Prostate CancerThe Chinese herb Prunella vulgaris (PV) may prove an effective treatment for women with endometriosis and certain types of cancer because of its anti-estrogen properties, according to research published in the November 5 issue of the journal, Biology of Reproduction.

Although the female hormone, estrogen is crucial to reproduction, it can have some negative side effects, fueling the abnormal cell growth that occurs in diseases such as endometriosis and cancer. To treat these diseases, doctors have turned to tamoxifen and other anti-estrogen medications, but these drugs can have significant side effects.

In their search for an alternative to anti-estrogen medications, researchers in Greenville, South Carolina focused their attention on several possible herbal remedies. “We had 20 herbs in the lab that included Prunella vulgaris,” says Bruce Lessey, MD, PhD, vice chair of Research, and director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Greenville Hospital System. PV is found in Europe and Asia and is often used to treat painful periods. “There had been one study previously suggesting that a related herb, Prunella stica, had anti-estrogen properties. So we screened the herbs, and this one really jumped out.”

When Dr. Lessey and his colleagues tested the herb on endometrial cancer cells, they discovered that it significantly reduced the cancer cells’ growth. In mice implanted with human endometriosis, PV also reduced the number of abnormal endometrial tissue growths. The herb was just as potent as a synthetic anti-estrogen drug used in the study. The only side effect researchers have noted in ongoing human studies of PV has been an increase in headaches in some women.

There were concerns that, because of its anti-estrogen properties, PV might negatively impact fertility. Yet PV had virtually no effect on the fertility of female mice tested in the study. In fact, the researchers say the herb might actually improve the odds of conception in women who are struggling with infertility due to endometriosis, because it blocks the harmful actions of estrogen that can interfere with embryo attachment and implantation.

The benefits and low risks of PV make it a promising therapy for diseases like endometriosis and cancer. “My interest in the herb is the fact that we can block the action of estrogen and do it in a way that has very few side effects,” Dr. Lessey says. “So this might be beneficial as an adjunct treatment for patients who have had breast cancer or endometrial cancer to help prevent a recurrence.”

“I think PV will find a place, because women will accept it because it’s herbal and therefore natural, and probably they’ll have greater access to it,” he adds. PV, also known as “Self Heal,” is readily available in health food stores as a dried herb that can be made into a tea.

Upcoming studies will help clarify what role PV might have in treating endometriosis and cancer. “It really does not seem to be at all harmful, and because it seems to be a potent anti-estrogen, it deserves future research,” Dr. Lessey says.

If you are interested in using PV you should consult with your healthcare provider.

Collins NH, Lessey EC, DuSell CD, McDonnell Dp, Fowler L, Palomino WA, Illera MJ, YuX, Mo B, Houwing AM, Lessey BA. Characterization of anti-estrogenic activity of the Chinese Herb, Prunella vulgaris, using In Vitro and In Vivo (Mouse Xenograft) Models. Biol Reprod. 2008 Nov 5.

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