Ginseng Helps Ease Treatment-Related Fatigue

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A study has found ginseng capsules helped ease the fatigue that many people have during and after cancer treatment.

The study was presented at the 2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting. Read the abstract of “Phase III evaluation of American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) to improve cancer-related fatigue: NCCTG trial N07C2.”

Fatigue -- sometimes severe and disabling -- is common during and after cancer treatment. Many things can contribute to fatigue during treatment, including:

  • lack of sleep due to worry, depression, changes in routine, or pain
  • cancer medicines -- both chemotherapy and radiation therapy cause fatigue in many women, though the exact reason for this isn’t always clear
  • treatment side effects, such as a drop in red blood cell count (anemia) caused by chemotherapy

In this study, 364 people being treated for cancer, some of them for breast cancer, said they had at least moderate fatigue during treatment. To participate in the study, the fatigue couldn’t be explained by a treatable cause, such as anemia. Also, people had to rate the fatigue as four or more on a 10-point scale.

Half the people were randomly chosen to take two 2,000 mg capsules of ground American ginseng root before noon each day. The other half took a placebo (sugar capsule) that looked just like the ginseng capsule.

The researchers rated the people’s fatigue before they started taking the ginseng or placebo and then again 4 and 8 weeks after the ginseng/placebo treatments started, using a fatigue assessment tool (the Multidimensional Fatigue Symptom Inventory).

Fatigue scores improved some at 4 weeks and more at 8 weeks for people who got ginseng and people who got the placebo. Still, fatigue scores improved twice as much among people who got ginseng compared to people who got the placebo at both times.

The fatigue assessment tool rated different aspects of fatigue, such as physical (ability to do things), emotional (feeling strong emotionally),and vigor (stamina or endurance). The ginseng only eased the physical aspects of fatigue.

A small number of people in both the ginseng group and the placebo group said they had side effects (the most common was nausea) they thought were possibly related to the treatment.

If you’re being treated for breast cancer and are experiencing fatigue, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your specific symptoms and how they’re affecting your life. Together, you and your doctor can consider all the possible reasons for the fatigue and develop a plan to address the causes that can be treated.

Unfortunately in many cases, there is no obvious single cause or cure for the fatigue associated with cancer treatment. Still, some lifestyle changes may help. Some women find complementary and holistic medicine techniques, including yoga and meditation, help ease fatigue. This study suggests that ginseng also may offer some relief for fatigue.

You can learn more about the causes of fatigue related to cancer treatment and ways to manage fatigue in the Managing Fatigue section. You can learn more about ginseng on the Ginseng page in Well-Known Supplements in the Nutrition section.

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