Mistletoe: good for more then a kiss!

It seems like the Europeans are always one step ahead of us doesn’t it?  Here in North America, people decorate with mistletoe, which is poisonous.  European mistletoe however, is an entirely different plant with an impressive medicinal history.

The plant is a parasite on fruit, oak or chestnut trees and can form bunches up to three meters across.  It has feathery leaves, yellow flowers in clusters of three, and pretty, white, round berries.  The leaves and young twigs are useful, and should be collected in the spring.

Sheep enjoy eating this plant, and it prevents foot rot.  In fact, I found an old recipe for use on domestic animals which calls for six berries pounded into 1 pint of milk twice daily in bran mush.  (Note: for people, the berries are toxic.  If you are not a sheep, don’t eat the berries!)  Its medicinal uses for humans have been proclaimed for many years; in 1720 Sir John Colbatch published a pamphlet suggesting its use for epilepsy.

In modern history, mistletoe is often associated with the heart.  It acts directly on the vagus (not to be confused with the gambling kind) nerve which regulates heart rate while strengthening the capillary walls at the same time, this reducing blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.  It acts as a relaxant in the nervous system, easing tension headaches, migraines and stress.

The most exciting research with this plant is in the field of cancer treatment and prevention.  Most of the studies concern mistletoe as an injection, used under a practitioner’s care.  In Europe there are three major injectable extracts available (Iscador, Helixor and Eurixor), none of which are approved by our FDA.

The main constituents of mistletoe called lectins poison cancer cells while stimulating the immune system.  Normally, cancer cells are not affected by the body’s natural killer (NK) cells, but NK cells that are treated with the mistletoe extract are able to lock on to cancer cells and destroy them the same way they would destroy a virus.  NK cell activity also increases between five and ten-fold with the extracts.

Animal studies have suggested that mistletoe extracts are also advantageous for those using more conventional cancer therapies.  It seems to decrease the side-effects that are common with chemotherapy and radiation.  It significantly reduces the risk of leucopenia (white blood cell deficiency) after radiation as well.

The National Cancer Institute’s (US) website states that there are a few flaws in the research on mistletoe that cast shadows of doubt on the plant’s efficacy.  It states “Although many of these trials have reported mistletoe to be effective, there are major weaknesses in almost all that raise doubts about their findings. Weaknesses have included small numbers of patients, incomplete patient data, lack of information about mistletoe dose, and problems with study design.”  It also points out that most of the studies are published in German, so maybe they are willing to think there could be something lost in translation!

These points may be valid, only further research will tell us for sure.  It is definitely true that the sophisticated injections under scrutiny today are a far cry form the tea made from leaves used by healers a hundred years ago.  Who knows what the next evolution could be?

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