Essiac herbal supplement, formula, role in cancer and immune system, side effects
July 1 2015 by
Ray Sahelian, M.D.

Essiac is a combination of several herbs claimed to be formulated by the Ojibway Indians in Canada. The herbs in Essiac include burdock root, sheep sorrel, turkey rhubarb root, and slippery elm bark. However, there are many variations of Essiac. One product contains the following mixture: burdock root, Indian rhubarb, sheep sorrel, inner bark of slippery elm, watercress, blessed thistle, red clover, and kelp.

A search on Medline in 2015 did not reveal any human or animal studies published in recent years.

History of Essiac
In 1922, Rene Caisse reported healing hundreds of people with cancer and other chronic diseases with the use of Essaic. The formula dates back to the 1920s when Canadian nurse Rene Caisse blended a tea of burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm bark, and turkey rhubarb root, and offered it to her cancer patients. It is reported she received the Essaic formulation from an Ojibwa Indian woman. The name Essiac is Caisse spelled backwards.

Is Essiac effective for cancer?
Although laboratory studies hint that there is some potential, until several human studies are done, a definitive answer will elude us. One lab study in 2006 indicated that Essiac may stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells. As you can see, the results thus far have not been consistent. The effect of an herbal combination in vitro may not always reflect the effect in vivo, when humans take it orally. As of 2011, I could only find one animal study and one human study with Essaic. Perhaps future research may find positive outcomes with this herbal combination.

Trial of Essiac to ascertain its effect in women with breast cancer (TEA-BC).
J Altern Complement Med. 2006.
The Essiac (Resperin Canada Limited, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) product used in this study was a blend of at least four herbs (burdock root [Arctium lappa], Indian rhubarb [Rheum palmatum], sheep sorrel [Rumex acetosella], and the inner bark of slippery elm [Ulmus fulva or U. rubra]). The primary objective of this study was to determine the difference in health-related quality of life (HR-QOL) between women who were new Essiac users (since breast cancer diagnosis) and those who had never used Essiac. Secondary endpoints included differences in depression, anxiety, fatigue, rate of adverse events, and prevalence of complications or benefits associated with Essiac during standard breast-cancer treatment. A retrospective cohort study was done in 510 women with a diagnosis of primary breast cancer in 2003. Essiac does not appear to improve HR-QOL or mood states. Future studies are needed to determine whether other clinical outcomes, such as cancer reoccurrence, are affected by Essiac.

An in vivo analysis of the herbal compound essiac.
Anticancer Res. 2006.
Essiac was administered orally to test animals prior to all experiments. Standard assays to test protection from ethanol-induced gastric ulceration and carbon tetrachloride-induced hepatic injury were performed on Wistar rats. Essiac demonstrated a modest gastric protective effect via reduction of ethanol-induced gastric ulceration. However, Essiac did not demonstrate significant hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic or immunomodulatory properties.

Essiac and Flor-Essence herbal tonics stimulate the in vitro growth of human breast cancer cells.
Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2006.
We evaluated Flor-Essence and Essiac for their effects on the growth of human tumor cells in culture. The effect of Flor-Essence and Essiac herbal tonics on cell proliferation was tested in MCF-7, MDA-MB-436, MDA-MB-231, and T47D cancer cells isolated from human breast tumors.Flor-Essence and Essiac herbal tonics at 1%, 2%, 4% and 8% stimulated cell proliferation relative to untreated controls in both estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative cell lines. Flor-Essence and Essiac Herbal tonics can stimulate the growth of human breast cancer cells through ER mediated as well as ER independent mechanisms of action.

Inhibition of prostate cancer-cell proliferation by Essiac.
J Altern Complement Med. 2004.
To assess the ability of Essiac tea extracts (Essiac Canada International, Ottawa, Canada) to modulate cancer cell proliferation and immune responsiveness. A noncancerous transformed cell line was compared to a cancerous cell line and spleen cells that had been isolated from mice to examine proliferation responses mediated by the addition of an Essiac preparation. We found in vitro evidence of decreased proliferation of both noncancerous transformed (CHO) and cancerous prostate cell line (LNCaP) when it was present in the culture media. Essiac preparations may be able to inhibit tumor cell growth while enhancing immune response to antigenic stimulation.

In vitro comparison of Essiac and Flor-Essence on human tumor cell lines.
Oncol Rep. 2004.
Essiac and Flor-Essence are two herbal teas widely taken by North American cancer patients during chemo- and radiation therapy. In vitro studies on the antiproliferative and differentiation inducing activities of these teas were performed. Essiac and Flor-Essence showed negligible antiproliferative activity on Jurkat leukemia cells. Both herbal teas inhibited 50% (IC50) of MCF7 breast cancer cell growth at 1/10 dilution. Conclusion: Our data show that both Essiac and Flor-Essence herbal teas demonstrated antiproliferative and differentiation inducing properties in vitro only at high concentrations.

Essiac formula
Several variations are sold over the counter, but the primary herbs appear to be burdock root, sheep sorrel, turkey rhubarb root, and slippery elm bark.  

Essiac herbal tea
Essaic, an herbal formula used by cancer patients, has antioxidant and immune influencing properties. The tea has potent antioxidant and DNA-protective activity, however, how this translates into clinical benefit has yet to be determined.

Essiac side effects
No major side effects have yet been reported with Essiac at this time.

Use and effectiveness
Dr. Sahelian comments: Essiac may have health benefits, but then again many herbs have antioxidant and anti-cancer potential. It is difficult to know at this time whether the Essiac formula has any advantages over other herbs such as mangosteen, curcumin, graviola, pomegranate, garlic, etc.

Curr Pharm Des. 2012. The use of herbal medicine in cancer-related anorexia/ cachexia treatment around the world. Cancer-related cachexia, a condition in which the body is consumed by deranged carbohydrate, lipid and protein metabolism that is induced by inflammatory cytokines. Cachexia is associated with poor treatment outcome, fatigue and poor quality of life. Pharmacological intervention in the treatment and/or prevention of cachexia has been mainly aimed at the use of appetite enhancers to increase oral nutritional intake so far. Herbal remedies are part of traditional and folk healing methods with long histories of use. In this report, we have assessed which herbal approaches have had associated cancer cachexia case reports. Commonly used herbal medicines in western countries include essiac, iscador, pau d'arco tea, cannabinoids and so on. Some Kampo herbs and formulations are commonly used by cancer patients reduce the side effects and complications during the antitumor therapy. The relevant herbal medicines include ginseng, C. rhizome and radix astragali, and the related herbal remedies, such as TJ-48, TJ-41, PHY906 and Rikkunshito. However, there still have some adverse effects caused or amplified by herb and drug interactions that are difficult to separate. However, randomized effectiveness of herbal medicines shall be further identified in controlled clinical trials involving cancer patients with cachexia.


Q. I have been trying to research Essaic product for its claimed anti-cancer benefits. I have just found your website and info on the many herbal/natural products available. Please enlighten me with any pros or cons you may be aware of. Time is critical as I have a family member who is being devastated by the conventional treatments given so quickly today.
   A. Essiac supplement has minimal human research to determine whether it would be helpful or not.


Q. I looked for Essiac tonic but could not find it. Is there any reason why you do not make available an Essaic product, this herbal tonic which from all accounts appears to work wonders as a general detoxifier.
   A. With time and if some research is published.


Please help me, I was diagnosed with inflamatory breast cancer, I am on tamoxifen, zoladex and Herceptin. Now I was advised by a friend to take Issiac as he thinks it has helped a lot of people. So do you think I should continue to take this Issiac suplement or am I causing more damage to myself. You response will be greatly appreciated.
    I can't advise one way or the other regarding which supplement to take. Essaic has some herbs that appear to have health benefits, but I cannot predict whether this formula is of benefit for breast cancer, particularly if combined with medications.


 I notice that you have comments on Essiac Canadian Tea and its use in cancer. I see it is a mixture of 4 herbs (The four main herbs that make up are Burdock Root, Slippery Elm Inner Bark, Sheep Sorrel and Indian Rhubarb Root) and is claimed to be an immune stimulant especially with cancer. Do you have any insights or research. I suspect that it will do no harm, but wonder if it might have some benefits?