Natural Support for Health and Vitality During Chemotherapy
First, a brief introduction. My name is Sallie Dixon and my primary training as a herbalist is in the Chinese energetic system, which is very similar to what an acupuncturist uses. My formal training is with the East West School of Planetary Herbology where I completed the Professional Herbalist curriculum in 2019.
I began studying herbs after seeing an acupuncturist for personal health concerns in 2006. She said acupuncture was just not enough for me. My curiosity was aroused when I began experiencing the benefits of herbs and she encouraged me to pursue a formal course of study. I enrolled in the East West distance learning course in 2008 while continuing to work full time at FSU and manage my horse barn. I began to see clients in 2010 as part of my studies. Currently, I consult with people with a variety of health concerns from acute colds or flu to chronic health conditions and am passionate about seeing helping my clients feel the best they can, no matter what they are going through! I am now seeing clients at Be Strong Therapy on Mondays or by zoom appointment.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicine is the art and science of using plants to support health and wellness. An herb or herbal formula contains the full spectrum of plant constituents working in synergy with each other and with the body’s physiology to nourish, rebalance and revitalize. As an herbalist, I’m often asked what herbs can be used during chemotherapy to help support well-being. There are several options and no “one size fits all” herb. Every person has a unique set of needs and symptoms, and each herb interacts with the individual according to those needs and symptom. This is why it's extremely important to meet with an expert on this topic, that way a thorough history can be taken and a plan can be implemented based on individual needs.
In Part 1 of this blog, I’ll discuss a few herbs with well documented support for use during chemotherapy, that support immune health, combat fatigue and improve outcomes, and some popular herbs which should be avoided under certain conditions.
In Part 2 of this blog, we will discuss herbs with special considerations. These herbs support digestive health,emotional balance, and sleep, along with foods which are beneficial, and lifestyle recommendations.
Stay tuned for Part 3, which will include information about herb support, emotional health and sleep, benefit digestion, offer some food recommendations and lifestyle suggestions.
Nothing in this article is medical advice. As an herbalist, I do not treat or offer advice on medically diagnosed conditions. What I do is to work with individuals to support their health based on traditional energetic systems. The herbs discussed are offered as information based on historical use or recent scientific discovery.
Part 1: Herbs for Chemotherapy Support
Chemotherapy is a lifesaving process. Scientific advances have improved outcomes dramatically and most people can expect a full recovery. However, it is not without some side effects. Which side effects and how severe they are dependent upon which medications are used and the innate constitution of the individual. Not everyone reacts to the same chemotherapy in the same way. Some common side effects include fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, emotional instability, depression, anger, hair loss, or bone loss. The good news is that herbs are very effective at relieving a number of these. The specific herbs are specific to each person based on their experience. While single herbs offer great benefits, often the best solution is a customized health care plan created by your herbalist which may include individualized formulas. Even single herbs should be chosen by a knowledgeable herbalist. The discussion of the herbs in this article includes a portion of the properties for each one and a professional herbalist is trained in deciding whether to use them or not. There is research behind each of these and they are cited, with references provided at the bottom of this page.
Astragalus has thousands of years of use to gently support metabolism and the immune system. It is probably the most frequently used herb to enhance immunity and increase energy. In Western herbal traditions it is considered to have adaptogenic properties, improving the body’s ability for a healthy response to stress whether physical, emotional, or environmental. During chemotherapy, it has documented benefits for reducing nausea and vomiting, and for increasing strength and stamina while reducing fatigue (1) . Its ability to improve immune response is particularly relevant during chemotherapy to support everyday exposure from viruses or bacteria. Due to these properties, depending on the cancer and specific chemotherapy treatment, Astragalus may enhance the anti-tumor efficacy of the treatment (2, 3). Following chemotherapy, its attributes contribute to more effective recovery. Astragalus is contraindicated for anyone on immunosuppressing therapy. If you are on blood pressure medication, blood pressure should be monitored as it may lower blood pressure. There is conflicting evidence regarding potential estrogenic activity. Most research and historical use support inhibition of proliferation and migratory activity of estrogen dependent cancer (2,3). Astragalus is a food-like herb traditionally cooked into a broth and incorporated into the daily diet. It is available today as a concentrated extract in several forms. Traditionally, a therapeutic dose is between 9 and 15 grams per day (that’s 9,000 to 15,000 mgs) of the raw herb in decoction, tablets, capsules or granules.
Turkey Tail is a naturally occurring mushroom which has been found to have profound effects on cancer and the immune system (4). Turkey Tail is a nonspecific immune modulator which means it can up or down regulate the immune response according to the condition within the body. In response to cancer, they improve immune response; with an autoimmune condition they downregulate the immune response (5). Research is very supportive on the benefits of turkey tail particularly for breast cancer during or after chemotherapy. During chemotherapy at a dose of 4-9 grams per day of dried powder in capsules it enhances the effects of chemotherapy by accelerating the immune response (6,7,8.) TIn all published research regarding turkey tail, there is no evidence that Turkey interacts negatively with any chemotherapy agent. While Turkey Tail grows wild in this area, the only reasonable way to obtain sufficient quantities for treatment during or following chemotherapy is through a commercial extract in capsule form.
Ashwagandha has traditionally been known as an herb for men. And for good reasons which also explain its usefulness in estrogen dominance conditions in women. For thousands of years, Ashwagandha has been revered as a rasayana in Ayurvedic medicine meaning that it benefits all doshas and aspects of the body. A dosha is defined as each of three energies believed to circulate in the body and govern physiological activity. More recently, it has also been classified as an adaptogen. Adaptogens work through the adrenal system to balance a myriad of endocrine reactions. It has been shown to have a positive effect on breast cancer cells exhibiting repressive activity on both estrogen positive and estrogen negative cancer cells(9). And has also been found to enhance certain chemotherapy drugs in breast and colon cancers through an action known as “priming”10. Ashwagandha may have beneficial effects on energy and stamina as well as reducing anxiety and improving sleep. It should be used with caution or not at all in anyone with estrogen deficiency conditions.
Part 2: Herbs with Special Considerations During and After Chemotherapy
These are beneficial herbs, but which modern research has determined have specific endocrine, hormonal or metabolic actions in the body which may interact with pharmaceutical drugs or effect a type of cancer. ******They should be used with great caution or not at all if any of these actions impact you and certainly not without the full knowledge and consent of your physician. This information is offered because these are commonly used herbs that can be easily purchased.******
Milk Thistle is known ashas gained a popular reputation as the “Depression Herb”.As depression may present both during and after chemotherapy, addressing this with herbs can be extremely beneficial for healing and long-term health. Unfortunately, Saint John’s Wort also strongly influences a specific metabolic pathway in the liver. One of its mechanisms of action is to increase the efficiency of a metabolic pathway in the liver known as the CP450 or CYP450 pathway18. That pathway is also utilized by approximately 80% of pharmaceutical compounds. The effect of the herb for those compounds is to either speed up or slow down how they are metabolized and eliminated. Which means that the drug either stays in the body longer or is eliminated faster and thereby changing the effects felt from it. A professional database will state whether a drug is metabolized through the liver or the kidneys. For those drugs metabolized through the kidneys, SJW is entirely safe given no other potential interactions. Once chemotherapy is complete, SJW may be a tremendous ally for restoring health.
Dang Gui isa traditional tonic herb which supports healthy blood by nourishing and energizing blood. It has been used either singly or in formula by women for centuries to help with menstrual irregularities, perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms. Along with astragalus, it is one of the most widely used herbs for both men and women to support the ability of the blood to nourish the body. However, it contains phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are not estrogens, but in estrogen deficient conditions, they bind to estrogen receptor sites on the cells and exert an estrogenic effect. That’s exactly why the herb works so well for some perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms– and why it is potentially contraindicated for use in anyone with an estrogen dependent cancer. Recent research indicates the risk is not as high as previously thought but more specific studies need to be conducted (17).
Saint John’s Wort (SJW) has gained a popular reputation as the “Depression Herb”.As depression may present both during and after chemotherapy, addressing this with herbs can be extremely beneficial for healing and long-term health. Unfortunately, Saint John’s Wort also strongly influences a specific metabolic pathway in the liver. One of its mechanisms of action is to increase the efficiency of a metabolic pathway in the liver known as the CP450 or CYP450 pathway18. That pathway is also utilized by approximately 80% of pharmaceutical compounds. The effect of the herb for those compounds is to either speed up or slow down how they are metabolized and eliminated. Which means that the drug either stays in the body longer or is eliminated faster and thereby changing the effects felt from it. A professional database will state whether a drug is metabolized through the liver or the kidneys. For those drugs metabolized through the kidneys, SJW is entirely safe given no other potential interactions. Once chemotherapy is complete, SJW may be a tremendous ally for restoring health.
Fortunately, there are a few herbs that support positive emotional states which may be used that do not carry that contraindication. Foremost among them is Albizia aka Mimosa tree. We will discuss this more in Part 3 of this blog, which will be released soon!
One question I am asked a lot is "How are these herbs sourced?"
The herbal supplement market is unregulated by the FDA and unfortunately there is no guarantee that the bottle of pills you purchase off the shelf in a local store contains what the label says, especially if it seems like a ‘good buy’. Plus, the amount of herb needed to reach therapeutic levels is very hard to reach with OTC supplements. The amount needed requires buying so much that any apparent cost saving vanishes. I maintain accounts with several companies with high quality standards that provide product analysis but usually supply
herbs only to practitioners. I will work with you to provide the herbs in the form and quantity that are most appropriate for you. Some herbs are available through companies that supply directly to consumers. For those, I will also work with you if you want to buy your own herbs to recommend quality online resources.
If you or a loved one is going through chemotherapy treatment, I would love to consult regarding your specific symptoms and come up with an individualized plan to meet your specific needs!
Please contact me if you would like to discuss your personal needs or concerns. I can be reached at:
Check out my Healing Arts Alliance Page for more details!
I offer free Introductory Consultations (15-20 minutes) as well as full consultations and follow up sessions. I am in the Be Strong office on East Piedmont most Mondays and offer zoom sessions at your convenience.
*****NONE of the herbs in this section should be used without the full knowledge and consent of your physician and medical team, and with subsequent monitoring by them. Regardless of documented benefits, herbs should be cross checked with all your medications in a professional database for potential herb/drug interactions – both positive and negative. As part of a full consultation, I will perform that cross checking before recommending any herbs.*******
(1) Astragalus | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (mskcc.org)
(2) Extract from Astragalus membranaceus inhibit breast cancer cells proliferation via PI3K/AKT/mTOR signaling pathway - PMC (nih.gov)
(3) Astragalus polysaccharide inhibits breast cancer cell migration and invasion by regulating
epithelialmesenchymal transition via the Wnt/βcatenin signaling pathway (spandidos-publications.com)
(4) Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version - NCI (cancer.gov)
(5) Definition of nonspecific immunomodulating agent - NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms - NCI
(6) Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology - PMC (nih.gov)
(7) Phase 1 Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer - PMC (nih.gov)
(8) Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail Mushrooms) and the Treatment of Breast Cancer - PMC (nih.gov)
(9) Effect of Withaniasomnifera Root Extract on Spontaneous Estrogen Receptor-negative Mammary Cancer in MMTV/Neu Mice | Anticancer Research (iiarjournals.org)
(10) Withania somnifera Root Extract Enhances Chemotherapy through ‘Priming’ - PMC (nih.gov)
Milk thistle - Mayo Clinic