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Can Naturopathic Remedies Fight Cancer, Hot Flashes?
by: Kathleen Doheny

Advocates for naturopathic remedies say their treatments may help fight menopausal symptoms, depression and even cancer.

For example, "bio-identical hormone therapy" looks promising for relieving the symptoms of menopause, one study found, while an age-old herbal remedy for cancer is proving effective -- at least in the laboratory and in animals.

That's according to naturopathic physicians presenting their research at the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians annual meeting, held earlier this month in Portland. Ore.

Naturopathic physicians are trained in "natural" health care at accredited medical colleges, according to the AANP. Their approach is based on the belief that it is the nature of all things to return to balance. Treatments include dietary changes, counseling for lifestyle modification, herbal medicine, nutritional supplements and homeopathy.

"Bio-identical hormones," a natural alternative to synthetic hormone replacement therapy, were effective in reducing the symptoms of menopause and perimenopause, said lead researcher Dr. Jan M. Siebert, a naturopathic physician in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

She gave the hormone regimen, including estradiol/estriol via a skin cream or in drops, plus a progesterone cream and a multivitamin, to 50 women who were either menopausal or perimenopausal. Siebert's group then followed the women's progress for one year.

"Eighty-two percent of the women showed improvement in estrogen-related symptoms, such as hot flashes," she said. "Seventy-four percent showed improvement in progesterone-related symptoms such as irritability and water retention."

Siebert also looked at symptoms related to low thyroid functioning, which can affect women at menopause. "When the thyroid starts to have problems, it can cause a state of depression and weight gain," she explained. In the study, "44 percent showed improvement with thyroid-related symptoms and 8 percent got worse. The other 48 percent had no change."

What is needed next, Seibert said, is a large, randomized trial of natural hormone therapy to see if it works as well as synthetic hormone therapy without the side effects. Long-term hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with synthetic estrogen and progesterone boosts risks for breast cancer and stroke, as the large-scale Women's Health Initiative study found. That study was stopped early in 2002, and its troubling results caused many older women to abandon HRT.

"This is a great start in terms of providing preliminary evidence of benefits for menopausal concerns," said Dr. Wendy Weber, a research assistant professor of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University, Seattle, who was not involved with Siebert's study but is familiar with its findings.

"Based on this study, it seems there is likely to be benefits, but we are still lacking [data on] the efficacy and safety." And, she noted, the study did not have a control group, which would have allowed a direct head-to-head comparison of bio-identical and synthetic hormones.

The study is "interesting" but not surprising, added Dr. Rick Frieder, a gynecologist at Santa Monica--UCLA Medical Center and a clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

"It doesn't convey anything new," he said. Whether hormone replacement is synthetic or the more natural "bio-identical" compounds, he said, they are known to be effective in improving the symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes. One drawback to the study, he said, is that they studied several products and doses, rather than take a more scientific approach, such as comparing one dose of bio-identical hormones to the same dose of synthetic drugs.

In another study presented at the meeting, the herbal formula Essiac -- used by cancer patients for decades -- was found to have some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity as well as the ability to kill cancer cells in the laboratory, said Deborah Kennedy, the lead author of the laboratory study and a co-author of another study looking at the effect of the remedy in animals. The studies were funded by the maker of Essiac.

Kennedy found that the formula, when used on ovarian and prostate cancer cell lines, did kill the cells. "We were able to slow down and cause the ovarian and prostate cancer cell lines to die," she said.

When the formula was used in animals, they found it protected the stomach but did not boost the immune system significantly.

"The in vivo [lab] study found antioxidant activity," noted Dr. Christine Girard, chief medical officer at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz., who chaired the research committee for the meeting.

She called the results "encouraging," and noted that the formula also appeared to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

"It's a good first step," she said, but added that it's tough to translate animal results to humans. In the animal study, the formula did demonstrate gastric protection and protection to the liver, she said.

Not everyone is convinced Essiac fights cancer. The American Cancer Society declined comment, noting that the study had not undergone peer review and was merely submitted for presentation at a meeting. On its Web site, however, the ACS cautions that, "There have been no published clinical trials showing the effectiveness of Essiac in the treatment of cancer." While it notes that some of the herbs in the mixture have shown anti-cancer effect in lab studies, it notes that no scientific evidence exists to support its use in humans with cancer.

Study after study, conducted in animals by researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and other prestigious institutions, have concluded there is no evidence the formula works, according to the American Cancer Society.

In other presentations at the meeting:

* A researcher at the University of Toronto warned that St. John's wort, a popular herb used to treat depression symptoms, should be used with caution by pregnant and breast-feeding women, as it can interact with some medications prescribed during pregnancy and may cause colic or drowsiness in babies. The study received no outside funding.
* Another Canadian study found that naturopathic care -- acupuncture, relaxation exercises and diet and lifestyle changes -- relieved low back pain better than standard care in a study of 80 Canadian postal workers. Low back pain declined by 20 percent in the naturopathic group after the 12-week study but increased 8.8 percent in a group receiving standard care. The study was sponsored by the Canadian government and the postal workers union.
* A team at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine found that three common herbs -- Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus membranaceus and Glycyrrhiza glabra -- helped boost key lymphocytes in the blood, which are the basic building blocks of the immune system. In the study, 16 healthy people were assigned to get an herb only, all three, or a placebo. Each got a 7.5 milliliter dose twice daily for seven days. Blood tests showed all three herbs boosted the immune system. The study was funded by a grant from the American Medical Association.

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