When it was originally created by a Canadian Ojibwa healer, the herbal mixture Essiac was generally intended to purify the body and restore/maintain balance between body and spirit. Since the 1920s, it has been found more specifically to have significant biological activity in laboratory experiments, namely antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune strengthening effects, among others. These biological effects all contribute to Essiac’s usefulness as an adjunctive treatment for various types of cancer.

Essiac became used for cancer treatment starting in the 1920s when Canadian nurse Rene Caisse met a breast cancer patient who claimed that her cancer was cured after treatment with Essiac. Over the next 50 years, Caisse experimented and tried to perfect the essiac tea recipe, all the time treating active cancer patients and pursuing formal research to support Essiac’s use.

Benefits of the Individual Ingredients

Since Essiac tea is considered a nutritional supplement, rather than a drug, it is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug administration, and thus the exact composition and concentration of ingredients can vary from company to company. However, the four generally accepted essiac tea ingredients found in nearly all commercial preparations are:

  • Burdock root (Rheum palmatum),
  • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella),
  • Slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva),
  • Turkey rhubarb (Rheum pamatum).

Individually, the herbs contained in Essiac have been shown to have the aforementioned biological effects. Additionally, molecules called anthraquinones, which are found in sheep sorrel and turkey rhubarb, and glycosides, found in sheep sorrel, are commonly found in different types of chemotherapy regimens. Burdock root has been shown to protect against mutagenesis in cells, which is a cancer precursor. Fatty acids found in slippery elm and burdock root are also thought to contribute to antitumor activity. The individual constituents have also been shown to have anti-estrogenic effects, which may be therapeutic in estrogen-responsive breast cancer.

Benefits of Essiac Tea

The first comprehensive laboratory investigation into the health benefits of Essiac was published in 2007 in the International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment, with several insights on the biomolecular basis for Essiac’s usefulness in cancer treatment. The study looked at Essiac’s cell killing abilities, and showed that Essiac was significantly more specific and potent in killing of multiple types of tumor cells compared to normal, healthy cells, which is supported by several other studies. It was also shown to decrease activation of pro-tumor molecules.

While these effects have been demonstrated in the laboratory, on isolated cells and using standardized toolkits, no randomized, controlled, clinical studies have been conducted on patients with active cancer to support its efficacy as cancer treatment compared to standard medical treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery).
Rather, the clinical evidence for Essiac’s anticancer activity remains anecdotal and based on individual experiences. These stories of improvement on Essiac share common themes of improved quality of life, less pain, better sleep, appetite, and energy, plus perceived slowing of cancer progression.

It is important to understand that despite many success stories, essiac alone should not be expected to cure a person’s cancer. It should be considered one of many weapons in the fight against cancer. Essiac tea is an excellent compliment to an anti-cancer diet, other natural treatments, lifestyle change, and is also commonly used to counteract side effects from conventional treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Essiac has been growing in popularity as an adjunctive treatment to standard medical treatment for cancer for the past century. And while several laboratory studies have shown the anti-cancer activity of both individual components of Essiac and of the Essiac mixture, no clinical studies have been conducted to support its use as cancer treatment.

On an exciting note, though, a clinical study to be conducted by the University of Texas-Center for Alternative Medicine and Tzu-Chi Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is being planned. Many hope that the results of this study will provide the clinical data supporting Essiac tea that generations have been waiting for.