Herbal supplements are commonly used by cancer patients today for symptom relief as well as in efforts to treat the disease itself. Patients should understand that herbal supplements are not viable substitutes for mainstream cancer care.
Acai demonstrated antioxidant and apoptotic effects in in vitro and in vivo studies, but no human studies have been conducted. Despite the lack of supportive data, acai, like many herbal products, is promoted to cancer patients on the Internet, often with false claims of cure. Because acai has antioxidant effects, there is substantial potential for interference with chemotherapeutic drugs. Patients should be cautioned against use of acai and other herbal supplements when on treatment.
As reliable information about herbs and other dietary supplements was not readily available to oncologists who need it to counsel their patients, the MSKCC Integrative Medicine Service developed and maintains a free website called “AboutHerbs” (http://www.mskcc.org/AboutHerbs) This site has two portals, one for oncology professionals and another for the public. Anyone may enter either portal at no cost. With 236 entries (and growing), this continually updated site provides objective information on herbs and other botanicals as well as on vitamins, other dietary supplements, and unproved cancer therapies.
—Barrie Cassileth, PhD
ALSO KNOWN AS: Acai berry, acai palm, cabbage palm, palm berry
BACKGROUND: Acai was selected for review because it was among the top 10 herbs accessed on our About Herbs website, with 5,187 hits during the 5 months of August through December 2008.
Acai is the fruit of a palm tree that is native to South America. The fruit is consumed as food and is also used in traditional medicine to treat digestive disorders and skin conditions. Available in a variety of juice products or as a freeze-dried powder in capsule form, acai is marketed as a dietary supplement for weight loss, to decrease cholesterol and boost energy, and to fight cancer. It has also purportedly been used to treat heart disease and stroke, diarrhea, autoimmune disorders, and allergies.
RESEARCH: The pulp and skin of the acai fruit are rich in compounds known as anthocyanins (ACNs) and proanthocyanidins (PACs). In both in vitro and animal studies, acai has demonstrated antioxidant[2,3] and anti-inflammatory effects.[4,5] Acai has also been shown to induce apoptosis in HL-60 leukemia cells through caspase-3 activation, but it has not been studied in humans.
ADVERSE EFFECTS: Acai may interfere with the actions of certain chemotherapy drugs due to its antioxidant effects.
2. Schauss AG, Wu X, Prior RL, et al: Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (acai). J Agric Food Chem 54:8604-8610, 2006.
3. Rodrigues RB, Lichtenthaler R, Zimmermann BF, et al: Total oxidant scavenging capacity of Euterpe oleracea mart (acai) seeds and identification of their polyphenolic compounds. J Agric Food Chem 54:4162-4167, 2006.
4. Matheus ME, de Oliveira Fernandes SB, Silvera CS, et al: Inhibitory effects of Euterpe oleracea mart on nitric oxide production and iNOS expression. J Ethnopharmacol107:291-296, 2006.
5. Jensen GS, Wu X, Patterson KM, et al: In vitro and in vivo antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities of an antioxidant-rich fruit and berry juice blend. Results of a pilot and randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover study. J Agric Food Chem 56:8326-8333, 2008.
6. Del Pozo-Insfran D, Percival SS, Talcott ST: Acai (Euterpe oleracea mart.) polyphenolics in their glycoside and aglycone forms induce apoptosis of HL-60 leukemia cells. J Agric Food Chem 54:1222-1229, 2006.