During the holiday, European Mistletoe (Viscum album L.) is a typical decoration hung from doorways and ceilings. It is known to invite romantic gestures beneath its leaves, making it a symbol of affection and festive spirit. However, mistletoe holds a hidden secret – it has a connection to the world of medicine that spans centuries and continents.

Mistletoe is a unique, poisonous semi-parasitic plant known for its iconic clusters of white or red berries. It thrives on a variety of host trees by extracting water and nutrients from their circulatory system. However, this plant is not entirely parasitic since it has the capacity of conducting photosynthesis and contains chlorophyll.

Mistletoe in Traditional Medicine

Despite its parasitic and poisonous nature, mistletoe has carved a niche in traditional medicine. European mistletoe has garnered significant attention in complementary and alternative medicine for its potential in cancer treatment, immune system boosting, and central nervous system disorders. In fact, Germany has been using mistletoe subcutaneous or intravenous administration as a complementary anti-cancer therapy for over 100 years. In addition, Holland and Switzerland have recently adopted this therapy alongside the conventional oncology treatment programs.

Mistletoe and Cancer Treatment

Mistletoe for MedicineEuropean Mistletoe has emerged as a potential ally in the fight against cancer. Extracts containing alkaloids, viscotoxins, polysaccharides, and lectins from the mistletoe plant have demonstrated the ability to kill cancer cells in vitro by reducing the expression of key genes involved in tumour progression, malignancy, cell migration and invasion.

Moreover, this plant has shown the ability to stimulate immune system cells. Mistletoe extracts show promise in the alleviation of chemotherapy side effects, improving the lifespan and coping ability of cancer patients and survivors.

Mistletoe and Immune System

Research suggests that mistletoe extract treatments can boost the immune system by increasing lymphocytes and natural killer (NK) cells. These treatments have displayed inhibitory effects on glioblastoma cells, a type of brain tumour, enhancing the effectiveness of NK cells in destroying these tumours. A single intravenous infusion of mistletoe extracts resulted in several positive results, such as an increase in neutrophils, improved ability of white blood cells, and higher numbers of NK cells, which are vital for fighting tumours and in regulating the overall immune response against cancer.

In addition to its cancer-fighting potential, mistletoe has intriguing antiviral and antibacterial properties. Mistletoe extracts have shown potential as antifungal agents, especially against Candida species, but their effectiveness can vary depending on the mistletoe species and the specific part of the plant used. Mistletoe has also demonstrated potential in fighting viruses such as parainfluenza and measles, though its effectiveness varies with each virus. Ongoing research explores mistletoe’s potential in managing HIV and other viral infections, with certain mistletoe compounds demonstrating protective effects against HIV in laboratory experiments.

Mistletoe and the Central Nervous System (CNS)

Recent studies shed light on mistletoe’s therapeutic potential for the CNS. Both in vitro and in vivo experiments suggest antiepileptic, antipsychotic, and sedative effects. The plant is even being explored as a complementary treatment for Alzheimer disease.

Figure 1. Mistletoe Mechanisms of action and its influence in the CNS. Image retrieved from Science Direct

Advantages and Disadvantages

Table 1 bellow presents a summary of the possible advantages and disadvantages of the use of mistletoe extracts for medical therapy.

Few side effectsLack of clinical experience
Pssible anti-cancer theraputic effectsSmall number of participants in research
Possible immune system theraputic effectsLack details about participants in research
Possible central nervous system theraputic effectsSome poorly design experiments
Mistletoe extracts are among the most prescribed therapies for cancer patients in EuropeNot FDA (U.S Food and Drug Administration) approved as a cancer treatment
Possible complimentary and alternative medicine therapy for cancerIncosistent findings

Mistletoe therapy seems to be a promising complementary treatment in many fields of medicine. Researchers highlight the potential that this parasitic Christmas plant could have in improving cancer treatments, the immune system, and neurological disorder amongst others. However, further research and combinational strategies are needed to fully understand the clinical implication of mistletoe therapy in cancer patients, and in other medical fields. Currently, research is lacking in certain key areas and this needs to be addressed before mistletoe therapy can be adopted as a viable treatment option. With further research and clinical trials, mistletoe might no longer be just a Christmas decoration and symbol of festive kisses, but a substantive force in the medical field.

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