6 Potential Health Benefits of Mistletoe (Plus, Its History)
December 22, 2021
Original article and page source found here.
For most people, mistletoe brings to mind none other than a white Christmas. Besides serving as a festive winter decoration, did you know that mistletoe is also used in herbal medicine and has been for hundreds of years?
It’s a little known fact that there is actually more than one type of mistletoe. In fact, it’s believed over 100 different species are in existence.
One type of branch is most prominently used ornamentally, while a few are harvested for their medicinal purposes.
When it comes to health promotion and preventing common conditions, what is mistletoe used for? According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some of the many ailments that it may help treat include:
potentially even cancer
That said, while it may have been considered a top herb for healing throughout history, there’s not much evidence showing it definitely works … and some that indicates it may be dangerous.
What Is Mistletoe?
Mistletoe is a member of the Viscaceae plant family and is considered an evergreen hemiparasitic plant. As a parasitic plant, it latches on to trees and feeds off of them.
It’s harvested for its berries, leaves and stems.
Mistletoe earned its interesting name because many years ago people noticed that it grew where bird droppings were found. In Anglo-Saxon, “mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig.” The name misteltan eventually morphed to mistletoe.
Herbalists use mistletoe to make herbal extracts that have certain physiological effects.
The European plant, the type used as a supplement/medicine, grows on common trees such as apple, oak, pine and elm trees. Mistletoe plants form clusters or “bushes” on these trees, sometimes called “witches’ brooms.”
During cooler months, including throughout the winter, berries also grow on the branches, which attract a variety of birds.
Mistletoe plants are distributed across Europe, America, Asia and Africa to Australia and New Zealand. Some of the most recognized mistletoe species include:
American mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) is the type that grows in the United States and is used as a romantic holiday/Christmas decoration throughout the winter, while European mistletoe (Viscum album) is the species that has been used for centuries in traditional herbal medicine.
A third species (Loranthus ferrugineus) is less common but used by some to treat high blood pressure and gastrointestinal complaints. Other species, including Japanese mistletoe (Taxillus yadoriki Danser), are known for their many antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
The name “mistletoe” is believed to have been derived from the Celtic word for “all-heal.” Records tell us there were many historical uses of mistletoe, most of which focused on healing the nervous system.
It was used to treat conditions including:
nervousness/anxiety (sometimes in combination with valerian root)
In some traditional medicine systems, it was believed to be a natural “heart tonic” that could strengthen the force of the heartbeat and increase the heart rate. Herbal formulas that included mistletoe, valerian and vervain were often given for “all kinds of nervous complaints” caused by hormonal imbalances, fatigue, etc.
As a natural remedy, mistletoe was usually made into a healing tea or tincture. Another use was making salves for skin problems like sores and ulcers.
Role as a Christmas Decoration
What does mistletoe have to do with Christmas? It has long been associated with peace, protection, romance and celebration.
Today, the meaning of the mistletoe at Christmas is to serve as a sign of love and friendship.
Why do people kiss under mistletoe? This holiday tradition is said to have first began with the Greek festival of Saturnalia. Other sources claim that this tradition started in England in churches.
Records show that it first became a symbol of romance during the times of ancient Norse mythology, practiced by North Germanic/Scandinavian people in the 17th and 18th centuries. The custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe then spread to British servants and throughout England.
Refusing to kiss someone beneath mistletoe branches was associated with bad luck, as were mistletoe plants that lost of their berries.
Historically, mistletoe also symbolized the need to form a truce among enemies. The ancient Celts and Germans used European mistletoe as a ceremonial plant and believed that it had mystical powers.
It has long been a symbol of protection from misfortune, illness and violence as it “warded off evil spirits.” Some also believed it had natural aphrodisiac properties, so it was sometimes used to promote fertility
Is It Poisonous?
Why might mistletoe be bad? Because mistletoe can sometimes wind up causing damage to “host trees” that it grows on, it’s earned a reputation as being “poisonous” and is even called a “parasite” by some.
The International Academy of Herbal Arts and Sciences states: “Mistletoe burrows roots into the inner wood of trees and feeds from their sap, and a heavy infestation with mistletoe can kill branches of the host plant or even the entire host.”
Technically mistletoes are hemiparasites, meaning they obtain some energy through photosynthesis while the rest is extracted from other trees and plants.
While mistletoe can sometimes kill trees here and there, it also supplies food for birds and provides dense foliage that is useful for nesting. In fact, forests where it grows abundantly have been found to be home to many more birds — including owls, robins, chickadees, bluebirds and mourning doves — due to their ability to eat and burrow in mistletoe bunches.
What do we know about the effectiveness and safety of mistletoe when humans consume it? Is mistletoe also a type of disease or harmful?
It’s well-known that parts of the plant, including the berries and leaves, can cause serious side effects when consumed orally. Poisoning can also occur if you drink too much tea created from the plant. The poisonous ingredient found in mistletoe is called phoratoxin. Symptoms are most likely to occur after ingesting the leaves and usually last one to three days.
There are also potential side effects associated with injections. Side effects that can be caused by mistletoe extract injections can include soreness, inflammation at the injection site, headache, fever, chills, skin rash and, rarely, severe allergic reactions.
Other potential adverse reactions include vomiting, diarrhea, cramping and liver damage if used long term.
Consuming small amounts has mostly been shown to be safe. Larger doses pose the greatest risk for serious side effects.
All of that said, mistletoe when used as medicine seems to be generally safe. According to a 2018 statement published by the PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board, “few side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extracts.”
Overall, limited research exists on the potential side effects of consuming mistletoe. Currently in the United States, it is only used in clinical trials and not otherwise indicated for use.
Some trials have found evidence that mistletoe can help improve survival or quality of life in cancer patients. However, the vast majority of trials have had “major weaknesses that raise doubts about their findings.”
The NCCIH and the National Cancer Institute completed a preliminary trial to evaluate the safety of injected European mistletoe extract in combination with a cancer drug in patients with advanced cancer. It showed that patients seemed to tolerate the herb/drug combination.
However, future studies are still being designed to evaluate mistletoe’s effectiveness. That means for now it is still considered an unproven cancer treatment.
Mistletoe should not be used during pregnancy, since there are no studies to show it’s safe and some that suggest it can cause changes in the uterus that increase miscarriage risk. It also shouldn’t be used by anyone with an autoimmune disease since it might cause the immune system to become more active or anyone being treated for diabetes or heart disease/high blood pressure since it can modify glucose/blood sugar levels.
Because it’s controversial and capable of causing adverse effects, it’s best to consult with a health care practitioner before taking mistletoe.
Studies have identified different kinds of free radical-scavenging antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory constituents within various mistletoe species, including:
Terpenoids and/or steroids
Because it’s rich in these protective compounds, mistletoe may have some of the following health benefits:
1. Potentially Helpful for Cancer
Today, mistletoe extracts are the most frequently prescribed unconventional cancer therapies in Germany and some other European countries, where mistletoe is sold as a prescription drug, most often for cancer.