Nearly everybody associates mistletoe with its Christmas traditions, but did you know that this parasitic herb had a variety of uses beyond stealing a Christmas kiss? In fact, mistletoe has a number of potential health benefits and a long tradition of use especially in Europe, for its ability to treat epilepsy and other nervous conditions.
More recently, it has been extensively studied for its anti-cancer uses and its potential to improve lifespan and quality of life following cancer treatment. Some estimates suggest that mistletoe is used by around 50% of cancer patients in Europe in some form or another. Aside from cancer, it also may have other potential medical uses ranging from its calming effects to its ability to reduce blood pressure.
Mistletoe is a parasitic shrub that lives and grows on the stems of various other trees especially broad-leaved ones such as lime, apple and poplar trees. There are actually some 900 species of mistletoe overall some of which are known to be toxic. However, there is a common misunderstanding that all mistletoe is toxic, which is definitely not the case though certain parts of the shrub are toxic especially its berries.
The European mistletoe known scientifically as Viscum Album L is the species most used in medicine. While mistletoe can be drunk as a tea or used extracted to make tinctures, it is often used medically in inject-able form. The extracts contain a low level of mistletoe lectin which reduces the risk of toxicity. Mistletoe has not yet been given the seal of approval by the FDA and because of its potential dangers it is recommended that it is only used under expert supervision.
1) Mistletoe and Cancer
When it comes to the potential health benefits of mistletoe, the one which has been subject to the most studies is its role in cancer therapy. Some studies have focused on its anticancer properties while others have demonstrated its ability to improve quality of life and reduce symptoms during and after chemotherapy. Mistletoe extract is already widely used in Europe as part of a cancer treatment regimen.
There is certainly a growing interest in mistletoe’s potential to treat cancer and its reputation is continuing to grow. Because of this, more and more research is being conducted and there is a generally positive trend within the studies conducted so far whether they were in vitro, animal or even clinical studies.
As well as the promising research, there is a considerable amount of well documented anecdotal evidence regarding the effects of mistletoe on cancer. An example is the 37 year old mother diagnosed with colon cancer which then spread to the liver and told she had an 8% chance of living more than 2 years.
The patient requested mistletoe injections having been told about it by another doctor who specialized in complimentary therapies. Although her regular oncologists knew little about mistletoe treatment, Dr. Diaz from John Hopkins Cancer Center reluctantly began treating her with mistletoe therapy although reluctantly at first. Dr. Diaz says “I reviewed the literature on mistletoe in other parts of the world and there is some acceptance of it. I was willing to work with her.”
According to Dr. Diaz, the response was amazing and the patient improved almost immediately with more energy and the color returning to her face. The patient has been free of cancer ever since and attributes this to a combination of lifestyle, diet and mistletoe therapy and is trying to raise awareness of mistletoe in the United States. (1)
Research on Mistletoe and Cancer
A review published in 2009 analyzed 49 clinical studies that had used mistletoe extract or Iscador on cancer survival rates. While the review acknowledged certain weaknesses in the studies, they concluded that the overall positive effects were impossible to ignore. (2)
An earlier review conducted in 2003 identified 23 studies conducted on the efficacy of mistletoe in cancer survival and quality of life. Of the 23 studies, 12 demonstrated more than one statistically significant positive result and a further 7 showed at least one beneficial effect. The reviewers concluded that the generally positive trend showed sufficient potential for future well designed research. (3)
Mistletoe preparations are used to stimulate the immune system, to kill cancer cells, and to help reduce tumor size. It may also help improve the quality of life and survival of some cancer patients, especially those using chemo and radiation, and may help reduce pain and side effects of these treatments.
A major German study conducted over 27 years involving 35,000 patients demonstrated that using mistletoe (Iscador) as an adjunctive cancer treatment could increase the survival time of patients by up to 40%. (4)
2) Mistletoe for Blood pressure
Millions of people are affected by high blood pressure putting them at risk of heart disease and strokes. While its effects on blood pressure have not been as widely studied as its anticancer potential, there is some evidence that mistletoe can be used to treat hypertension. (5)
It also has the potential to prevent atherosclerosis or the build-up of plaque in the arteries which can cause many dangerous and life threatening heart conditions.
3) Mistletoe for Inflammation
Mistletoe is believed to have natural anti-inflammatory properties and one of its most common traditional uses was to treat internal and external bouts of inflammation including arthritis and other joint pains.
Arthritis is a very common condition and drinking mistletoe tea may be the perfect remedy to ease your pain and improve your mobility. Of course, there are no guarantees that it will work for you but because of its anti-inflammatory ability, mistletoe may also be good for easing digestive and gastric conditions.
4) Mistletoe and Diabetes
The ability of mistletoe to treat diabetes has not been firmly established but it has a long history of use and several animal studies have already demonstrated its anti-diabetic potential. Research on animals has shown it can reduce blood sugar levels and can regulate the body’s insulin levels. (6)
Mistletoe for Immune System
One of the greatest health benefits that mistletoe has is its effect on the immune system. One of the main reasons that mistletoe is so effective as a complimentary cancer treatment is its ability to bolster immunity and protect against further illness. A strong immune system is absolutely vital to our overall health and mistletoe has the potential to improve our body’s natural defenses.
5) Mistletoe Calming effects
Mistletoe was traditionally used for its calming properties and its ability to treat nervous disorders like epilepsy, tremors and tics. Many people believe that it can be used to treat other nervous conditions like anxiety and stress as well as helping you to sleep better.
6) Mistletoe for Respiratory Conditions
There is no scientific evidence relating to mistletoe’s ability to treat respiratory complaints but according to anecdotal evidence and historical use, it can soothe irritation and distress in the respiratory system. It can be used to treat coughing, sore throats, bronchitis and chest tightness. Some believe that it works because it calms the mind and the relationship between physical symptoms of distress and mental anxiety.
7) Mistletoe and Menstrual Pain
If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from very painful menstrual cramps and pain, mistletoe is a potential natural remedy to ease your symptoms. It can soothe muscular spasms and reduce inflammation as well as having a positive calming impact on your mind.
Mistletoe Side Effects and Precautions
- Mistletoe preparations for cancer are generally only given under medical supervision and are not for home use.
- There is a potential for toxicity and women and lactating mothers are recommended to avoid mistletoe altogether.
- If you have any pre-existing medical condition, you should speak to your doctor before taking mistletoe as the herb may make certain conditions worse.
- Always speak to your doctor if you are in any way concerned.