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Cancer: An Odyssey Part 4: Essiac Tea, The Noble Hector

“Be men now, dear friends, and take up the heart of courage, and have consideration for each other in the strong encounters, since more come through alive when men consider each other.”

— Agamemnon, The Iliad

Moving into Part 4, we come to a therapy I have known about since I was a young child. It has always been interesting discussing it, as I have seen its efficacy first hand on both family members and family friends. Yet, growing up, I was unable to adequately explain both the mechanisms of how it worked, nor the reasons for why knowledge of it was not more widespread.

Unfortunately, while it may at times appear to be delving into tin-foil hat territory, this does not dissuade my belief that this is one of the most effective therapies in combatting cancer.

The therapy in question is the herbal preparation known as Essiac. It was named after Rene Caisse, a Canadian nurse who first popularized it (Essiac, thus, is her name spelled backwards).

Now, she had quite the interesting life, well beyond what we will be able to discuss in this short article here, but if you are interested in finding out the whole story, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Calling of an Angel, by Dr. Gary Glum.

That being said, the short version is that she encountered an old Native American collection of herbs that were effective at combatting cancer. In the process of trying to get this treatment out there, she ran afoul of the Canadian government for her refusal to give up the formula, without the assurance that it wouldn't be bought out by pharmaceutical companies, resulting in exorbitant price gouging or being shelved as “ineffective.”

Now, it would be easy to assume that she did this to reap the financial benefits for herself. Interestingly, however, similar to what Agamemnon stated while trying to rally the Greeks back to battle, Caisse “had consideration for others” and felt that “more would come through alive” by literally giving away the treatment for free. She actually refused to charge for her work!

Having established all of that, lets dive into the protocol itself. Following our hero metaphor structure, I can thing of no better analog for Essiac than the mighty warrior, Hector of Troy.

Prince Hector was the perfect foil for Achilles, brave, yet dedicated to his family and country, he was willing to do anything to protect them both. Both were able to wreck havoc upon their enemy, but while Achilles did so for his own self-interest, Hector wanted nothing more than to maintain the status quo.

Similarly, while in Part 3, we used Achilles to describe oxygen therapy, and the subsequent production of free radicals, as a potentially destructive force for both the initiation and treatment of cancer, Essiac, as a therapy at its core, has an ability to help maintain bodily homeostasis.

However, just as Hector and Achilles shared the character flaw of excessive pride, oxygen therapy and two of the herbs in Essiac, act by the same mechanism of increasing free radical damage to cancer cells.

So, what exactly are those herbs?

Well, while there are a number of preparations currently on the market, the original formula, as used by Caisse, consists of the four herbs: burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm, and rhubarb [1, 2].

But let's dive into each individually before coming back to the preparation as a whole.

Burdock Root

Burdock root has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine as a “blood purifier,” but also exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, antimicrobial and free radical scavenging properties [3, 4].

In Part 2, we discussed how the PI3KAkt/mTor pathway is turned on as part of the metabolic changes exhibited by cancer cells. Well, arctigenin, a lignan found in burdock, has shown the ability to block the activation of this signaling pathway during glucose starvation and selectively sensitize cancer cells to apoptosis (programmed cell death) [5, 6, 7]!! Moreover, arctigenin may improve blood glucose and blood lipid regulation [6, 8].

Finally, as a teaser to Part 5 of this series, burdock has beneficial effects on the immune system by modulating macrophage production, controlling pathogenic bacteria and fungi, and improving intestinal barrier function, particularly by way of its constituent tannins, polyacetylenes, chlorogenic acid and arctigenin [1, 3, 9, 10].

Sheep Sorrel

Sheep sorrel was traditionally used by native tribes in the United States and Canada for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects [1].

The primary active compounds in sheep sorrel are known as anthraquinones, particularly emodin, which we will discuss more in the rhubarb section. These compounds exhibit cytotoxic and antimutagenic properties in cancer cells [11, 12].

There are a number of potential mechanisms in the literature by which emodin can affect proliferation, including the inhibition of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and excision repair cross-complementary 1 (ERCC1), as well as inactivation of the PI3K/Akt and extracellular-signal-regulated kinases 1/2 [ERK 1/2] signaling pathways [13, 14]. This process is thought to be mediated by increased oxidative damage to the cancer cells.

Our good friend Achilles from Part 3 strikes again!

Many species in the Rumex genus, to which sheep sorrel belongs, exhibit benefits in combatting cancer [15, 16]. In fact, just a new study was published just last month on the antitumor and anti-angiogenesis properties of its cousin, Rumex hastatus [17].

Moreover, similar to the burdock root, sheep sorrel can likely support the immune system as it appears to have antibacterial and antiviral properties [18, 19].

Slippery Elm

Slippery elm has a long history of traditional use by native tribes in North America for coughs and lung disturbances, fever, inflammation, gastrointestinal issues and cancer [1].

Unfortunately, slippery elm has the least literature support regarding its efficacy. That being said, it does appear to exhibit a demulcent effect, whereby it can decrease intestinal inflammation by supporting the mucosal layer [20]. This is essential for proper maintenance of the gut microbiome and subsequent regulation of immune and inflammatory processes.

To support this, there is quite a bit of evidence that its botanical cousin, Ulmus davidiana var. japonika, possesses anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory and anti-cancer properties [21, 22, 23, 24]. Similarly, extracts of Ulmus laevis also exhibit cytotoxic effects in cancer cells [25].

Additionally, slippery elm is a rich source of procyanidins, the class of flavonoids most commonly associated with the antioxidant and anti-cancer benefits of apples, black tea, coffee, chocolate, grapes, green tea and wine; the mechanism here is once again, downregulation of the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway, inducing cancer cell apoptosis [26].

Turkey Rhubarb

Turkey rhubarb has a long history of traditional use for digestive issues, particularly in relief for constipation [1].

Similar to sheep sorrel, turkey rhubarb is also a rich source of anthraquinones, including emodin, chrysophanol, physicon and rhein [27, 28]. As such, some of their primary anti-cancer mechanisms are by inhibiting TNF-α, as well as the ERK 1/2 and PI3K/Akt signaling pathways [27]. However, turkey rhubarb also has specific evidence for a role in downregulating nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) [27, 28, 29].

Much of the evidence supporting the anti-cancer effectiveness of emodin is derived from studies examining extracts of turkey rhubarb and its botanical cousins [30, 31, 32, 33, 34]. As to be expected, our good friend Achilles strikes again insomuch as emodin is also linked to increased free radical production selectively inside cancer cells [14, 31, 32].

Interestingly, there is research using rhubarb extracts as an adjunct to radiatiotherapy to ameliorate radiation-induced damage, with a proposed mechanism of decreasing transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) [35, 36]; these molecules also play a role in cell proliferation and metastasis, thus providing another potential anti-cancer mechanism.

Additionally, rhubarb appears to decrease intestinal and pulmonary permeability, by decreasing inflammation and improving epithelial wall integrity [37, 38]. This has a wide variety of beneficial effects, but the most important of which is again for the proper maintenance of the gut microbiome and subsequent immune modulation.

In fact, rhubarb has shown efficacy at inhibiting bacterial translocation, whereby pathogenic organisms are able to invade the blood and other organs [38]!

Finally, a common major complication in individuals with cancer is opioid-induced constipation [39]. This is yet another area in which rhubarb shines, insomuch as as it exhibits laxative effects [27, 40].

“Come then, let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us: ‘These two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted.’”

— Hector of Troy, The Iliad

Now, while Hector spoke those words to the warrior Ajax (more on him in Part 5), it is clear to see the parallel here in our analogy for the relationship between Achilles and Hector. On the one hand we have oxygen therapy (Achilles), which has the explicit goal of increasing free radical damage and oxidative stress in the cancer cells. On the other, we have Essiac (Hector), which exhibits both antioxidant and provident effects.

While Achilles was a loose cannon that could unleash damage to either side, Hector took a more measured approach and used whatever methods he needed to defeat his enemy. In the case of Essiac, it may enhance the oxidative resistance of the normal, healthy cells, while demonstrating cytotoxic effects through oxidative stress on cancer cells.

Now unfortunately, as I addressed earlier, Essiac has the least established clinical efficacy in human trials. Most of the research addressed here was done in vitro, on the cancer cells themselves. Part of the problem is a lack of financial interest in researching the formula and its constituents more in depth, but the other is one we discussed in Part 1: operating from a broken paradigm.

By pairing Essiac with a calorie restricted-ketogenic diet, the effects are likely to work synergistically. Both work by improving blood sugar regulation and by enhancing the ability of healthy cells to resist oxidative stress, while simultaneously damaging cancer cells.

By combining the various therapies we have discussed and will be in the future installments of this series, we hope to establish a framework by which to defeat our great enemy.

“I was planning so that things would come out the best way, and trying to find some release from death... combining all my resource... as with life at stake, for the great evil was very close to us.”

— Odysseus, The Odyssey


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