Herb Shows Cancer Prevention and Treatment Promise

Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2007
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Echinacea significantly diminishes leukemia and extends lives in animal models by Jeni Baker, Cancer Monthly Staff Writer

When it comes to warding off illness, the sooner intruders can be stopped, the better. Our bodies’ natural killer (NK) cells are up to the task, but we have to treat them right.

Echinacea (eh-ki-NAY-sha), a perennial herb, has been shown in animal studies to significantly diminish leukemia and extend the lives of aging and leukemic mice by stimulating NK cells.

“We’re getting cancer all the time”

Some basics about cell biology are in order to explain why Echinacea works.

The body’s first line of defense, NK cells are always on the lookout for the cell-surface irregularities that occur in intruders – from cancer cells to the cells that contain viruses, such as flus, colds, and other bugs that are constantly trying to penetrate our bodies.

NK cell production is at its lowest when we’re very young and very old, which is when many cancers and other illnesses are the most prevalent.

Although efficient and effective at preventing and slowing diseases like cancer, NK cells are very primitive, says Sandra C. Miller, PhD, of McGill University, and live for only a couple days – “not long enough to be ‘educated’ by immunizations.”

“This which is why we can’t vaccinate against things like viruses and cancers mediated by viruses – and many such cancers are becoming evident with advancing knowledge,” Miller says. “We’re getting cancer all the time, but it gets spontaneously destroyed by NK cells before it can develop into a tumor.”

“We’re finding that many cancers are brought on by latent viruses,” Miller says, “and that most cancer is nothing but the activation of a latent virus already existing in our own DNA.”

Where does Echinacea come in?

Echinacea contains two families of compounds that stimulate NK cells: alkylamides and polysaccharides.

Alkylamides are anti-prostaglandins, “which cause our NK cells to take a giant leap forward,” Miller says. (Prostaglandins are fatty compounds in our bodies that pummel our immune systems by wreaking havoc on NK cells.) Polysaccharides – which also boost NK cells – are another beneficial compound found in Echinacea.

In short, alkylamides and polysaccharides work with other ingredients contained in Echinacea to stimulate “precious NK cells,” Miller says. Although her studies have looked at mice, the implications for humans are promising, “given that humans are 97% genetically common with mice, and virtually all our basic physiology is identical.”

These are just a few of the findings from Miller’s large body of Echinacea research:

• Echinacea-consuming, normal, young adult mice have a significantly longer life span than comparable mice who do not consume the herb.

• Echinacea-consuming leukemic mice have a very significant “cure” rate. Some (originally leukemic) cured mice pairs have gone on to produce normal, healthy litters.

• Echinacea-consuming mice, whether healthy or leukemic, all have significantly elevated levels of NK cells that are present as long as the mice are eating Echinacea in their daily diets.

Echinacea, therefore, appears to have both preventive and therapeutic applications in mice – and could in humans, as well. For example, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments are suppressing and “paralyzing” their immune systems, Miller says, making it easier for cancer to grow and spread to other organs.

More than anything, she says, “cancer patients need immuno-enhancers. Chemotherapy and radiation devastate our immune systems when we need them most.”

A cautionary word: Some people should NOT take Echinacea

There are some people who should not consider using Echinacea.

If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, you absolutely should not take Echinacea, Miller cautions. Findings she published in 2006 show that Echinacea use in mice – particularly during the first trimester – resulted in a much higher than normal incidence of spontaneous abortions.

(It makes sense: A fertilized egg is foreign to the body. Fortunately, the normal female body is wired to “hold back” NK cells during pregnancy.)

“Don’t go near Echinacea if you’re trying to become pregnant,” she says, adding, “as an isolated precautionary note, people with auto-immune problems should avoid Echinacea until more studies have been done.”

And, if you think or know you have allergies to flowers of the Ester family (to which Echinacea belongs) you probably should not expose yourself to Echinacea, or you’ll come down with the typical symptoms of allergies.

Aside from these restricted populations, there is no evidence of toxicity in Echinacea, says Miller, who has been taking it twice a day since 1994 and “never get[s] sick.” People considering taking Echinacea should always speak with their doctors first.

“The whole issue about whether we get cancer or not is about avoiding things that are toxic to our immune systems, and doing things that enhance it,” says Miller. “Echinacea helps strengthen our immune systems – and that’s how we fight everything, including cancer.”

* Miller SC, Echinacea: A Miracle Herb Against Aging and Cancer? Evidence in Vivo in Mice, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Sep; 2(3):309-14.