According to ScienceDaily, Nov. 30, 2012, it seems that the age old traditional Christmas decoration, Mistletoe, has the potential to play a vital role as an alternative therapy for sufferers of colon cancer. But long ago mistletoe was also known for its amazing healing abilities.
In “What’s the Deal With Mistletoe? How the plant came to be associated with Christmas kissing,” (Dec. 14, 2011) Christopher Beam reveals a history of how the plant was used and referenced. The Druids are the first people credited for using this hemi-parasitic plant for healing purposes. In the Aeneid, the hero brings a bough thought to be mistletoe—a symbol of vitality that remains green even in winter—to the underworld. But the earliest mention of mistletoe’s romantic powers was by Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, who scoffed at the Druids of the 1st Century A.D. for believing that ”mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren.”
The romantic aspect of mistletoe was later brought to us by the Norse myth about Baldur and his mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage. According to legend, Frigga got all the plants and animals of the Earth to promise not to harm her son—except mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief, took that opportunity to kill Baldur with a spear made of mistletoe. In some versions of the tale, Frigga’s tears then turned into mistletoe berries, which brought Baldur back to life, prompting Frigga to declare mistletoe a symbol of love.
If we jump to the 18th or 19th centuries, we see that the Brits started hanging mistletoe as part of Christmas celebrations. By 1820 and 1830s we find mistletoe referenced in writings by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. The popular myth echoed by these writers still holds today: mistletoe brings luck to people kissed beneath it and bad luck to those who didn’t get kissed. Some have even believed that it is best to pick a berry off for every kiss and stop when all the berries are gone. Although please be careful not to eat any of the plant, as some species of mistletoe are poisonous.
Mistletoe’s reputation as a healing plant persists in the world of herbal remedies. I remember reading about Suzanne Somers opting after her breast cancer surgery to treat her breast cancer with mistletoe extract instead of chemotherapy. The product that was written about in the news that she used was called Iscador.
Now, at the University of Adelaide in Australia, scientists are looking into just how the extract of mistletoe could either assist chemotherapy or act as an alternative to chemotherapy as a treatment for colon cancer.
Colon cancer poses the second greatest cause of cancer death in the Western world. Mistletoe extract is already authorized for use by sufferers of colon cancer in Europe, but not in some countries such as Australia and the United States due to a lack of scientific testing. The Europeans use many alternative therapies and devices only now becoming known to us in the USA. Some therapies stimulate the body’s microcirculation and reach the body’s normal cells by increasing blood perfusion, such as the BEMER device.
Mistletoe, according to Science Daily, Health Sciences student Zahra Lotfollahi (for her Honors research project) recently completed at the University of Adelaide, compared the effectiveness of three different types of mistletoe extract and chemotherapy on colon cancer cells. She also compared the impact of mistletoe extract and chemotherapy on healthy intestinal cells. In her laboratory studies, she found that one of the mistletoe extracts — from a species known as Fraxini (which grows on ash trees) — was highly effective against colon cancer cells in cell culture and was gentler on healthy intestinal cells compared with chemotherapy.
Significantly, Fraxini extract was found to be more potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug.
“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,” and Ms Lotfollahi goes on to say:
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.
“Of the three extracts tested, and compared with chemotherapy, Fraxini was the only one that showed a reduced impact on healthy intestinal cells. This might mean that Fraxini is a potential candidate for increased toxicity against cancer, while also reducing potential side effects. However, more laboratory testing is needed to further validate this work,” Ms Lotfollahi says.
“Mistletoe extract has been considered a viable alternative therapy overseas for many years, but it’s important for us to understand the science behind it,” says one of Ms Lotfollahi’s supervisors, the University of Adelaide’s Professor Gordon Howarth, a Cancer Council Senior Research Fellow.
“Although mistletoe grown on the ash tree was the most effective of the three extracts tested, there is a possibility that mistletoe grown on other, as yet untested, trees or plants could be even more effective.
“This is just the first important step in what we hope will lead to further research, and eventually clinical trials, of mistletoe extract in Australia,” Professor Howarth says.
More studies are needed on the effects of mistletoe on cancer, but we’ll be keeping our eyes out. We’d love to see mistletoe help kiss cancer goodbye!