Essiac tea is based on a Canadian Ojibwa Indian formula containing primarily burdock root (Arctium lappa), Turkish rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), and the inner bark of the slippery elm (Ulmus fulva or Ulmus rubra). It is used in alternative medicine mainly as a treatment for cancer.
The formula is said to have been first developed by an Ojibwa healer to purify the body and balance the spirit. In 1922, the formula came to the attention of Rene Caisse (essiac is Caisse spelled backwards), a nurse in Ontario, Canada, after hearing first-hand accounts of it curing cancer. She began administering the tea to cancer patients and found it to have remarkable healing abilities. She continued treating cancer patients with the tea until she died in 1978. In 1977, Caisse sold the essiac tea formula to the Resperin Corp. of Ontario, Canada.
Caisse reported that hundreds of her patients had been cured of their cancers through the use of her tea, sometimes used as intramuscular injections. Most of the patients came to her after conventional cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) failed. Several alternative health care practitioners report essiac tea seems to work best in patients who have had the least amount of radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
The mainstream medical community does not embrace essiac tea. Critics contend that a certain number of cancers deemed incurable spontaneously go into remission without an adequate medical explanation as to why. Others chalk up the successes to the so-called placebo effect, where the belief that the treatment is working effects a cure rather than the treatment itself. The treatment is not approved by the American Medical Association or the American Cancer Society.
In 1938, a bill in the Canadian Parliament to legalize essiac tea failed by three votes. It is still not approved for marketing in the United States or Canada. However, the Canadian Health and Welfare Department permits compassionate use of essiac tea on an emergency basis.
In 1975 and again in 1982, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York tested only the sorrel component in the tea. They boiled it which may have neutralized any beneficial compounds in the leftover tea and administered it to mice with cancerous tumors. It determined the formula had no anticancer effects. The National Cancer Institute and Canadian Bureau of Prescription Drugs reached the same conclusion in the 1980s.
Essiac tea is generally used by alternative health care practitioners to treat, and even cure, various forms of cancer and the side effects of conventional cancer therapy. It is also used to treat AIDS. It is used to a lesser extent to treat a variety of other medical conditions, including diabetes, skin inflammation, liver and thyroid problems, diarrhea, ulcers, and some other degenerative diseases. It is more commonly used in Canada than the United States. Other uses include treating pain, purifying the blood, healing wounds, lowering cholesterol, and increasing energy levels.
Although each of the four main ingredients in essiac tea are used to treat other conditions, only the sorrel is used separately to treat cancer. Only when the four are combined do they effect anti-cancer properties. It is not clear exactly how or why the ingredients work in combination, but it is generally believed they work synergistically to stimulate production of antibodies. Caisse herself said she believed essiac tea purified the blood and carried away damaged tissue and infection related to the cancer. She also believed the tea strengthened the immune system, allowing healthy cells to destroy cancerous cells.
Caisse also maintained that tumors not destroyed by essiac tea would be shrunk and could be surgically removed after six to eight weeks of treatment. To insure any malignant cells that remained after treatment and surgery were destroyed, Caisse recommended at least three months of additional weekly essiac treatments.
One of Caisse's patients was her mother, Friseide Caisse, who was diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 72. Her mother's physician reportedly said she had only days to live. Rene Caisse began giving her mother daily intramuscular injections of the tea. Friseide began recovering within a few days and after a few months, with less frequent doses of essiac, her cancer was gone. She lived to be 90, finally succumbing to heart disease.
The four main ingredients of Essiac tea are sold separately and can be combined at home. Essiac tea is also marketed as tea bags and in bottles of the prepared formula. The basic formula for essiac tea is to combine 6.5 c of cut burdock root, 16 oz of powdered sheep sorrel (including stems, seeds, and leaves), 1 oz of powdered Turkish rhubarb root, and 4 oz of powdered slippery elm bark. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Boil 2 gal of fresh spring water, add 8 oz of the essiac blend, cover, and boil on high heat for 10 minutes. Turn heat off and let sit for six hours. Remove cover and stir. Replace cover and let steep another six hours. Turn on heat and return the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and strain into another pot. Wash original pot and strain mixture again into it. Then pour liquid into amber bottles, cap, and store in a dark cool location. Refrigerate after opening.
The formula is ready to use immediately. When ready, shake the bottle well to mix the sediments. Blend 4 tsp of the essiac formula with 4 tsp of warm spring water. The usual daily dosage is 2–4 oz of tea for persons weighing 100–150 lb and 2 oz for every 50 lb over 150 lb. Some alternative health practitioners recommend regular doses of essiac to strengthen the immune system and as a preventative for certain diseases, including cancer. The frequency ranges from daily to weekly.
Essiac tea is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women. The formula should not be prepared or stored in plastic or aluminum containers. Sunlight and freezing temperatures destroys the formula's effectiveness. It is generally recommended that persons consult with their physician before treating any condition with essiac. It is important to remember that essiac is often used in combination with traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
No major adverse side effect have been associated with essiac tea.
Essiac is not known to adversely interact with other medications or nutritional supplements.
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Olsen, Cynthia and Dr. Jim Chan. Essiac: A Native Herbal Cancer Remedy. Pagosa Springs, CO: Kali Press, 1998.
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Steinberg, Phillip N. "Cat's Claw, Essiac, and Whole-leaf Aloe Vera: Mother Nature's Healers." Let's Live. (Sept. 1996): 70-72.
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Ken R. Wells