How Essiac Works
When Rene Caisse treated cancer patients with Essiac, she used trial and error to determine how the herbs functioned. However, since she was not an herbalist, she did not fully understand what the herbs were actually doing to heal cancer. However, she did discover that "The herb that will destroy a cancer is the dog-eared sheep sorrel, sometimes called sourgrass." She further refined the mixture to the four herb formula we know today: Rhubarb root, Slippery Elm inner bark, Burdock root, and Sheep Sorrel with the root included. She knew these herbs were effective and had the dosage figured out empirically. It worked, and that was good enough for her.
She did speculate that some "as yet undiscovered glands" were being stimulated, glands being the cutting edge buzzwords of medical science in the early 20th century. Nurse Caisse was a brilliant clinician, and as such she was well aware that Essiac was raising the overall vigor of the body and helping it to throw the cancer out itself. She was also well aware of the vivid contrast between Essiac's action and that of radiation and chemotherapy.
Radiation and chemotherapy rely upon a warfare model of healing: the cancer is the enemy and must be attacked ruthlessly, at all costs. With conventional chemotherapy, the body is fed poisons right up to the point of death. Since the poisons which are used preferentially attack rapidly reproducing cells, the hope is that the cancer will be killed before the patient dies. Like cancer cells, immune cells and hair cells grow rapidly, and this explains some of the dominant side effects of chemotherapy.
Essiac tea, by comparison, works largely by enhancing the body's natural ability to heal itself. It sets up conditions within the body which discourage cancer cells while stimulating normal body function. There are no known negative direct effects of the herbs- taken in moderation- upon healthy growing cells or organs. Given half a chance, your body can rally its defenses and overwhelm the cancer using natural mechanisms.
Digging through the herbal literature searching for the four Essiac herbs, I have collected a list of effects which work together to heal cancer. Essiac's modes of action mostly fall into four major categories: supplementing and balancing minerals, modulating blood chemistry, stimulating organs and flushing wastes. There is considerable overlap between these as well as some miscellaneous effects. I believe there are also some mechanisms which remain unknown. In particular, most literature on sheep sorrel talks about the leaves and seeds, with little to no focus on the roots. Saying that the roots, unlike the leaves, have a definite strong bitter principle explains very little.
Supplementing and balancing minerals:
Sheep sorrel is extremely rich in potassium salts. Cancer cells prefer a potassium depleted environment, exactly the situation given the Typical Modern Agribusiness Highly Processed Diet (TMAHPD). By flooding the blood with a high concentration of bio-active, membrane soluble potassium ions, cancer cells are directly suppressed. Individual, metastasized cells are especially vulnerable to attack by the immune system, finding themselves adrift in a sea of hostile (to them) potassium. One important factor is the potassium/sodium balance, and to optimize this effect you should restrict salt intake while using Essiac. Skip the TMAHPD, which is high in sodium salts.
Essiac tea is very high in calcium. Unlike the calcium in milk products, this calcium is in a form which is easily absorbed. Among all the wonderful things calcium does for a body, its role in cell growth and regulation is the main benefit here. Bio-available calcium is generally low in the TMAHPD.
Burdock root is high in iron. Iron, unfortunately, can stimulate cancer growth. Sheep sorrel (and, to a lesser extent, Indian rhubarb) provides plentiful oxalate, which binds the iron and flushes it out of your system. This moderation of blood iron concentrations will only take place if you drink water. Oxalate can also build up in your kidneys and hurt them, unless you drink water, and lots of it. This is one reason for taking a break from Essiac every month or so, to give the oxalate a chance to flush out. Rest assured that your iron levels will stay near the optimum so as to not unduly stimulate the cancer, and drink more water.
Modulating Blood Chemistry:
Essiac tea consumption will raise your blood and interstitial pH (make it more basic and less acidic). Acidic body pH is another result of the TMAHPD; high protein and sugar consumption are what you especially want to forego while using Essiac. Replace them with more dietary fiber and vitamin rich foods. Several of the Essiac herbs help to buffer your pH, but burdock is the most active of these, scavenging medium to large organic acids for eventual flushing from your system. Drink more water to help them on their way.
Cancer cells react strongly to high pH, retreating into established tumors where they can strive to keep the conditions acidic for a while. This might lead to temporary swelling or hardening of a tumor when first using Essiac. Eventually the cancer cells will lose this fight, as the pH gets higher and higher around them. Metastasis is severely suppressed under basic conditions, and will even reverse itself to some extent.
Essiac tea moderates blood sugar levels, mainly preventing spikes in blood glucose. Slippery elm and rhubarb root are primarily implicated in this, although the mysterious sheep sorrel root might play a role as well. This is a fairly common defense in the vegetable kingdom; the plant is, in essence, saying, "eat me and I will actively suppress your nutrition instead of nourishing you." Excess blood sugar is a well known effect of the TMAHPD. Some diabetics find that Essiac tea allows them to control their blood sugars without insulin. As far as cancer is concerned, the lack of high blood sugar levels leaves tumors unable to create new blood vessels in order to fuel their growth.
Essiac tea acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. This is a somewhat miscellaneous effect, but I decided to shoehorn it into the blood chemistry section. Part of the inflammation response is sending a signal to blood cells to accumulate at the site of inflammation. This is exactly what you DON'T want in the case of cancer. Cancer is, to a large extent, similar to an inflammation. Burdock is the main actor here, especially the seeds. To the extent that the TMAHPD contains genetically modified ingredients, inflammation may be a major result, encouraging cancers.
Sheep sorrel root is a powerful astringent. By drying out excess moisture from in between cells, this protects healthy cells from wastes in solution lingering around them. It also prevents cancer cells from building up concentrations of chemicals which allow them to prosper. The tissue can be referred to as “toned”, which is to say it is primed for absorbing the beneficial chemicals present in the blood due to consuming Essiac tea.
Simply put, Essiac tea stimulates the liver, kidneys and colon. These are the big three when it comes to flushing wastes from the body. It very likely also stimulates the pancreas and lymphatic system. As cancer cells die in your body, the wastes from those cells need to go away. Regular waste removal is essential to remain cancer free. The liver, kidney and colon, with major support from the lymphatic system, take care of this for you. Drink more water to help them do their job.
A good reason to take a break from Essiac tea every month or so is to give these organs a rest from constant stimulation. After a weeks rest, continue with the Essiac tea and get these organs revved up again.
Essiac is also a moderate digestive or stomachic, not so much stimulating the stomach as helping the digestive juices to do their job. This will help to keep things as they should be further downstream, allowing for better nutrient absorption and waste excretion. This is one reason to drink Essiac on an empty stomach, as indigestion can result from mixing Essiac and a full load of food. Things can get a little too active.
If I stretch a point, and call the immune system an organ (it isn't really; it could be thought of as several organs working together), I can fit this miscellaneous effect into the organ section. Essiac stimulates your immune system and tonifies it, which is only subtly different. A well functioning immune system can expel cancer from the body; This is the normal state of affairs. Cancerous cells come and go all the time, and your immune system is the main reason you never notice most of them.
The TMAHPD insults your immune system in at least three ways: 1) Herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in your food (and in the air) short circuit the immune system fairly directly, 2) Low nutrient levels- minerals mostly- don't allow your immune system to function as well as it can, and 3) Genetically modified ingredients can confuse your immune system, causing it to give up when it needn't and to overwork when it shouldn't. These effects can lead directly to runaway cancer growth. The increase of genetically modified "food" in the TMAHPD is already leading to a rise in cancers, most notably in children. This will only get worse if it is allowed to continue.
Burdock is the champion here, binding to a variety of toxins and dragging them down to your liver or kidneys for flushing out. Besides from binding organic acids, burdock will bind solvents like acetone and phenol, various CFC's and CHC's, certain pharmaceuticals and food additives, rancid oils, dead cancer cell leftovers, and heavy metals like lead and mercury. These are typically stored in fat cells and in the liver, and all of them can make a contribution to cancer pathology. When the Essiac tea starts binding these up and putting them into your bloodstream, you might notice the effects of them. Most of the potential negative side effects of Essiac tea come about through this mechanism. This will be most pronounced if you are taking larger doses of Essiac and/or not drinking enough water. Practice moderation. Quit or reduce the Essiac for a day and drink more water if the symptoms are bothering you. Drink more water anyway.
Slippery elm comes into its own here; This herb causes a turnover in your mucus, primarily in the colon. Besides from dissolving old mucus, along with the various things bound up in it, mucilage causes all of that slimy messy type stuff to be excreted. Burdock also has some mucilage, but slippery elm has a lot more, as well as stimulating mucous secretions throughout the body: in the sinuses, lungs and so on. The goal is to keep the sticky stuff flowing. To that effect, drink more water to keep it from hardening up on you.
All of the herbs in Essiac tea are at least mildly diuretic, some strongly so. Unlike coffee or tea (also diuretics), Essiac does not cause excess secretion of healthful minerals in your urine. It does, however, increase secretion of amino acids, thereby both pampering your kidneys and helping to flush away some of the leftovers of cancer dissolution. Dr. Andrew Weil lists "excessive urination" as a negative side effect of Essiac use. I see it as, at worst, a minor inconvenience; more likely it is a major contributor to the overall healthful effect of Essiac tea. For best results, you guessed it, drink more water.
With a little bit of visualization you can see all of the above mechanisms working together throughout your body to drive a cancer out of existence and flush away the remains. Synergistic action is the way most herbs work, and lack of synergy is why conventional medicines don't work so well with cancer. Poisoning the whole body, in order to eliminate the small diseased portion, is bound to lead to more problems later on, even if the cancer is "cured".
Essiac tea will work better if you honor this synergy by eating health-giving foods, drinking plentiful water and trying to keep a strong (not necessarily positive) attitude. Working with your body to encourage healthy, normal function can be a bit more complicated in concept, but it is also cheaper and more empowering than the conventional medical model. Most important is to learn everything you can about how to use Essiac and apply what you have learned moderately and consistently.
One crucial point is that these mechanisms will not show positive results in laboratory tests against cancer cultures. An herb which stimulates the immune system, for example, will only show results if tested on an actual immune system. In the absence of extensive clinical trials, Essiac tea has to rely on word of mouth and anecdotal evidence, which allows it no respect in the mainstream scientific world view. People who have tried Essiac tea usually know better.