Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Patients undergoing chemotherapy, the use of chemical compounds toxic to tumors, experience both healing and severe side effects from the treatments. In addition, they often experience stress and stress-caused discomforts associated with life-threatening illness. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can offer relief from nausea and pain, boost the immune system, and help patients reduce their stress through both herbal and physical interventions.

What are Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

Widely experienced side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, fatigue, weight gain and loss, hair loss, bone and tissue thinning, sleep loss, and stress. Chemotherapy can cause significant damage to the immune system, making patients more susceptible to opportunistic infections. Chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with radiation treatment, in which tumors are bombarded with radiation, itself a cause of some of the same side effects as chemotherapy.

What Treatment Approaches does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Offer for Chemotherapy Side Effects?

The goal of treatment in Chinese medicine is to restore the individual's essential balance – of mind, body, and energy. Every person’s experience with disease is unique, and treatment must be likewise uniquely designed for each individual. Many patients use alternative therapies in addition to their standard conventional treatments.

While many Chinese medicine treatments have been used for thousands of years, scientific research on herbal and dietary formulas is relatively recent. Studies done in Europe, the United States, Canada, India, China, and Japan have identified active compounds in various herbs, mushrooms and plants that have bioactive properties and some efficacy against nausea and tumors. Many plants contain compounds that affect the human immune system. Others have demonstrated immune system activity in mice or other animal models. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are skilled in recognizing the patterns of physical symptoms that occur with chemotherapy, and can identify the organs causing the symptoms.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments commonly used to treat side effects of chemotherapy include both acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Acupuncture for Chemotherapy Side Effects
Acupuncture treatment for chemotherapy side effects commonly includes the use of several points on the body to harmonize the flow of energy, calm nausea, and strengthen the immune system. One acupuncture point (which could also be used as acupressure) that can reduce nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy is Pericadium 6 (in Chinese, Neiguan or Inner Gate), located three fingerbreadths above the crease of the wrist between two tendons along the midline. Another point that can calm the stomach and strengthen the immune system is called Stomach 36 (in Chinese, Zusanli or Foot Three Mile), located four fingerbreadths below the knee along the shin, one fingerbreadth beside the tibia bone. Recent scientific studies have shown the positive effects of the use of these two points in combination during chemotherapy.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Chemotherapy Side Effects
Chinese Herbal Medicine can also be an effective means for managing the side effects of chemotherapy treatment. Herbs are often prepared to be taken as teas, raw extracts, powdered granules, or pill and capsule forms for ingestion. Some herbal medicines can be applied topically when made into pastes or plasters, and used local on the abdomen or on specific acupuncture points.

When prescribing Chinese herbal medicine, a proper diagnosis of the patient’s condition will determine which herbal formula is most suitable. Often chemotherapy damages the energy of the digestive system (Spleen and Stomach) leading to nausea and a weakened immune system. The most useful single herb for this case is astragalus (in Chinese, Huang Qi), well known for its immune boosting benefits. However, only rarely are single herbs prescribed over the use of complex herbal formulas, due to the benefit of adjusting the prescription to treat all possible symptoms the patient may be experiencing. Therefore, classical formulas, such as the Six Gentlemen Decoction (in Chinese, Liu Zhen Zi Tang) may be used, or a combination of the formula with additional herbs to augment its function. Chemotherapy all tends to disrupt the Yin energy of the Liver and Kidney, leading to a generation of internal heat. In these cases, Eight Flavor Rehmannia Pill (in Chinese, Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan), can be used. A variety of single herbs are added to prescriptions to enhance the cancer fighting and immune modulating effects. Red Reishi mushrooms (in Chinese, Ling Zhi) have long been used to enhance the immune system and regulate the functioning of the body. A variety of mushrooms, including Red Reishi and Shiitake, have been used medicinally for cancer treatment, as well as to inhibit virus activity.

Other physical treatments like massage and exercise (like yoga, tai chi, and qigong) can help relax and stretch the muscles, improving flexibility and circulation, and thus overall wellbeing. Additionally, meditation and changes in diet according to the principles of Oriental Medicine can help manage chemotherapy side effects.

What are the Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Treatments?

The use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments offers patients an alternative to prescription drugs during their chemotherapy that may interact to produce dangerous side effects. For example, some drugs provoke cardiac side effects. Others aggravate joint pain. A patient taking these types of drugs might experience dizziness, mysterious aches, or severe headaches. While some Chinese medicine herbal treatments do have interactive effects with prescription medications, many do not. Talk to your TCM practitioner about which medications you are taking to avoid any interactions.

  • Chinese medicine's physical therapies – acupuncture, massage, and exercise regimes – provide relief without interaction effects with drugs. These treatments also reduce stress, and give patients a more active role in their own recovery. Acupuncture and acupressure, particularly at the P6 point, are effective against nausea.
  • Some familiar culinary herbs, such as ginger and peppermint, relieve nausea. Chamomile has been used in many cultures to calm and promote sleep. Turmeric, Chinese leek, goji berries, green tea, and whole families of flowering plants have been shown to have positive effects on the immune system, cancer growth, and biological activity against the disease itself or its secondary effects.
  • Meditation and meditative exercise regimes reduce stress and promote relaxation and sleep.

What Risks are Associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Treatments?

Not all herbal compounds are benign and many can interact negatively with prescription drugs. Patients who self-medicate risk inadvertently poisoning themselves or precipitating a dangerous interaction effect with their prescription medications. Research indicates some herbal treatments may be more harmful to children than to adults.

Acupuncture exposes patients to nerve damage and infection from unsterile needles; however, in the hands of a trained experienced practitioner, these are extremely rare.

Exercise programs should be considered with a healthcare professional's advice. Some chemotherapies can weaken bones or muscles, increasing the risk of certain activities and body movements.

Additional Resources

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plants Database is a searchable database of plant information.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's website provides evidence-based information about herbs, botanicals, supplements, and more. Search for "Chinese medicine" for synopses of different herbs

University of California at Berkeley's Carcinogenic Potency Project is an international resource providing access to the results of 6500+ chronic, long-term animal cancer tests on 1500+ chemicals. Extensive analysis of research literature, specific details of the studies included, and statistical evaluations are included.

The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database is a clinical decision support tool for health care providers.

NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):

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Miami, FL 33176
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