Mistletoe in medicine – introduction
This section of the website gives some background to traditional and modern uses of mistletoe in medicine in medicine.
There are traditions of mistletoe in medicine all around the world, involving many different species of mistletoe. Some have a long history, possibly dating all the way into prehistory. Many will be based on the unusual parasitic growth form of mistletoe suggesting special properties.
Our European mistletoe has a particular added attraction in herbal tradition because of its unusual branching pattern and white berries.
There are four sections to this page:
- Herbal traditions
- Modern herbal use (inc in tea, cosmetics and veterinary use)
- Cancer therapy
- Harvesting for medicinal Use
But first, some important medical points:
Check your species! Do remember that this site is mostly about European Mistletoe, Viscum album, and any medical issues described relate to that species only. Other species of mistletoe will have differing medical properties and may be dangerous. There is particular confusion sometimes in North America, where local mistletoe species (especially Phoradendron) may be significantly more poisonous than our European variety.
Isn’t mistletoe poisonous? Yes it is, but only in excess. European mistletoe, like many plants used in medicine, does contain some toxic chemicals, in this case complex proteins known as Lectins. These should not be a problem in most circumstances – and there is never any problem with handling mistletoe. But mistletoe is not an edible herb – it should only ever be administered by experts or in forms that have been processed (the simplest processing is the drying process for mistletoe tea, which will change some of its chemical structures).
Medical advice: This website is not a medical site, and cannot recommend or endorse any possible treatments. The information here merely outlines past and present thinking on mistletoe in medicine and gives links to further information – and to mistletoe tea suppliers. Always read the label on any medicines or herbal products and obtain professional medical advice.
The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies and medicine probably has its origins in prehistory. According to Pliny the Elder the druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks (and oak is a rare host for traditional mistletoe) to use in rituals and in medicine. It’s never been clear exactly what they used it for – but it has had a reputation ever since as an all-heal and for use to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure.
The earliest archaeological evidence is from Lindow Man, a Roman-era bog body found preserved in Cheshire. Analysis of his stomach contents revealed a few grains of mistletoe pollen – and this has been (rather imaginatively!) interpreted as evidence that he drank some sort of mistletoe drink before his death. Some let their imaginations run further and suggest the mistletoe remains are proof he was a druid, or even a sacrificial victim of druids.
The evidence for these imaginative stories is minimal however – all we really know is Lindow Man had ingested some mistletoe, which might, with a little less imagination, merely suggest he was taking some medicine. (For more thoughts on Lindow Man have a look at these Mistletoe Diary entries).
Herbals and Materia Medica publications from Dioscorides onwards continue to feature mistletoe as a medicinal plant, with most concentrating on its fertility symbolism (which may have more to with the plant’s appearance than its chemical properties) and on its value in helping nervous illnesses, particularly epilepsy.
The great Herbals of the 15th to 17th centuries all include these claims, often stressing (and depicting) the value of mistletoe on oak – a direct echo of Pliny’s writings many centuries before.
By the 18th century these claims were beginning to be backed-up (to some extent) by research, including a famous study by Sir John Colbatch in 1720, investigating mistletoe’s effects on epilpesy. At that time he wrote:
“that there must be something extraordinary about that uncommon beautiful plant, that the Almighty had designed it for further and more noble uses than barely to feed thrushes or to be hung up superstitiously”
For information on modern herbal uses of mistletoe keep reading:
In the modern era mistletoe, as a medicine, has become somewhat shunned by many, not least because of a reputation as a poisonous plant.
But most plants with significant medical properties are also rather poisonous, so whilst it is right to be wary, that’s no reason to doubt its value.
Mistletoe is still regularly used in many medicinal forms, some more obvious than others.
The most significant modern use of mistletoe in herbal from is as a tea.
Taking mistletoe tea to help relieve blood pressure and circulatory problems is actually very widespread in continental Europe – and most continental pharmacies and shops selling herbal teas will offer you mistletoe tea in loose or bagged form.
This tea has never been popular in Britain however, perhaps because of those concerns about toxicity. But if you want to try it there are many ways of buying it online.
There’s a link to a supplier via Amazon here.
You may be using mistletoe without knowing it!
Some skin cosmetics, shampoos etc contain mistletoe, though it’s rarely mentioned on the main label.
Have a look at the small print ingredients, and see if you can spot it – it will be usually listed under the scientific name of Viscum album.
Mistletoe also features in herbal medicine for animals. Indeed there is a long history of mistletoe being used for fertility treatment in farm animals (and, conversely, to induce abortion in them – so this cannot be recommended!).
Modern herbal veterinary medicine uses focus more on the belief (which goes back centuries) that mistletoe can help calm nerves.
So, for example, you’ll find mistletoe is an ingredient in herbal calming tablets for your dog or cat.Important note for herbal use: If you’re buying mistletoe as a herbal product make sure you know which mistletoe species it is from. Within Europe it is almost always Viscum album but in other areas other species might be used and their properties may be different.. Buy from reputable firms with proper labelling – some websites (especially some Ebay suppliers) do not specify a species – and so their product could be very unsafe. Always read the label on medicines, and obtain professional medical advice if in any doubt.
The use of mistletoe in cancer therapy is gaining in popularity – though it is also fairly controversial. You’ll read of people who believe their cancer was cured by mistletoe – and yet mistletoe isn’t a recognised treatment. So if it works so well why isn’t it used widely? And if it doesn’t work why do people say it does?
It has its origins in Rudolf Steiner’s 1920s work when he was developing many ideas about medicinal value of plants. His ‘science of the spirit’ (anthroposophy) approach suggested that particular plant species could be linked to specific ailments.
He identified mistletoe as a species that could help with cancer treatment and in the following decades his teachings and suggestions for mistletoe treatments have been substantially developed in mainland Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.
There are now a number of dedicated anthroposophic clinics and manufacturers of mistletoe extracts, using the specific processes suggested by Steiner. The mistletoe treatment is usually complementary – used alongside and in addition to, conventional cancer treatments. It is not generally used on its own – but in some treaments it can be.
Arguments for the treatment
There is now considerable research and many trials that seem to show that mistletoe therapy can be effective. The extracts, which are injected subcutaneously, are thought to stimulate the body’s immune system, and are said to give patients a better quality of life whilst undergoing conventional cancer treatment. The therapy is used in continental Europe and is gaining in popularity in Britain and North America.
Anthroposophic researchers have found that mistletoe from differing hosts, and at different times of the year has subtly different chemical properties, and prescribe different variants of extract for each type of cancer.
Some of the active ingredients in mistletoe do seem to have potential use in cancer treatment, with conventional medical research finding that the complex compounds (Viscotoxins and Mistletoe Lectins) found in mistletoe can have specific effects on cancer cells and stimulate the immune system.
Arguments against the treatment
Despite the growing popularity of the treatment there is considerable unease about it in the conventional medical establishment. One fundamental issue seems to relate to why mistletoe? Extracts of many semi-poisonous plants will have significant effects on biological systems, and may affect cancer cells or, in an injected form, affect the immune system. There is an argument along the lines of mistletoe is not necessarily the best plant available and appears to have been selected on a fairly ad hoc basis (by Steiner).
And, more technically, a major concern is quality of the (admittedly numerous) clinical trials, which are said to not be robust enough and often based on an atypical sample of patients. Plus the treatment is not without risk.
Critics are often wary of the dangers of the plant, and warn that it could cause harm. The mistletoe lectins are particularly interesting in this respect. They are similar in structure to Ricin, a lectin from castor oil plant. That lectin, once notorious for its use in the umbrella tip poisoning of BBC World Service journalist Georgi Markov in 1978, has recently been listed in the UK Terrorism Act Schedules, as a possible ‘weapon of mass destruction’ in concentrated form. One of our mistletoe chemicals is also listed in the same Terrorism Act Schedules – which should tell you something about its potential toxicity in quantity.
Further advice and treatment centres
Confused? Well, this sort of complementary medicine is one where you have to make your own mind up, based on what you have read, and what you are being advised by doctors. There are some resources below if you want to know more:
There is a bewildering array of scientific papers, and a host of popular articles, about mistletoe therapy. Much of the original research is in German.
- There is a good English language overview at the US National Cancer Institute’s pages here.
- The review at cam-cancer.org is a good introduction too. There’s a pdf version here, and the online (regularly updated) version here.
- And it’s worth reading Edzard Ernst’s editorial for the British Medical Journal in December 2006.
There are only a few English language books that deal with mistletoe cancer therapy. All tend to be in favour of the therapy, so you won’t find discussions of the pros and cons in these.
This 2000 book, The Genus Viscum, edited by Arndt Bussing, is a general overview of mistletoe including medical properties.
This 2010 book, Mistletoe Therapy for Cancer: Prevention, Treatment and Healing by Johannes Wilkens and Gert Bohm is specifically about the anthroposophic therapy.
This 2001 book Iscador: Mistletoe in Cancer Therapy by Christine Murphy concentrates on Iscador, the mistletoe extract made by Weleda
Mistletoe medicine manufacturers
Links to some of the complementary mistletoe medicines used in cancer therapy are given below. Their websites (mostly German language) provide a wealth of information on mistletoe therapy.
Mistletoe therapy in the UK
The best source of information for undertaking mistletoe therapy in the UK is the Mistletoe for Cancer UK website.
Therapy is available in many clinics in the UK and you may be able to find a clinic near you if you want to find out more. Some NHS Trusts do refer patients to these clinics.
The Camphill mistletoe therapy centre in Aberdeen (Dr Stefan Geider) is one of the leading UK centres. For contact information and an up-to-date list of other centres visit the Mistletoe for Cancer UK website.
Continental mistletoe is harvested for more than just the seasonal trade. The European traditions of using mistletoe in medicine, particularly the Anthroposophic approach advocated by Steiner, means there is harvesting all year round.
This is a different sort of harvest – the aim is to sample mistletoe at several times of year, and from differing hosts – as the chemical properties of mistletoe vary according to season and host. This careful, sustainable year-round harvesting is a complete contrast to the Christmas rush just to get a few branches with berries!
Most is taken from apple and pine trees, but minority hosts are also sought, including oak. To guarantee supplies from these minority hosts the mistletoe crop is harvested very carefully, and new colonies are established on key host species such as oak.
Medical advice: Please remember this website is not a medical site, and cannot recommend or endorse any possible treatments. The information here merely outlines past and present thinking on mistletoe in medicine and gives links to further information. Always obtain professional medical advice. And at least one independent second opinion, especially regarding cancer therapy.