Normally, I prefer writing about medicinal plants that are regionally abundant where I live, in the eastern US. However, when I read about Fu Zheng Pei Ben, it felt like a concept worth sharing. There are herbs to support all phases of an individual’s experience with cancer—including mid-treatment. In my herbal medicine practice, I often ask myself, “How can I support and nourish this individual without interfering with existing medications or therapies?”
China’s medical system offers an excellent model for supporting those receiving cancer treatments. As in the US, many forms of cancer are treated with radiation and chemotherapy. In China, it is considered good practice to curb side effects and nourish the body while administering such strong treatment. Out of this belief came a therapy approach called fu zheng pei ben, which translates to ‘support the normal qi and strengthen resistance.’
Fu zheng pei ben uses many adaptogen herbs. Adaptogens are a category of herbs that enhance the body’s response to physical, mental, and emotional stressors. Most are supportive of a range of body systems, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and digestive systems. Adaptogens are non-toxic, stamina-boosting, and safe for long-term use. Each of the herbs below contains constituents shown to be chemoprotective and radioprotective, antioxidant, and immune-boosting. Adaptogens are used to mitigate side-effects of cancer treatments, including including nausea, fatigue, low red blood cell count, immune suppression and decreased white blood cell count. Notably, herbs used in Fu zheng pei ben not only ease symptoms, but can actually increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments.
Below are three of my favorite fu-zheng herbs, plus two herbs from India that fill a similar niche. Their gentleness also makes them appropriate during mildly stressful times of life—anytime, really. They are most effective when taken daily over a longer period of time (4-6 months, or longer).
Astragalus root has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. Studies demonstrate its ability to increase low red blood cell formation, increase white blood cell count, and stimulate a range of immune functions. It is frequently used in combination with medications to reduce side effects and toxicity. One study demonstrates astragalus’ ability to prevent liver damage induced by stilbenemide, a common anticancer drug.
In a clinical study, eleuthero root was shown to reverse bone marrow suppression and leukopenia—common conditions among patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy. Eleuthero is liver-protective, immune-boosting, and may improve digestion and nutrient absorption. In vitro, this herb demonstrated antitumor activity against ovarian, mouth, stomach, and breast cancers.
Studies demonstrate Reishi mushroom’s ability to enhance immunity, as well as reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. This herb is also used to support the “shen”—one’s emotional and mental balance. Anxiety, insomnia, and mild depression may all be supported by Reishi. Its polysaccharides have been shown to increase certain “cancer-fighters” in the body by five to twenty-nine orders of magnitude; these include tumor-necrosis factor, Th1 T lymphocytes, and interleukins 1 and 6. Reishi has also been shown to suppress the growth of colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Ashwagandha root is used to mitigate the depletion of white blood cells that can occur during cancer treatments. Like Reishi, it is often used for its calming effects on the nervous system. Ashwagandha is also rich in iron, and may be helpful for those with iron-deficient anemia.
Holy Basil (Tulsi): Drinking a delicious tea like Tulsi can be as uplifting as the properties it contains. Fragrant holy basil is revered and heavily-used in India. A holy basil alcohol extract was shown to have a “significant antistress” effect in mice. It may help protect against damage induced by chemotherapy and radiation. It has a reputation for improving digestion and mental clarity.
Due to their food-like nature, adaptogens can be fun to take! This adaptoballs recipe has a nut butter and honey base. It can be tweaked to include whichever herb powders you, your doctor, and an herbalist agree are the right fit. Be sure to store powders in the freezer to maintain their potency. Adaptogens are frequently taken as tinctures (alcohol extracts) as well. A local herbalist may offer a much lower cost than store bought tinctures.
Talk with your doctor before adding adaptogens to your treatment plan. Keep in mind that most US medical schools no longer require herbal medicine training. Be prepared to present studies and articles about your herb(s) of choice to your doctor. An herbalist should be consulted in choosing the best herbs for you.
1.) Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism, Rochester: 2003. pp. 532, 545.
2.) Ming Li, Pan. “Cancer Treatment with Fu Zheng Pei Ben Principle.” Fujian Science and Technology Press, 1992.
3.) Winston, David and Stven Maimes. Adaptogens. Rochester: 2007. pp. 95-98, 140, 159, 169.