Last updated: Sep 23, 2010
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Just this week, coincidentally, the results of three new clinical studies confirmed the value of three classic Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments: ginger, acupuncture, and ginseng.


In the studies, which were conducted at different universities, researchers discovered that ginger reduces the nausea that often follows chemotherapy treatments, acupuncture beats conventional medical treatment for low back pain, and Asian ginseng is a natural anti-inflammatory. Here are the details.

Ginger
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) supplements relieved post-chemotherapy nausea by 40% in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study funded by the National Cancer Institute. The study will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting on May 30, in Orlando, Fla.

In the study, conducted by scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center, 644 cancer patients (66 percent were women with breast cancer) were randomly assigned to one of four groups. They were given a placebo, 500 mg of ginger, 1,000 mg of ginger, or 1,500 mg of ginger in addition to antiemetic medication (Zofran, Kytril, Navoban and Anzemet) to prevent vomiting. The participants took the ginger for six days, starting three days before the start of their chemo cycles.

"Antiemetics are very effective against vomiting but not against nausea, because nausea is not the same as vomiting," says Julie L. Ryan, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology and radiation oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the lead author of the study.

"Nausea precedes vomiting, but people can be nauseated and not vomit," she says. What's more, she says, "Cancer patients complain more about nausea than they do about vomiting because they are unable to relieve the severe nausea."

How does ginger relieve nausea? That hasn't yet been determined, Ryan says. "We believe that ginger's absorbent and anti-inflammatory properties act directly on the gut to reduce nausea," she says, and points out that nausea is a difficult symptom to study because it is subjective and based on perception, which varies from person to person.

To measure nausea in this study, Ryan and her team used a seven-point rating system so that people could rank their feelings of nausea from one (not at all nauseated) to seven (extremely nauseated). Those who took 500 mg to 1,000 mg of ginger a day had the best results.

Ryan says 500 mg equals one-fourth teaspoon of dried, ground ginger. New Chapter makes Daily Ginger, an organic ginger supplement, which is widely available at health food stores; GNC also sells ginger root capsules.

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Acupuncture
A major nationally funded study designed to test the effects of acupuncture on low back pain, cutely called SPINE (Stimulating Acupuncture Points to Investigate Needling Efficacy), was published in the May 11 Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers recruited 638 people who were receiving care for low back pain, and randomly assigned them to one of four treatment groups: individualized acupuncture; "standard" acupuncture, which used points generally considered to be appropriate for back-pain relief; "simulated" acupuncture, using toothpick stimulation of the "standard" points; and standard medical care, which included typical care for back pain including drugs and physical therapy.

Ten acupuncture treatments were given over seven weeks. After eight weeks, the pain scores for people in all the acupuncture groups had improved by 4.4 or 4.5 points; people who received typical medical care posted a 2.1-point improvement. The pain relief lasted too—for up to a year. The researchers noted that all three versions of acupuncture had "beneficial and persisting effects on chronic back pain."

Bottom line: Consider acupuncture as an effective treatment for back pain, and give it a try. Unlike medication, it's side effect–free. Find a licensed acupuncture practitioner.

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Although this new piece of research doesn't instantly confirm Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) as a therapy in the same way the other two studies do, it's still really interesting.

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong treated human immune cells with nine different ginseng extracts. Of the nine extracts tested, seven were able to inhibit the expression of a gene, CXCL-10, that promotes inflammation. The head researcher was the eminent Allan Lau, MD, a professor in the department of pediatrics and adolescent medicine and assistant dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

Asian ginseng has a nearly legendary status among herbal medicines and has been used for thousands of years in Asia. Although it's one of the best-studied herbs in the world, its still not a conclusively proven treatment for any particular condition, say the authors of Clinical Botanical Medicine, 2nd Edition, a new textbook by Eric Yarnell, Kathy Abascal, and Robert Rountree, MD.

I'm willing to bet that this exciting, cutting-edge science will help botanical researchers better understand this ancient herb. Although we don't yet have the answers, I'm hopeful that we'll one day discover whether ginseng's effect on inflammation could potentially be why the ancients believed that using ginseng promotes vitality and longevity.