only drug that has proven itself of significant benefit, yet it is so expensive that new breast cancer patients in England are not routinely given it, leaving nothing to attack the very same molecular targets that have been identified by cancer research scientists attempting to formulate these smart drugs.
With an established safety record and a fraction of the cost of conventional chemotherapy, plant compounds for cancer treatment represent an enormous resource that is virtually untapped. Frequently research papers in professional journals conclude by suggesting that chemopreventive plant compounds are potentially the most important therapeutic breakthroughs to come. It is already understood that such botanic compounds support the treatment of all phases of cancer. Moreover, very often chemo preventive dietary compounds interact with several of these targets simultaneously and often synergistically. For example, green tea polyphenols can influence signal transduction factors, inhibit COX-2, promote cell cycle arrest, increase cancer cell death (apoplosis) and disable multi-drug resistance pumps; and curcumin from turmeric has been found to influence over 60 such molecular targets in the cancer process.
The Two Herbal Types for Cancer Treatment
A common misconception among the general public is the oversimplified idea that stimulating the immune system will eradicate a cancer. Cancer evades most immune system surveillance because of the low immune system response capacity (immunogenicity) of the patient developing malignant tumours. Thus, many patients with advanced malignancy have poor resistance due to their lowered levels of innate (Th1) immunity, the branch of the immune system whose cells, such as natural killer (NK) cells, directly combat and destroy tumour cells. From the point of view of herbal medicine, two therapeutic requirements are essential when treating cancer. These are the Immunomodulating herbs, and the Adaptogenic herbs.
A large number of herbal medicines and plant compounds directly stimulate this innate immune response. These same agents can also be used for instance to help protect bone marrow against the myelosuppressive effects of conventional chemotherapy. The two most important classes of herbs in this group are the immunomodulating herbs that enhance the immune system function, such as the medicinal mushroom Shiitake, and the adaptogens that enhance the body´s capacity to respond to the immune system enhancement. This includes many well-known herbs such as Korean Ginseng, Astragalus, Pau D´Arco, and many others (see the names of these herbal medicines in the reference section at the end of this article).
A large number of herbal medicines and plant compounds directly stimulate this innate immune response
The capacity of herbal medicines like mushroom polysaccharides to influence the level of immune function can be regarded as a direct expression of the way in which botanicals enhance the natural protection in the body. Similarly, adaptogenic herbs enhance the body´s capacity to respond to these increases in immune system demands (also called the allostatic load) via multiple pathways mainly due to nervous stress, extra hormonal activity and the enhanced burden on the immune system itself. This too is clearly an effect mediated by the body´s own intrinsic vital energy as opposed to a suppressive drug-based anti-disease action.
The fact that plant medicines have no equivalent among pharmaceutical drugs is known to both pharmacognocists (scientists who study plants for their medicinal action) and medical herbalist practitioners. What´s more, botanical adaptogens have a wide range of beneficial interactions with conventional chemotherapy and radiation. This is because herbal medicines used for this purpose raise the standards of the whole body´s resistance, both to the cancer itself and to the suppressive action of the chemotherapy.
To date, there is not a single case report in the literature of any harmful interaction between a botanical and conventional cancer treatment. For practitioners of botanical medicine, negative and uninformed quotes and articles issuing dire warnings about adverse interactions between herbs and chemotherapy are sadly all too predictable. For cancer patients, this causes unnecessary fear and confusion, which often inhibits patients from seeking to use herbal medicines.
However, the use of herbal medicine in the treatment of cancer is an important tool to support overall cancer treatment methods whilst also having in its own right the ability to influence and enhance positive therapeutic results.
Our bodies have co-evolved with plants for millions of years
It is as well to remember that our bodies have co-evolved with plants, both as food and medicine, for millions of years. There is a deep connection between humans and plants at many levels, from the intuitive and instinctive to the subcellular. It is this connection that medical herbalists seek to tap into for the benefit of cancer patients. It is irrefutable that within the many integrative strategies available for the treatment of cancer the huge benefits of botanical medicines top the list.
Herbal Synergy and Triggers
Specific immunomodulating and adaptogenic herbs are combined to work together as one powerful therapeutic agent for cancer treatment. This is called synergy. Such a combination is found in the botanic medicine called HerbShield Tonic12, which is recommended by therapists and many websites and in books on natural cures of cancer, e.g. Healing Cancer by Simon and Enrida Kelly. Herbal medicines of this kind have a synergistic action that boosts the defences of the body against the development of abnormal cells. Other well-known multi-herbal medicines used almost exclusively as cancer-support remedies are Essiac-ACT13 and ABC Daily Herbal NutriPowder Plus14.
There are many types of cancer but the multiherbal action derived from taking such formulations helps protect and eliminate such cells. This is achieved by the herbal synergy activating each person´s unique combination of defences against the development and progress of such abnormal cells. It is already recognised that herbal medicines are prescribed to help to protect tissue cells against viruses, toxins, radiation and bacterial invasion. Herbal medicines like HerbShield support the cells to perform their normal functions and resist turning cancerous; likewise, herbal medicines can so enhance cellular normality that cancer cells can be destroyed.
There is a need to protect the body against cancer triggers
There is a need to protect the body against cancer triggers (caused by a long-term intake of all sorts of chemical toxins - air pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticides in foods, colourants in drinks, taste enhancers, etc) initiated in injured cells which can cause mutation and result in malignant abnormal cell formation. Herbs can be prescribed, for instance some containing immune-enhancing quercetin flavonoids found in herbs, berries, onions, and other powerful nutrients, that resist the spread of cancer cells or provoke the tumour to form its own blood vessels (carcinogenesis stage of angiogenesis). A healthy diet that includes regular eating of anthocyanins found in fresh fruits and vegetables, plus herbal medicines, regular exercise and good sound sleep, are just some of the ways to restore health.
Herbs That Stop Adhesions
Studies have shown there are certain medicines and foods containing specific compounds that activate the watch-dog genes that turn off the cell mechanisms that make rogue cells. In addition, most cells have an address, specified by adhesion proteins, that glues cells into their proper position. For a cell to spread its abnormal form and function, it must have DNA instructions that allow it to break the bonds of that glue and to make new adhesion proteins before entering other tissues. Research has shown that there are some herbs and foods like citrus pectin that provide lectins that compete with this glue and prevent cancer cell adhesion.
The modern use of herbal medicine in abnormal cell formation treatment relies on painstaking research. For example, scientists have identified compounds in herbs that protect the watch-dog genes from damage. There are also herbal remedies that stimulate the immune system.
A healthy diet and lifestyle along with herbal medicine treatment work against abnormal cell formation and help prevent such cells from establishing themselves in new tissues. In the treatment of cancer formation herbal medicine is best used as part of a comprehensive regime of health treatment. Herbal treatment can make the taking of harsh but necessary chemotherapy or radiation therapy easier and more effective, as noted above.
Breast, Prostate and Other Hormonally Dependent Cancers
The occurrence of breast and reproductive cancers are, as recognised by Susan Weed in her book Breast Cancer, usually aggravated by excess oestrogen. However, Weed states, on page 44, that "to date, no increase in breast cancer rates has ever been associated with the use of phytosterol-rich herbs (with the possible exception of liquorice), there is, however, a strong correlation between consumption of phytosterol-rich foods (such as yams and soybeans) and decrease in breast cancer rates."
One anti-oestrogenic constituent, lignan, is found in high concentrations in the urine of human populations who follow high vegetable or soy-based diets, and is considered to be partially responsible for low breast-cancer rates in those same populations. The two primary mammalian lignans found are enterodiol and a product of its oxidation, enterolactone, both of which are formed in the intestinal tract by bacteria after ingestion of foods such as unrefined grains, beans, seeds, peas, and legumes. Interestingly, the same populations also excrete very high amounts of isoflavonoids, particularly genistein and daidzein. There is evidence that suggests that both lignans and isoflavonoids are protective with regard to hormone-dependent cancers such as breast cancer, and that isoflavonoids may be protective with regard to prostate cancer. It seems that a typical Western diet elevates plasma levels of sex hormones and decreases the Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) concentration, increasing the availability of these steroids in the body. It is believed that such compounds (diphenolic) affect hormone metabolism and production, along with cancer cell growth, resulting in the possibility of a role in hormone dependent cancer protection.
It goes from a form that promotes cancer growth to a form that does not
It has been shown in many studies that a low SHBG level means a higher metabolic clearance rate and uptake of sex hormones in many tissues including the liver. Postmenopausal women with breast cancer have frequently shown low SHBG levels. Studies performed by Herman Adlercreutz et al. suggest that isoflavonoids and flavonoids may all act synergistically, inhibiting cell growth in malignant cells via the type II binding site, also called the bioflavonoids receptor, or by inhibiting specifically the protein tyrosine kinase, the enzyme mediating the activity of many growth factors in the cell. Adlercreutz concludes that lignans and isoflavonoids may influence sex hormone metabolism and cancer by influencing plasma SHBG levels, resulting in lower uptake and less biological activity of these steroids, and thus inhibiting growth and proliferation of hormone-dependent cancer cells. Such examples do not necessarily prove conclusively that phyto-oestrogens consumed as whole plant medicine tinctures or extracts are protective against breast cancer. A variety of factors may be responsible for the protective role that nutritional foods and medicines seem to play.
Resveratrol from grapes, quercetin from onions, prunetin from plums and cherries are just a few lignans from plants that change the way oestrogen is metabolised. It goes from a form that promotes cancer growth to a form that does not. Flaxseeds, used as an herbal medicine concentrate, which contains high levels of lignans, stop the growth and metastasis of human breast tumours. Whole flaxseed extract can reduce the size of breast tumours in rats by 50%. The lignans in virgin olive oils may be responsible for the anti-cancer effects of the Mediterranean diet.
Plant oestrogens (phytoestrogens) have many benefits. Most phytoestrogens are not oestrogenic. They prevent proliferation of oestrogen-driven cancer cells. They down-regulate oestrogen receptors. They increase bone mineral density. They lower cholesterol and triglycerides. They increase HDL (´good´ cholesterol). They inhibit the growth of cancer cells, both oestrogen receptors, positive and negative. They reduce the synthesis of oestrogen through aromatase. They lower the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers, up to 40%. They intervene against VEG-F, a factor that enables the spread of cancer. Isoflavones from soya, including daldzein and genistein, enhance immunity by activating natural killer cells. Anticancer effects of genistein and other isoflavones have been demonstrated against prostate, lung, head-and-neck, breast, colon and bladder cancers.
Cancers can develop for a number of
Cancers can develop for a number of reasons including inherited conditions, toxic build up in the organs from environmental pollutants or contaminants in water and foods, prolonged stress and hormonal imbalance resulting in lowered immune system resistance. But highest on the list of causes appears to be something within our own genetic blueprint that establishes and perpetuates an irreversible deterioration in the day by day regenerative copies of our cellular make-up. Some drugs can repair or destroy these genetic mistakes. But reversion is common, causing cancer to return. Scientific research shows that the health-promoting benefits of whole herbal medicines and organic fresh foods can both considerably improve an immune system that has little resistance to cancer, and also be of great benefit when taken alongside regular chemotherapy. There is evidence that side effects are reduced and that the combined treatment, chemo and herbal medicine, far from negating or neutralising each other, brings about enhanced results.
It is a fallacy that these two medical models have either a harmful interaction or a neutralizing one.
It is a fallacy spawned by the ignorance of cancer specialists and made worse by media hype that in turn damages public confidence. Cancer drugs may work to stabilise, arrest or even reverse the progress of cancer; however, herbal medicines found in remedies like HerbShield and Essiac-ACT have their own natural constituents many of which have been shown to improve the immune system´s capacity to directly combat and destroy tumour cells.
Herbal medicine must be prescribed by a qualified herbal practitioner (MNIMH). See National Institute of Medical Herbalists website www.nimh.org.uk.
HerbShield Tonic has been described and even recommended as part of a natural cancer treatment regime. What herbs are included in HerbShield Tonic?
Allium sativum (Garlic bulb, Da Suan)
Alpinia officinalis (Galangal root)
Arthrospira platensis (Spirulina)
Astragalus membranaceus (Astragalus root,
Bupleurum falcatum (Thorowax root)
Carthamus tinctorius (Safflower flower)
Codonopsis lanceolata (Codonopsis herb)
Commiphora molmol (Myrrh)
Coptis chinensis (Golden Thread root, Huang Lian)
Curcuma longa (Turmeric root, Jiang Huang)
Echinacea angustifolia (Purple Cone Flower root)
Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng)
Galium aparine (Cleavers tops)
Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo leaf)
Lentinula edodes (Shitake mushroom)
Linum usitatissimum (Flax; Linseed)
Oldenlandia diffusa (Bai Hua She She Cao, whole herb)
Olea europaea (Olive Tree Leaf)
Panax ginseng (Ginseng root, Ren Shen)
Psoralea corylifolia (Psoralea fruit, Bu Gu Zhi)
Pfaffia paniculata (Suma root)
Rheum palmatum (Rhubarb root, Da Huang)
Rumex acet (Sheep sorrel)
Rubus ideus (Raspberry leaves)
Sanguinaria canadensis (Blood root)
Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra berries, Wu Wei Zi)
Scutellaria baicalensis (Huang Qin, Baikal root)
Tabebuia impeteginosa (Pau D´Arco, Taheebo bark)
Thuja occidentalis (Thuja, Arbor-Vitae leaves and stems)
Trifolium pratense (Red Clover flowers)
Triticum sativa (Wheatgrass fresh)
Uncaria tormentosa (Cat´s Claw, Peru; inner bark)
Urtica dioica rad. (Nettle root)
Vaccinium myrtillus (Bilberry fruit)
Vinca major (Periwinkle tops)
Viola odorata (Sweet Violet leaves and flowers)
Viscum album (Mistletoe leafy twigs)
Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha root)
1. Workman, P. 2006, March. Winning the War on Cancer, Readers Digest, p. 64.
2. For the full report see New Scientist 5th August 2006.
3. Chen C, Kong AN. Dietary cancer-chemopreventive compounds: from signaling and gene expression to pharmacological effects. Trends Pharmacol Sci 2005;26:318-326.
4. Lazarou J, Pomeranz BH, Corey PN. Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients: a meta- analysis of prospective studies [see comments. Jama 1998; 279:1200-1205.
5. Bagchi D, Preuss H. Phytopharmaceuticals in Cancer Chemoprevention. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 2005.
6. Sporn MB. Approaches to prevention of epithelial cancer during the preneoplastic period. Cancer Research, 1976; 36:2699-2702.
7. Bagchi D, Preuss H. Phytopharmaceuticals in Cancer Chemoprevention. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 2005. See also: i) Dorai T, Aggarwal BB. Role of chemopreventive agents in cancer therapy. Cancer Lett 2004; 215:129-140. ii) Conney AH. Enzyme induction and dietary chemicals as approaches to cancer chemoprevention: the Seventh DeWitt S. Goodman Lecture. Cancer Res 2003; 63:7005-7031. iii) Aggarwal BB, Takada Y, Oommen OV. From chemoprevention to chemotherapy: common targets and common goals. Expert Opin Investig Drugs 2004; 13:1327-1338. iv) Chen C, Kong AN. Dietary cancer-chemopreventive compounds: from signaling and gene expression to pharmacological effects. Trends Pharmacol Sci 2005; 26:318-326.
8. Treasure, J. 2005:10. Food, Medicine, Poison & Molecular Vitalism - Novel Conceptual and Clinical Tools for the Botanical Treatment of Cancer. http://www.herbological.com/cancerandherbalmed.html
9. Milner JA. Molecular targets for bioactive food components. J Nutr 2004;134:2492S-2498S. Also, see: Bode AM, Dong Z. Targeting signal transduction pathways by chemopreventive agents. Mutat Res 2004; 555:33-51.
11. Sparreboom A, Cox MC, Acharya MR, Figg WD. Herbal remedies in the United States: potential adverse interactions with anticancer agents. J Clin Oncol 2004;22:2489-2503.
12. HerbShield Tonic - is a herbal medicine
13. Essiac - ACT (Alcohol-free Concentrated Tincture) -http://www.chriswoollams4health.com/Product.aspx?category=Natural%20Supplements&subcategory=&Name=Essiac_Tincture&ID=16150
14. ABC Daily Herbal NutriPowder Plus is a powder made from nutrient-rich whole herbal powders. It has the full complement of vitamins, minerals, microelements and amino acids so as to support and enhance all the body´s organs to fight disease and promote health. In that it is made from whole herbs, it has a greater range of action than extracts in capsules and tablets. At Last - the definitive, research based book on how to build a diet to help beat cancer. Click here to read about it.
Please be clear: At CANCERactive we do not consider the above compound to be a cure for cancer, despite what the research says or experts doing the research may claim. The above, is an article on the compound from published research and expert opinion in the public domain. At CANCERactive we do not believe that any single compound (drug, vitamin, whatever) is a cure for cancer. We believe that people can significantly increase their personal odds of survival by building an Integrated Programme of treatments. Equally, cancer prevention is best practiced through a width of measures.