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This page tells you about the use of chaparral by people with cancer. On this page, there is information about


What chaparral is

Chaparral is a herb that comes from the creosote bush in the western deserts of the USA. Native Americans in these areas have used chaparral for many years to relieve pain and inflammation. They also use it to treat illnesses including colds, digestive problems and cancer. But most research shows that chaparral isn’t safe to use to treat or prevent any serious medical condition. Available scientific evidence does not support its use for the treatment of cancer in humans.

Chaparral can cause serious side effects such as damage to your liver and kidneys. We don’t recommend it to treat or prevent any type of cancer.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA sent out a warning encouraging the removal of all chaparral products from the market. In 2005, Health Canada also issued a warning not to take products containing chaparral. Despite this, chaparral is still easy to buy in shops and over the internet.


Research into chaparral for people with cancer

An American study in 1970 tested chaparral tea and tablets made of its main ingredient (called nordihydroguaiaretic acid or NDGA). The study looked at 45 people with advanced cancer. The US National Cancer Institute published the results.

Of the 45 people who took part, 4 found that their cancer got smaller. The effect lasted between 10 days and 20 months. But in the other 41 people, the tumours got bigger. Overall, the researchers found that chaparral wasn’t safe and did not work well for treating cancer.

Some laboratory studies seem to show that the main chemical in chaparral – NDGA – might have anti cancer properties. But there have been no clinical trials in humans to prove this.

In some lab studies it seemed that NDGA might help other cancer drugs to work. Researchers are looking into whether a pure form of NDGA might be useful as a cancer treatment. But this is very early research. A substance can show promise in the lab, but still not be a successful treatment for cancer in people.

A review of 18 case reports of people who took chaparral showed that it can cause severe, irreversible liver damage and failure. It can also cause kidney damage in some people.

There is also an extract from the chaparral shrub called M4N. An American study in 2004 showed that M4N may be safe to use. Researchers injected it into the tumours of 8 people with advanced head and neck cancer. These cancers had not responded to other types of treatment. Nobody on the trial had the serious liver damage that has been shown in studies with chaparral. The study found that M4N appeared to shrink some tumours. A 2006 study showed that M4N might help to stop cancers from becoming resistant to certain types of chemotherapy. But we need more research to see if M4N will help cancer treatments to work better.

Although this research sounds promising, it is important that we test each active ingredient in the plant. When you take a complete plant as a medicine, you take hundreds of different chemicals together. Any of these could affect you, the cancer, or other medicines you are taking. Manufactured drugs are checked to make sure they only contain pure ingredients. We don’t recommend that you take chaparral to treat or prevent any type of cancer.


Using chaparral

You can buy chaparral as

  • A tablet or capsule
  • Dried leaves for making tea
  • A liquid (tincture) made from chaparral leaves dissolved in alcohol
  • Capsules with added antioxidants such as vitamin C

You can buy these different preparations in health food shops, pharmacies and over the internet. Prices vary depending on where you buy it. For example, over the internet you can buy 100 capsules for between £4.50 and £10.

Many internet sites advertise and promote chaparral as a herb to help prevent or treat cancer. But no reputable scientific cancer organisations, including Cancer Research UK, support these claims. Our advice is to be very cautious about believing the information on these websites. And think carefully before paying for any type of alternative cancer therapy over the internet.

We have detailed information about searching for information about complementary and alternative therapies over the internet.


Side effects of chaparral

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that chaparral shouldn’t be swallowed or injected. It is very toxic and can cause serious and permanent kidney and liver damage and possibly death. It can also cause

  • Diarrhoea
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Skin rashes and itching
  • Tiredness
  • Acute inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
  • Kidney cysts
  • Kidney cancer

Who shouldn’t use chaparral?

You shouldn’t take chaparral if you

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have kidney or liver problems
  • Are taking particular medicines
  • Are diabetic – in animal studies chaparral has lowered blood sugar levels
  • Are trying to become pregnant – chaparral may prevent ovulation which will lower your chance of getting pregnant

Chaparral can interfere with how some drugs work, especially those that may also affect your liver and kidneys. These include some antibiotics, and non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (for example, ibuprofen). Chaparral can also interfere with a type of anti depressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).

Children shouldn’t take chaparral because of the possible side effects and the lack of scientific data to prove that it is safe.


If you want to try chaparral

If you are interested in trying chaparral, or any other alternative therapy, talk to your doctor first. We recommend that you don't replace your conventional cancer treatment with any type of alternative cancer therapy such as chaparral. This could seriously harm you.

Our message is

  • Be careful
  • Be wary of any claims that chaparral can treat or cure your cancer
  • Make sure you look into the information that is available
  • Talk to your cancer doctor before you buy any alternative therapy

In Europe it is important to buy only products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.


Useful organisations

For general information about complementary and alternative therapies in cancer care, look at our section about complementary and alternative therapies.

For more information about chaparral, contact one of the complementary therapy organisations.

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Updated: 9 January 2015