Essiac Tea Benefits and Side Effects

Gather Herbs for Herbal Tea. Trifolium pratense. Red clover is commonly used to make a sweet-tasting herbal tea. It is an ingredient in some recipes for essiac tea, herbal tea.
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Essiac tea is an herbal drink that is made from four ingredients: burdock root, Indian rhubarb root, sheep sorrel, and slippery elm. In its original proportions, the herbal formulation is trademarked and sold by a Canadian company. But there are many Essiac-like teas and products sold online and in stores.

Flor Essence is a similar blend of herbs that contains the primary ingredients of Essiac tea and four others: watercress, blessed thistle, red clover, and kelp. Both Essiac tea and Flor Essence are widely reported to provide numerous healing benefits, but published scientific studies do not support those claims.

What Is Essiac Tea?

Essiac tea is an herbal compound that has a rich history. The original blend was made famous by Rene Caisse (pronounced "reen case"), a nurse who set up a clinic in Bainbridge, Ontario, Canada, to help cancer patients with the tonic.

Caisse did not develop the blend herself but rather received it from an acquaintance who claimed that using the tonic cured her breast cancer. The original blend is said to be a traditional Ojibwa remedy, but Caisse made it famous with her work that continued into the 1970s. "Essiac" is Caisse spelled backward.

The four basic Essiac tea ingredients include:

  • Burdock root (Arctium lappa, Arctium majus), a large herbaceous plant of the daisy family. Some believe that it can treat cancer, lower blood sugar, promote urination, reduce wrinkles, and provide other benefits.
  • Indian rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum, Rheum officinale) This ingredient is believed to provide relief from a variety of symptoms such as constipation and fever. Also believed by some to treat cancer, treat infections, and reduce the immune system.
  • Sheep sorrel  (Rumex acetosella), Some believe that this ingredient can treat cancer, diarrhea, reduce fever or inflammation.
  • Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), believed by some consumers to reduce coughing or bronchitis, treat diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome.

The proportion of Essiac tea ingredients is the subject of some debate. The original formula has been kept a secret since the sale of the recipe to a private company. Some believe that it is the proportions of the ingredients and the method of consuming the tea that are important keys to getting the full benefits.

However, a quick internet search for a basic Essiac tea recipe will provide you with several variations of the blend. Many recommend 1.5 pounds of burdock root, 1 pound of powdered sheep sorrel, 1/4 pound slippery elm, 1 pound Turkish rhubarb root. The ingredients are supposed to be mixed together and stored in a glass container away from the light until you are ready to prepare a batch of tea for drinking.

To make Essiac tea, consumers are told to bring unchlorinated water to a boil and let the herbs steep for 12 hours. Once prepared, Essiac dosage is important. Fans of the tea drink it in two-ounce servings, unheated, and usually before bed.

Essiac Tea Health Benefits

According to some companies who sell the tea and other supporters, Essiac tea benefits include cancer treatment and prevention, HIV and AIDS treatment, immune system support, and diabetes therapy. Consumers who are not battling illness might use the tea as a detoxifying elixir, or as a general health tonic. Unfortunately, these claims are not supported by peer-reviewed, published literature.

In the 1970s, investigators at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (with the cooperation of Caisse) began a study on mice to see if Essiac health benefits could be verified. Unfortunately, the study findings were never published and there were questions raised about the research methodology. Caisse later refused to provide the original formulation to researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering or to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, making future investigations difficult.

Later studies were attempted on humans in Canada, but those investigations were halted by the Canadian government due to concerns over poor study design and formulation.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health states that there are "no controlled data are available from human studies to suggest that Essiac or Flor Essence can be effective in the treatment of patients with cancer." The organization goes on to advise "Some evidence suggests that Flor Essence may increase tumor formation in an animal model of breast cancer."

Despite the lack of scientific evidence and warnings from some health agencies, Essiac tea remains extremely popular and widely available for sale.

Essiac Tea Side Effects

While there is very little evidence to support Essiac tea benefits, there is some evidence regarding side effects. People who drink this herbal compound or the similar Flor Essence may experience increased bowel movements, frequent urination, swollen glands, skin blemishes, flu-like symptoms, or slight headaches, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Other sources express concern over the tannins present in burdock, sorrel, rhubarb, and slippery elm. According to peer-reviewed sources, consumers may experience stomach problems if the tea is consumed in high doses and the tannins may lead to kidney or liver damage. Experts add that long-term use of tannins may increase the risk of head and neck cancers, although there are no documented human cases.

Burdock may increase or decrease blood sugar levels, which may be harmful to Essiac tea drinkers with diabetes or hypoglycemia. And oxalic acid (in rhubarb, slippery elm, and sorrel) may cause nausea, vomiting, mouth/throat burning, dangerously low blood pressure, blood electrolyte imbalances, seizure, throat swelling that interferes with breathing, and liver or kidney damage when consumed in large doses.

A Word From Verywell

If you are suffering from cancer, HIV, AIDS, or another illness, it can be tempting to search out treatments that fall outside of the care provided by your medical team. In some instances, alternative practices may provide some relief. But in most cases, those treatments are supported by strong scientific evidence. Unfortunately, research into Essiac tea has not provided quality evidence for its use.

Regardless of the treatment you choose, be sure to work together with your physician so that all of your medications and supplements are coordinated into a safe and comprehensive plan for wellness. An ounce of caution can make a big difference in your long-term health.

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