Mistletoe is perhaps best known as a romance-inducing Christmas decoration, yet taking extracts from this plant as a medicine could perhaps be a powerful act of self love too. Indeed, research indicates compounds found in mistletoe have the ability to boost the immune system, kill cancer cells, and arrest tumor growth.
Medicines made from mistletoe are some of the most widely studied complementary and alternative therapies for people with cancer, and injectable drugs made from extracts of the plant are commonly prescribed to cancer patients in several European countries including Germany (though they’ve not been approved for use in the United States).
Mistletoe-based medicines have been shown to prevent the growth of new blood vessels that cancerous tumors depend on to flourish and may help patients better tolerate conventional therapies. The plant has also been used to treat many other conditions, including high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, internal bleeding, hemorrhoids, epilepsy, gout, depression, menopausal symptoms, whooping cough, asthma, dizziness, and diarrhea.
Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen plant that grows on variety of trees, including oak, pine, and elm. There are numerous different types of mistletoe, and further variants depending upon the host on which it grows. It is found in diverse locations from Europe and North America to Australia and Asia. European mistletoe (Viscum album) and American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) are both utilized for their medicinal qualities and appear in traditional medicine pharmacopoeias.
Historically, the plant played a revered role within Druid traditions. It was collected ceremoniously and believed to protect the barer against evil forces as well symbolizing the onset of the New Year. It has also been recognized within many other folk medicine systems, such as that of the Ancient Greeks, as a “cure-all” which was used to treat a host of ailments including epilepsy, toothache, sores, and ulcers, among other things. The plant was also employed to induce muscle relaxation before childbirth and to hasten menstruation. It has been used medicinally both externally in a topical application and internally as an infused drink — although caution should be used when ingesting mistletoe-based preparations, since the plant and berries themselves are considered poisonous if consumed by humans.
Could Mistletoe Help Kiss Cancer Goodbye?
Though there are concerns over the herb and berry’s toxicity in humans, extracts from mistletoe are proving to have a beneficial effect, which modern science is starting to unwrap. Although studies are limited and small in number, research so far has confirmed that cultures that used this plant often did so wisely and correctly. Furthermore, the plant is showing particular potential when it comes to cancer.
Research conducted by a team at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany, which was published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, has exposed several factors that mistletoe posses that make it a natural candidate at battling cancer. The paper, entitled “In vitro response of stimulated B-CLL lymphocytes of patients treated with Viscum album L. extracts,” notes that mistletoe extracts “have been shown to induce apoptosis” — a mechanism by which the body’s defense systems destroy and remove cancerous cells.
Apoptosis plays an important role in maintaining the health of the body by eliminating unhealthy cells. A surplus or deficit in the process can play a major role in multiple diseases. When apoptosis is lacking, defective cells that should have been eliminated by the process will linger and multiply, as is the case with cancer and leukemia. In the University of Witten/Herdecke study, researchers found that the mistletoe extract had a non-propagating effect on leukemia cells, with the authors stating that, “In this in vitro setting of the observational study, no stimulation of leukemic cells from the patients treated with VA-E [Viscum album extract] was profound.”
An extract distilled from European mistletoe called Iscador is one of the most commonly prescribed oncological drugs in Germany. A paper authored by a team from the UN Institute for Preventive Medicine in Heidelberg, Germany, which was published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, analyzed the effects of Iscador in a total of 10,226 cancer patients suffering from colon, rectum, stomach, and non-metastasized breast tumors. Of this study group, 1,668 people were treated with the extract, while 8,457 had neither taken Iscador nor any other mistletoe-based product, serving as a control. Within the main study group, the researchers isolated 396 matched pairs to analyze further, and found that those that had taken the Iscador survived 40 percent longer than those that did not. This study demonstrates that mistletoe extract can potentially significantly extend the life expectancy of cancer patients.
An extraordinary case of mistletoe appearing to dramatically assist a cancer patient was published in the Alternative Medicine archive of John Hopkins Magazine. In September, 2008, a 37-year-old by the name of Ivelisse Page was diagnosed with colon cancer, which then spread to her liver. Because of the severity of her condition, she was informed by her oncologist, Luis Diaz, that she only had an 8 percent chance of surviving beyond two years. After having 20 percent of her liver removed, Page declined conventional chemotherapy. Instead she decided to try a complementary therapy in the form of mistletoe extract injections — something which had been suggested to her by her local community center doctor, but a course of treatment that her oncologist was initially very resistant to. However, upon viewing Page post-treatment, her oncologist was astounded. “The one thing I noticed was that as soon as she went on it, she started feeling better,” Diaz told John Hopkins Magazine reporter Joe Sugarman. “That’s a universal feature I’ve seen in all patients who get mistletoe. Their [color] improves; they have more energy.” Page has been cancer-free since her liver surgery, and gives part of the credit to mistletoe, alongside diet and exercise.
It seems mistletoe extracts not only have an anti-cancer effect, but also help patients better tolerate traditional chemotherapy. One such study which underlines this was conducted by a Health Sciences student at the University of Adelaide in Australia called Zahra Loftollahi. As part of her Honors research project, Loftollahi decided to explore how mistletoe extracts may assist chemotherapy — or even act as an alternative to it — for patients with colon cancer. The disease is the second largest cause of cancer death in the West, with the American Cancer Society estimating that 93,090 cases will likely be diagnosed in the U.S. alone in 2015.
After testing three different types of mistletoe extract and a traditional chemotherapy drug, Loftollahi found that an extract called Fraxini, sourced from mistletoe that grows on ash trees, was the most effective against colon cancer cells. It also acted more gently on healthy intestinal cells in comparison to the other mistletoe extracts tested as well as the chemotherapy drug. Furthermore, Loftollahi found Fraxini extract was actually even more effective at combatting cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug she used in her tests. This is groundbreaking research considering that chemotherapy fails 97 percent of the time and inflicts damaging side effects.
“This is an important result because we know that chemotherapy is effective at killing healthy cells as well as cancer cells. This can result in severe side-effects for the patient, such as oral mucositis [ulcers in the mouth] and hair loss,” Loftollahi said in a report published on the University of Adelaide website. “Our laboratory studies have shown Fraxini mistletoe extract by itself to be highly effective at reducing the viability of colon cancer cells. At certain concentrations, Fraxini also increased the potency of chemotherapy against the cancer cells.”
Though it would be unwise to ingest the plant itself, mistletoe can be taken as a home remedy for high blood pressure, asthma, nervousness, hysteria, whooping cough, and other ailments in the form of tea. This can be made by adding 1 teaspoon of finely cut or shredded mistletoe to 1 cup of cold water. The mixture should be left to steep at room temperature for 12 hours and then strained into a cup. A maximum of 12 cups of mistletoe tea a day is recommended.