You Finished Treatment, Now What? *Part Five: Botanical Medicine

A Ten Part Series for Cancer Survivors/Thrivers from Your Licensed Naturopathic Doctor

I love plants. I love the way they fill my home and my yard and other natural places, from city parks to natural landscapes where I like to spend time. I cherish bringing plant medicine to the clinic to help patients heal and stay healthy.

Of course plants have been used as medicine since the earliest of recorded history in a myriad of forms. Folk uses of medicinal plants are found everywhere from cave drawings to the Bible and in languages circling the globe. Often it is the woman’s purview, though not always, as knowledge and recipes are handed down the family tree.

It is only in the last few decades that increased interest, resources and scientific rigor have been applied to the study of plant medicine. Particular botanicals I have prescribed for 30 years and more, now have some good quality research to offer explanation as why and how they work.

For cancer patients and survivors there is a growing number of herbs to consider. And of course we know that many pharmaceuticals are derived from the plant world, including some for cancer care such as the vinca alkaloids (vinblastine, vincristine and vindesine) and taxanes (paclitaxel and docetaxel).

Like drugs, there can be serious interactions to be aware of with other plants, medications, food and supplements, so seek guidance beyond Dr. Google. Licensed naturopathic doctors have extensive training in botanical medicine, so if this is something you’re interested in, find a local ND or certified herbalist for guidance to insure appropriateness and safety for you or your loved one.

We use some herbs to help during cancer care, mostly to help prevent or address side effects of treatment. Complaints I have helped patients with include: low blood counts, nausea, sad or anxious mood, sleep troubles, diarrhea, constipation, reflux, sore muscles, skin rashes, mouth sores, pain, brain fog and more. I will write on this topic separately.

For people who have completed treatment, my main focus with botanical medicine is to “mop up,” any persistent side effects from care. I want to help my patient feel restored in particular areas that are often hardest hit, much like the list above, individualizing recommendations to each patient.

We also use botanicals to help prevent further cancer. Many substances derived from plants show anti-cancer activity and carry low side effect profiles; it makes good sense to employ. I should note that I never prescribe herbs as stand-alone treatment. In this series, I write about a number of other approaches. Botanical medicine offerings are contextualized within the right dietary encouragement, the exercise prescription, attention to the emotional world of my patient and other natural medicine tools. That said, for myself and many licensed naturopathic doctors, herbal medicine is a cornerstone of care.

I have a particular affinity for culinary herbs, which are often readily available, affordable and integrate well into the diet. For other plant medicines, I may suggest tea or tincture extract or herbs that have been put in capsule form. I like working with whole herbs for the elements that are perhaps less definable or extractable in the lab, but may nonetheless be at play. That said, many patients prefer botanicals in a more supplement–like format, compressed pills or freeze-dried desiccated material encapsulated, where active ingredients are measured and standardized.

I take into consideration cultural norms, budget and capacity for consistency when I suggesting both which herb to take and in what preparation. The generally anti-cancer herbs I use with most cancer survivors are:

1. For the culinary herbs, my favorite trio is garlic (Allium sativa), tumeric (Curcuma longa,) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). Each has been studied and all show anticancer impact. I encourage patients to use liberally in cooking, grating ginger root and tumeric root into warm oil for a stir-fry. Cooking tip here: these roots freeze well, last a very long time and are easy to grate directly from the freezer. I tell my patients when you’re preparing your cooked vegetable and protein dishes, start with any and all of these three easy-to-find botanicals.

2. Mushrooms (one to consider: Cordycep sp.) are a wonder plant against cancer and can be eaten or taken in pill form. If eaten they should be slightly steamed or sautéed. When eaten raw, it’s difficult to access the medicinal qualities due to the chitin, or outer cell wall layers. But if over-cooked, less of the active components remain. There are other types of mushrooms that have been shown to be especially cancer-preventing and often I prescribe these in combination capsules.

3. Berberine officinalis, derived from Oregon Grape and other plants, is shown to be cytotoxic (cell killing) to cancer cell and to inhibit cell proliferation (the making more cells.) It also helps with blood sugar regulation by enhancing insulin sensitivity. We know this helps to down-regulate certain inflammatory pathways and this in turn is anti-cancer.

4. Astragalus membranaceus, a powerhouse botanical that helps enhance immunity, balance hormones and offer support in times of stress is often on my recommended short list. In the previous installment of this series, I focused on the head game and on the negative impact of incessant stress. For many in our time, there just seems to be an overabundance of stress and a cancer diagnosis or going through treatment does not help. Astragalus an herb for our time.

5. Green tea (Camellia sinensis) preparations, by the cup or taken in pill fashion, caffeinated or not, show clear evidence of cancer preventing mechanisms. Some of my patients do not care for the taste, it’s fine to combine with other preferred flavored herbal teas.

6. Resevratol, derived from the skin of red grapes, blueberries, raspberries and mulberries, could well be put under the dietary supplement part of this series, but I put here as well, as this substance is derivedfrom plants to begin with Resveratol is a strong anti-oxidant and been showed to slow cellular proliferation.

7. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has also done well when studied in both the lab and in people, showing a positive effect with relation to preventing cancer. Ginseng works in many ways, to inhibit tumor formation, supports apoptosis (natural cell death to cancer cells), and inhibits both angiogenesis (the growing of small capillaries to feed cancer cells) and more.

Just as important, it’s essential to know which botanicals NOT to use! For those who had a blood cancer, we are careful not to prescribe botanicals that stimulate immune function like the mushrooms and Astragalus described above and Echinaceae, an immune stimulant herb many people seem to know about. There are others in this category, that I will review with patients as pertinent to their care.

And then because many patients had or continue to have other illnesses beyond cancer, I might use an herbal preparation to help with different, specific problem. In some instances, this allows a patient to discontinue a pharmaceutical, which while not the goal of naturopathic medicine, if we can assist a patient to take one less drug, we should. Lowering drug dosage or helping patients discontinue a medication I did not prescribe is done in communication with the prescribing physician.

A few good examples are:

1. Patients with gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD,) often take proton pump inhibitors PPIs) often do well with licorice root (Glycerrhiza glabra), which soothes the mucous membrane lining of the esophagus. I might also add in Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) lozenges, which also helps. Studies show that Aloe vera juice, if my patient does not mind the slime factor, offers relief. We can use these on a regular basis as a preventive and also for occasional GERD symptoms. It’s good to note here that PPIs, one of the most commonly prescribed medications put’s people at risk for everything from cognitive decline to osteoporosis.

2. In patients struggling with sleep I like to offer lavender in all its many forms. An added benefit is that we may also see an improvement with depression. Huge swaths of patients have become addicting to benzodiazepines to insure sleep and people have a hard time quitting. Herbal medicine within a whole person natural medicine approach can help with withdrawal and can also help address underlying causes of insomnia.You can read here about the naturaopathic medicne apporach to treating insominia.

3. And then for garden-variety illness that most people see at least a few times a year, there are so many herbs to think about. For a sore throat, you can bring back the Slippery elm described above. Elderberry in its many form has shown efficacy in the prevention and treatment of flu and upper respiratory infection.

There are many other complaints that patients have and regardless of the part of the body hurting and based on how the patient experiences their symptoms, there is often an herbal medicine to help.

So, while you are working to create a plan for health and vitality, remember the power of herbs. Seek advice from a knowledgeable person who has experience working with cancer survivors. Be sure to share all other supplements and medications you might be taking, to insure prevention of unwanted interactions. And the next time you’re out and about and enjoying the green living plants around you, give a small nod to the role plants play in healing and vitality.

Additional pieces in this series:

FieldNotes From Natural Medicine

Stories from the World of Natural Medicine

Amy Rothenberg ND

Written by

American Association of Naturopathic Physician’s 2017 Physician of the Year. Teacher, writer and advocate for healthy living. www.nhcmed.com

FieldNotes From Natural Medicine

Stories from the World of Natural Medicine