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Essiac tea is an herbal formulation that is said to treat cancer and is sold by a variety of companies under different names, originating from a formula invented by a Canadian nurse in the 1920s. It is believed that nurse Rene Caisse based her herbal formula on that of an elderly tribal medicine man’s botanical recipe used to treat cancer. Although different companies in Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia use different formulations, most Essiac teas and products are primarily composed of four main ingredients: burdock, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel and Turkey rhubarb root. Some companies add milk thistle, kelp, red clover, watercress or other herbs in varying amounts. Although anecdotal evidence exists for Essiac tea’s effectiveness in treating cancer, there has been no scientific evidence to support its efficacy.
Rene Caisse first encountered the herbal blend when treating a woman in 1922 who claimed that she was cured of breast cancer in the late 1800s by drinking an herbal tea provided by a tribal healer. Caisse named the herbal formula by reversing the letters in her surname. From 1922 until her death in 1978, Caisse used her formula to help cancer patients at her clinic in Ontario, Canada, and elsewhere in North America. She is said to have continually experimented with the formula, changing proportions of herbs and employing additional herbs in an attempt to find the best blend, but she did not reveal her formula.
In addition to being used to treat cancer, Essiac tea has been used by herbalists and the general population for a variety of aliments and to promote overall good health. Many use it as a general tonic, to detoxify the body and enhance its functioning. It has been used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to Lyme disease. Personal testimonials tell of its effectiveness in treating disease, but there has been no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of Essiac tea.
Of the four original herbs in Essiac tea, only one is native to North America. Burdock root, or Arctium lappa, which is traditionally used by herbalists to detoxify the blood, has been shown in research studies to have antibacterial properties. Sheep sorrel, or Rumex acetosella, is another detoxifying herb that also acts as a diuretic. Slippery elm bark, or Ulmus rubra, is the only plant in the formula native to North America, and it is a detoxifying herb that also has anti-inflammatory properties. Turkey rhubarb, also called Chinese, Indian or Turkish rhubarb, Rheum palmatum or Rheum officinale, is an Asian plant used for its laxative effect and its anti-inflammatory properties.
Single herbs in the formula have been scientifically tested and have shown some promise in treating diseases, including cancer. Herbalists and manufacturers of Essiac tea claim that it strengthens the immune system, detoxifies the body and prevents and cures many diseases. The blend has historically been used as an alternative cancer treatment. It is generally acknowledged that when used as directed, Essiac has only minor side effects.