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Revisiting the Ashitaba and other anticancer herbs

/ 12:15 AM October 10, 2015

A patient whom I’ve not seen for a good number of years came back looking great, with no recurrence of shortness of breath and easy fatigability that she came to our clinic for.

She was also previously diagnosed to have early (stage 1) breast cancer, for which she underwent surgery, but refused any anticancer chemotherapy after the surgery.

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Laboratory examinations and referral to her previous oncologist (cancer specialist) were done and she passed all tests and consultations with flying colors.

She said she just continued all the medications we prescribed her, but she also attributed her wellbeing to an herb she regularly took—the Ashitaba plant.

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We reminded her that it’s not a good practice to just continue taking one’s medicines without periodic checkup, because frequently, the doses may have to be adjusted, or some medicines may have to be discontinued or replaced.

As for the Ashitaba, I admitted to her my knowledge gap on the subject and that I could not really make an expert recommendation whether it’s good, has no effect, or might even be harmful.

My research assistant at the office quickly browsed the scientific literatures on this plant. She came back to me with no clinical data, but she brought back experimental or laboratory researches showing that it might  address various common ailments including infections, ulcers and cancers.

Potent antioxidant

It has a scientific name—Angelica keiskei—and the herb grows primarily in Japan, but it can also be grown here. Its root, leaf and stem are used to extract potent antioxidants and other medicinal chemicals.

The fresh leaves can be eaten, and be mixed with other vegetables or fruit salads.

Among the available published researches on Ashitabla is a study by Ogawa H., Nakashima S. and Baba K. showing the effects of Ashitaba  on cholesterol metabolism in a stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive group of subjects. However, the research group subjected to the herb was not humans, but rats. Another Japanese group validated the study, also in rats.

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Another Japanese group—researchers Tabata K., Motani K., Takayanagi N., et al.—also showed beneficial effects of an active ingredient of Ashitaba, xanthoangelol, in certain types of tumors (neuroblastoma) and also in leukemia cells.

Inamori Y. et al. showed beneficial effects of the herb as an antibacterial agent. Two ingredients called chalcones—xanthoangelol and 4-hydroxyderricin—were attributed as the source of this beneficial effect in infections.

A study by a Korean group (Kang M.H. et al.) in smokers showed a protective effect against the harmful effects of nicotine on peripheral lymphocytes and other cellular structures which can damage the cell’s DNA. When the DNA is damaged, it can create havoc in the tissues which may lead to cancer.

Evidence

So, by what we can gather, there seems to be basic or experimental evidence showing that the herb  have some beneficial effects, but again we can’t say for sure if these would translate to actual clinical benefits in humans.

Locally, our scientists are also evaluating the anticancer effect of several indigenous plants, fruits and herbs.

Dr. Sonia Jacinto, an anticancer natural products professor from the University of the Philippines Diliman, has conducted several researches, and one of these is the study titled “Philippine Plants Showing Cytotoxic Activity to Selected Human Cancer Cell lines,” which aimed to identify and isolate compounds responsible for the cancer-killing action of the plant extracts.

Dr. Jacinto and her team of researchers cultured cancer cells in the laboratory and treated them with the plant extracts to find out the latter’s impact on cancer cell growth. The rationale was that if the cancer cells grew, then the study is unsuccessful. If the cancer cells died, it is a good indication to proceed to the next stage.

Promising findings

According to Dr. Jacinto’s researches, there are already promising findings from the plant Annona squamosa, commonly known as the atis. The doctor added that Annona squamosa is a close relative of Annona muricata, or the guyabano, which is known to be rich in Murihexocin C, an anticancer agent.

Aside from atis and guyabano, akapulko, or the Cassia alata, a herbal medicine with antimicrobial properties, also showed anticancer potential. Dr. Jacinto’s research group tested akapulko’s cancer-killing properties against several cancer cell lines, and found it favorable and promising.

In identifying the active compound responsible for the anticancer effects, the research team has isolated a mixture of polyunsaturated fatty acid esters—which may be the key substrate which pharmaceutical companies can try to develop into cancer chemotherapeutic agents.

Researches on these herbs with anticancer properties should proceed to the clinical phase, with them being tried on actual cancer patients, in addition to (not as a replacement of) standard anticancer treatments. If they could be shown to have additional benefits to the patient, then this should be a most welcome development.

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TAGS: akapulko, anticancer herbs, ashitaba, atis, guyabano, Health
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