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Adaptogens in Cancer

Adaptogens in Cancer Care

June 27, 2023
Kevin Brown, MD

Leveraging adaptogens to improve immune function and manage the stress response

It has been known for many years that stress hormones can have a suppressive effect on the immune system, including on some types of immune cells that specialize in seeking out and destroying cancer cells. While it would be oversimplifying things to say that stress causes cancer, we know that stress-related suppression of immune function can impair the body’s ability to get rid of abnormal cells. As the stressors of modern life become more pervasive, it is more important than ever to be able to manage the body’s stress response. In integrative oncology, we believe it is essential to help our patients manage stress and the body’s response to stress in order to help the immune system do its job properly. We utilize multiple strategies to help our patients achieve and maintain a healthier level of stress and a healthy stress response. In addition to important lifestyle factors including mind-body practices, exercise, a nourishing diet, and getting adequate sleep, certain herbal supplements known as adaptogens have also been found to be effective in lowering levels of stress hormones in patients with cancer.

Adaptogens and healthy stress hormone levels

The category of herbal supplements known as adaptogens is comprised of several plant compounds with diverse geographical origins and physiological effects, although they all bolster the body’s ability to handle stressors. Some adaptogens have been used in traditional medical systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine for thousands of years. Modern research has shown that some adaptogenic herbs exert their stress-resisting effects through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis. The HPA axis is a key regulator of stress hormone levels, particularly the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol plays a vital role in facilitating the body’s response to dangerous situations, known as the “fight or flight” response, but when chronically elevated it can lead to health problems. In addition to immune system impairment, chronically elevated cortisol levels can be associated with numerous symptoms including fatigue, memory loss, low libido, weight gain, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and loss of bone density.

Boosting resilience and immune function

Adaptogenic herbs can also help boost both emotional and physiological resilience which can help patients withstand difficult circumstances and can benefit their quality of life. Also, in addition to the immune benefits of lowering stress hormone levels, some adaptogens can also directly support healthy immune function through other mechanisms.

Adaptogenic Activity in Herbal Supplements

Several herbal supplements are known to have adaptogenic activity. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are thought to be fairly “activating”, often providing a boost of energy for those struggling with fatigue. Some patients taking either of these, particularly Asian ginseng, can experience a feeling of mild jitteriness. The active ginsenoside components of both Asian and American ginseng may mimic estrogen in the body to some extent, so many experts recommend using these with caution if there is a history of an estrogen-sensitive cancer. Eleuthro (Eleuthrococcus senticosus, also known as Siberian ginseng although not a true ginseng) and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) offer some of the same benefits in terms of providing resilience and helping with fatigue while being slightly less activating than the true ginsengs, and without the concern for estrogenic activity. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is another traditional adaptogen which is less activating that the ginsengs and which can also boost energy and resilience. Schisandra can potentially affect metabolic enzymes in the liver, so it should be used with caution in those taking prescription medications. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is known for its calming effect and its ability to promote healthy sleep. It is normally taken late in the day or in the evening to avoid problems with sedation. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) does not directly modulate the stress response or the HPA axis and therefore is not considered a traditional adaptogen; however, it has been shown to help with fatigue and to support immune system function. Astragalus has also been shown to help mitigate certain side effects of chemotherapy including low white blood cell counts, nausea, and vomiting. Like schisandra, astragalus can interfere with the metabolism of some medications, and its powerful immune system effects are not appropriate in all situations. Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis) is also known to help with fatigue, provide stamina, and boost immune cell function, although like astragalus it does not affect the HPA axis and so is not considered a traditional adaptogen.

While the above is not a complete list of all adaptogens or all of their possible benefits, side effects, and herb-drug interactions, hopefully it helps illustrate the diversity and usefulness of this class of natural products. If you are interested in learning more about whether an adaptogen may be right for your situation, it is important to discuss this with a health care professional trained in their use.

Ask Dr. Brown about adaptogens in cancer care

With the right guidance, adaptogens can help patients with a diagnosis of cancer optimize their immune function, resilience, and quality of life. Adaptogenic herbs can be a valuable part of a supplement and lifestyle regimen that can help make the body as inhospitable to cancer as possible.

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