According to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, a herb used to treat menopausal symptoms may do more than that. It could be used to reduce the risk or even prevent the occurrence of breast cancer.
Writing in the International Journal of Cancer, lead researcher Dr. Timothy R. Rebbeck said that the herb- black cohosh, when used by study subjects showed an effect of reducing breast cancer risk by up to 61 percent.
The herb black cohosh is used along with dong quai, red clover, ginseng, yam and others, as hormone related supplements to deal with menopausal symptoms.
As a part of their study to test the effects of these herbs on breast cancer, the researchers compared 949 women with breast cancer to 1,524 healthy controls. Each woman was asked to list up to five herbs she had used at least three times a week for at least one month prior to her diagnosis (for the breast cancer patients) or prior to the date she was screened for study participation (for the women without cancer).
It was seen that out of the various herbs used, one particularly stood out. This was black cohosh as well as one of its derivatives; Remifemin.
It was also seen that African-American women were more likely than European Americans to use the herbs. Those women who reported taking black cohosh (5 percent of blacks and 2 percent of whites) were found to be at 61 percent lower risk of breast cancer. Those who took the herbal preparation derived from black cohosh called Remifemin, were observed to have a 53 percent lower risk of the disease.
According to the researchers, previous studies have revealed that black cohosh can block cell growth. The herb is also an antioxidant, and has been shown to have anti-estrogen effects as well.
Many menopausal women seek relief from symptoms like hot flashes, heart palpitations, mood swings, and sleepless nights. For some, this search leads to hormone-related supplements (HRSs) - many of which contain phytoestrogens, plant-derived hormones that are chemically similar to the human estrogens in decline during menopause.
Yet researchers ponder the fact whether the use of these supplements make a difference (good or bad) in a woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer, which is also largely regulated by estrogen.
On the negative side, the herb can have side effects, and animal studies have suggested it may affect breast cancer severity.
"Substantial additional research must be undertaken before it can be established that black cohosh, or some compound found in black cohosh, is a breast cancer chemopreventive agent," says Rebbeck.
"We do believe that black cohosh has an effect on reducing breast cancer risk, but our data don't give us a good estimate of the magnitude of this effect," he adds.
Because there is still so much to be understood about HRSs, Rebbeck cautions women against relying on any herbal preparation as their sole means of breast cancer prevention.
"One of the dangers is that people sometimes think, 'I'm taking cohosh, so I don't have to do anything else. But not doing the other things - like getting regular mammography screenings - is what can hurt you. Herbal preparations are at best additions - not alternatives - to standard prevention methods", Rebbeck stresses.
At the same time Rebbeck agrees that there could be " something in these herbal compounds that could be a valuable addition to our cancer prevention medicine chest".