Eleutherococcus senticosus (often referred to as “Siberian ginseng”), belonging to the family Araliaceae, is a distant relative of Korean or Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng). Eleutherococcus was originally used by people in the Siberian Taiga region to increase performance and quality of life and decrease infections.Based on this historical use, Eleutherococcus became the focus of clinical research in Russia during the last three decades. Today, more that 1 000 papers have been published on Eleutherococcus (primarily in Russian) and current estimates indicate that approximately 5 million people in the USSR use Eleutherococcus on a daily basis.
The primary reason for the widespread use of Eleutherococcus in Russia and its growing use here in the United States, is its ability to act as an “adaptogen”. This term, which was coined by the Russian scientists Drs Brekhman and I.V. Dardymov, describes the plant’s ability to increase resistance to stress and provide a balancing effect regardless of the direction of the condition – either excess or deficiency.
This action is based on the ability of the active components of Eleutherococcus to concentrate in the adrenal glands and support their function during times of stress. This has made Eleutherococcus particularly useful for persons under considerable daily stress – both mental and physical. Its ability to increase endurance has also made it part of the daily supplement routine of many Russian athletes.
Support for Cancer patients
Among the more clinically applicable findings in Russia with regard to Eleutherococcus has been its value as a supportive tool in the treatment of cancer. Several oncology institutes in the U.S.S.R. have reported success in improving the general health of patients with cancer and reducing the chances of metastasis (the development of secondary tumors). Even more dramatic was the ability of Eleuthero-coccus to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in cancer patients.
One study, carried out at the Institute of Oncology in Georgia (USSR) examined the effects of daily oral supplementation of 2 cc of liquid, Eleutherococcus extract in women with a diagnosis of breast cancer. A group of 80 patients was chosen, all of whom had gone through surgery for their cancer and were receiving both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Half the woman received the Eleutherococcus extract while the other group received no additional treatment. The patients in the Eleutherococcus group showed a significant reduction in the side effects to the radiation and chemotherapeutic treatments (i.e. nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite). The reduction in side effects to standard cancer therapy allows for higher doses of these agents to be used in difficult cases. Similar results and also a long term improvement in appetite as well as enhanced healing time were found by Dr T.M. Khatishvill in his study using Eleutherococcus with oral cancer patients.
In addition to its supportive use in cancer therapy, Eleutherococcus had also been shown to be useful adjunct in hastening the cure of chronic conditions such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Following serious operations, it has also been shown to hasten healing time, reduce complications and shorten the length of the hospital stay.
Prevention of Viral Illness
Popular definition of Eleutherococcus as a stimulant and anti-stress agent, has clouded the growing evidence of its usefulness in the prevention of viral illness. Several studies in Russia (summarized in a paper by Dr Brekhman entitled, “Eleutherococcus: 20 years of research and clinical appli-cation”, presented May 29, 1980 at the 1st International Symposium on Eleutherococcus in Hamburg) have indicated that the use of Eleutherococcus greatly reduced the incidence of influenza and colds. In the winter of 1972 – 1973, over 1 000 workers of the Norlisk mining and smelting plant received Eleutherococcus on a daily basis. When compared to co-workers not receiving the extract, they demonstrated a greater than two-fold reduction in the incidence of influenza and acute respiratory disease.
Drs M.P. Zykov and S.F. Protasova of the Research Institute of Influenza in Leningrad have actually suggested the Eleutherococcus either be used in combination with influenza vaccinations of by itself in the prevention of influenza – particularly in high-risk populations. Also noted was a decrease in post vaccination reactions in persons supplemented with the extract. The use of Eleutherococcus appears to enhance the body’s immune response to viral attack and thus is a sensible adjunct during cold and flu season.
Expanding of the adaptogenic and antiviral properties of Eleutherococcus, is new evidence (see 1987 study below) which suggests that the extract has the ability to selectively increase important components of the immune system known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes act as the bodies primary defense against viral infection and have become the focus of study particularly with regard to HIV (human immune deficiency virus) infection. Recent research has focused on agents which possess the ability to enhance certain subsets of lymphocytes. These agents have been coined “Immunomodulators”. Eleutherococcus and Astragalus (a Chinese herb) are two identified immunomodulators from the plant kingdom.
A German clinical study (Arzheim-Forsch Drug Res, 1987) served to introduce Eleutherococcus as an immunomodulator. Thirty-six healthy volunteers participated in a double-blind study in which half the group received Eleutherococcus and the other half placebo. The study measured lymphocyte activity in the two groups. The researchers found that the Eleutherococcus group showed a general enhancement of the activation of T-Lymphocytes (i.e. T-cells) and more specifically a marked increase in T-lymphocytes of the helper inducer type. Also known as “CD4 cells”, T-helper lymphocytes trigger the body’s immune response against infection. Without them, the rest of the immune system cannot function properly. It is interesting to note that the T-lymphocytes of the helper inducer type are specifically those that decreased significantly in HIV-infection and the progression to AIDS.
The authors of this study conclude, “In view of the most recent state of knowledge, one might speculate about a positive effect of Eleutherococcus in very early stages of HIV (AIDS virus) infection by preventing or retarding the spread of the virus, mediated by a synergistic action of elevated numbers of helper and cylotoxic T-cells.”
Use in the HIV-infection
Ultimately their conclusion did not go unnoticed Dr N. Weger, a medical doctor and researcher in Germany, had a long history of work with the liquid Eleutherococcus extract used in the Russian studies.
While working with the liquid Eleutherococcus extract, Dr Weger also became aware of another medicine which was approved for use with cancer patients in Germany. This medicine is a natural glandular extract consisting of highly refined polypeptides. The poly-peptide extract had shown the ability to increase lymphocytes, reverse weight loss and increase subjective well-being in cancer patients with depressed immune systems.
Dr Weger postulated that the combination of the liquid Eleutherococcus extract and the polypeptide extract would be beneficial for AIDS patients. Since both substances had been shown to be virtually non-toxic, he set about testing the combination in HIV-infected patients.
The combination product was administered to five HIV-infected individuals for four to eight weeks. The results found significant increases in T-helper lymphocyte (CD4 cells) counts averaging 95%! All of the patients showed improved subjective well-being, weight gain, and elimination of diarrhea and respiratory congestion. No side effects were experienced. One patient actually showed a 20 pound weight gain in eight weeks after significant weight loss over the preceding months prior to the study. The combination product was tested during an 18 monthly trail in Tanzania with a larger population of HIV-infected patients. The results of this study were equally impressive.
Thanks to the work and insight of Dr Weger, the combination of Eleutherococcus and the polypeptide extract are being used successfully by several individuals with HIV-infection in this country and abroad. Clinical research continues both in the United States and Africa. The combination product has also found applications with cancer patients as well as individuals suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Thus, while historical application and Russian research point to Eleutherococcus as one of our most effective tools against stress and viral illness, new research has opened the door for its use with populations with chronic illness. It is important to note that the extract used in the Russian studies and later in Dr Weger’s work is a liquid extract of Eleutherococcus. Eleutherococcus senticosus, as opposed to Korean or Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) can be safely taken by woman without interference of their menstrual cycles or masculinizing effects. When possible, individuals with cancer, HIV-infection, or chronic fatigue syndrome should opt for the combination of the liquid Eleutherococcus and the polypeptides extract.
Dr Donald Brown is a naturopathic physician practicing in Seattle, Washington.