(NaturalHealth365) Festooning doorways and hallways with swags of mistletoe – and encouraging couples to kiss underneath them – is an ancient Christmas tradition that persists in both Europe and America to this day. Yet, for many cancer patients and survivors, the mistletoe plant is more than a symbol of the holidays. Many are convinced that it is part of the reason that they are here to kiss, and live, another year.
Mistletoe extract injections are currently one of the leading alternative adjuvant cancer treatments in Europe, where they are sold under a variety of brand names including Iscador, Iscar, Eurixor, Helixor, Lektinol, and abnobaVISCUM. Used in conjunction with conventional chemotherapy or radiation, mistletoe extracts can make these medications more effective, while protecting cell DNA from their harmful effects.
No surprise: The FDA refuses to ‘approve’ mistletoe extract – but why?
In spite of increasing interest in the United States in mistletoe as a cancer therapy, the extracts aren’t approved as a treatment by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And – with the exception of use in clinical research – it is illegal to import or use the extracts. In fact, believe it or not, the FDA actually identifies mistletoe in its “review of some lethal herbal and related products commonly used in cancer patients.”
However, if cancer survivor Ivelisse Page has her way, this may eventually change. In 2011, Page launched Believe Big, a foundation created to back more clinical trials of mistletoe. According to an article in the Baltimoresun.com, Page’s doctor, one of only 50 physicians in the United Stated allowed to prescribe mistletoe, learned of the treatment while working at a cancer clinic in Switzerland. Diagnosed in 2008 with Stage 4 colon cancer, Page chose mistletoe extracts – with no chemotherapy – as her post-surgical treatment.
Three years later, Page was disease-free, and crediting mistletoe for her recovery.
Experts agree: Mistletoe extracts attack and kill cancer cells while stopping tumor growth
Mistletoe, a semiparasitic plant that grows on apple, oak, maple, pine, birch, elm and ash trees, was used as a tonic and cure-all by the ancient Greeks. Scientists have discovered that mistletoe is high in various cancer-fighting constituents, including alkaloids, lectins, viscotoxins and polysaccharides. Even the American Cancer Society reports that viscotoxins actively kill cancer cells, while lectins have pronounced immune system-boosting effects.
The National Cancer Institute concurs, adding that mistletoe extracts appear to block angiogenesis – the process by which new blood vessels grow in order to nourish cancer cells and create tumors. In addition, mistletoe appears to protect the DNA in white blood cells – including those that have been exposed to damaging chemotherapy drugs.
But, I thought mistletoe is poisonous – is it safe?
Although the leaves and berries of European mistletoe, botanically known as Viscum album, have long been considered highly poisonous, many experts believe that this threat has been over-stated. Not only have there been no reported fatalities from mistletoe ingestion over the past few hundred years, but many individuals who ingested small amounts of mistletoe suffered only mild effects – or none at all.
However, the leaves and berries of both European and American mistletoe are still considered hazardous, with the possibility for severe adverse effects. As such, they should never be eaten. Keep in mind, for cancer patients, mistletoe extracts are injected near cancer sites – not given orally.
As for properly prepared mistletoe extracts, few side effects have been reported. One of the few clinical studies in the United States, a 2002 trial conducted jointly by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Cancer Institute, explored the use of a mistletoe extract in tandem with gemcitabine, a cancer drug. Researchers found low toxicity, with no botanical-drug interactions.
Researchers report: Mistletoe may even function as alternative to chemotherapy
Recent test tube studies performed at the University of Adelaide demonstrated that Fraxini mistletoe, a variety that grows on ash trees, was more potent against human colon cancer cells than a conventional chemotherapy drug — while less harmful to healthy intestinal cells. When used in conjunction with the chemotherapy agent, Fraxini increased its effectiveness.
Study supervisor Gordon Howarth, University of Adelaide’s Cancer Council Senior Research Fellow, noted that the constituents of mistletoe vary according to the type of tree it grows on; mistletoe from other trees could be more effective yet. Deeming the research an “important first step” towards Australian clinical trials, Howarth called for further study.
Have there been any mistletoe studies performed on humans?
Yes, dozens of them. Not only have there been over 50 clinical trials, but there have been recent scientific reviews analyzing them and evaluating them.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) cites a seven-year cohort study performed between 1993 and 2000 in which Iscador was administered, in conjunction with chemotherapy or radiation, to patients who had colorectal cancer that had not spread. The patients receiving Iscador had fewer adverse effects, more relief of symptoms, and – most promisingly – better disease-free survival rates than those who had not received it.
And that’s not all. The ACS cites a second review of 26 clinical studies, in which the authors found that 22 showed that mistletoe extract helped patients in concrete and measurable ways, including reducing the nausea, vomiting, fatigue and depression that can accompany chemotherapy. Emotional well-being and concentration improved as well – in short, the mistletoe extracts significantly improved patients’ physical and emotional quality of life.
However, researchers concede that many past mistletoe studies have not been well designed. Obviously, we ought to encourage more high-quality, independent clinical research – in order to tease out the full effects and best uses of this intriguing herbal cancer treatment.
Although mistletoe extracts appear to battle all types of human cancer cells, they show promise of being particularly effective against colorectal cancer. The ACS reports that this devastating disease is currently the third greatest cause of cancer deaths in the United States; surely, the decision to encourage the development of safe, natural and well-tolerated herbal therapy is a no-brainer.