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Mistletoe for Health

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Updated September 25, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What is Mistletoe?

European mistletoe (Viscum album) is a plant that grows on several types of trees throughout the world. Its shoots and berries have long been used in herbal medicine.

European mistletoe is different from American mistletoe (the variety commonly used as a holiday decoration).

Why Do People Use Mistletoe?

In herbal medicine, mistletoe is typically used to treat the following conditions, although there is limited scientific evidence on its effectiveness:

Laboratory studies have found that mistletoe can stimulate the immune system and kill cancer cells. However, clinical trials in humans have yet to prove that mistletoe is beneficial for cancer patients. Although studies have shown improvements in survival and/or quality of life among people using mistletoe in treatment of cancer, almost all of the trials had major weaknesses that raise doubts about the findings.

Benefits of Mistletoe

There is a lack of scientific evidence to support the use of mistletoe in treatment of high blood pressure, headache, or arthritis.

Here's a look at other findings on mistletoe's health effects:

1) Hepatitis C

In a 2005 study of 21 people with hepatitis C, researchers found that treatment with mistletoe was well-tolerated and led to significant improvements in liver inflammation and quality of life.

2) Diabetes

Preliminary research indicates that mistletoe may be useful in the management of diabetes. In a 2009 study on rats, scientists found that diabetic animals treated with mistletoe had a significant decrease in blood sugar levels. Mistletoe also appeared to stimulate the secretion of insulin in both diabetic and non-diabetic rats.

Since there is limited evidence on mistletoe's benefits and risks for people with hepatitis C or diabetes, it's critical for patients to consult a physician before using this herb.

Side Effects of Mistletoe

Use of mistletoe has been linked to following side effects:

  • chills
  • fever
  • headache
  • chest pain
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting

It should be noted that eating raw, unprocessed mistletoe can cause seizures, a slowing of the heart rate, and even death.

Safety

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine cautions that because mistletoe has not yet been proven to be a safe and effective cancer treatment, it should not be used outside of clinical trials. If you're considering using mistletoe in treatment of cancer or another condition, make sure to consult your physician.

Taking mistletoe in combination with certain medications (such as blood pressure drugs and antiarrhythmics) may produce harmful effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid mistletoe.

Sources:

Eno AE, Ofem OE, Nku CO, Ani EJ, Itam EH. "Stimulation of insulin secretion by Viscum album (mistletoe) leaf extract in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats." Afr J Med Med Sci. 2008 37(2):141-7.

Melzer J, Iten F, Hostanska K, Saller R. "Efficacy and safety of mistletoe preparations (Viscum album) for patients with cancer diseases. A systematic review." Forsch Komplementmed. 2009 16(4):217-26.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Mistletoe: Herbs at a Glance [link: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/mistletoe/ataglance.htm]." NCCAM Publication No. D270
Created July 2005
Updated April 2008.

Tusenius KJ, Spoek AM, van Hattum J. "Exploratory study on the effects of treatment with two mistletoe preparations on chronic hepatitis C." Arzneimittelforschung. 2005;55(12):749-53.

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