‘Tis the Season: Mistletoe Offers a Rich History as Medicine

© New Africa / Adobe Stock

Mistletoe has been hanging in archways around the Christmas season for centuries. When I was a child in my hometown in Oklahoma, we would look high up in trees to spot a bunch, try to knock it down, and drag it home like it was a trophy (The mistletoe is the official floral emblem for the state).

If you got lucky, some round, white-colored berries would be attached. Those are considered the fruits of the plant.

Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that originated primarily from the British isle in Northern Europe. It grows as a hanging bush on branches of trees such as poplar, pear, cherry, birch, willow, and chestnut.

Mistletoe has long since been considered a pagan religious symbol and was believed to have magical properties ‒ used to cure diseases and as a talisman of good fortune and fertility. The Greeks fawned over mistletoe for its healing powers.

According to the Smithsonian, the romantic symbolization of the mistletoe comes from ancient Norse mythology.1 In the tale, Baldur, the grandson of a Norse god, woke up convinced that every plant and animal on earth wanted to kill him. His Mom, Frigg, the goddess of love, while fearing for his life, pleaded with all the plants and animals of the world to promise not to harm her son. She forgot, however, to secure her son’s life with one living being ‒ the mistletoe. He was stabbed by the god Loki with an arrow made from mistletoe, and Baldur’s fear became a reality. The Christmas tradition stuck in Northern Europe as a reminder of what Baldur’s mother forgot, or so they say. In America, it has been incorporated into holiday celebrations.

By the 18th century, it became ubiquitous with Christmas cheer. The Romans even legalized marriages by kissing under mistletoe. The custom of kissing under mistletoe continues as we all know today. Let’s be honest. It is a little creepy to think that anyone can be under the mistletoe, such as crazy Uncle Bob, and you are supposed to plant a kiss. I think not! Boundaries, friends. It is an adorable decoration, yes, but I also don’t want to share any germs with people I don’t know whether we are in COVID times or not. I am not even supposed to kiss my dog, and I know her!

Mistletoe is touted for many benefits other than kissing. The plant contains toxic amines; however, eating its berries can cause vomiting and stomach pain. So please don’t start chewing your decorations. However, studies show that mistletoe is not quite as hazardous that historically it was made out to be.2 Native Americans have been using mistletoe for hundreds of years as a therapeutic agent. It was brewed into a liquid, and people who suffered from headaches bathed their heads in the tincture. There are 1,300 mistletoe species worldwide, and in the United States and Canada, we have more than 30. Globally, there are some species considered endangered. Mistletoe is a parasite and likes to grow on apple trees, for example, but orchards have been disappearing. There are also climate issues and the stress the mistletoe can cause to a tree.

Health Benefits and Therapeutic Uses of Mistletoe

  • Calming and healing properties of mistletoe result in it being used to treat cases of epilepsy, hysteria, anxiety attacks, nervous fits, and neurosis.3,4
  • Mistletoe is often used as an herbal sleeping aid. The chemical makeup in the herb may promote the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine to support restful sleep.5
  • Research shows that it is a cholesterol lowering for low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and it increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL).6-8
  • Many mistletoe extracts showed radical-scavenging activity and protective against oxidative stress.9-12
  • The ability to kill fungal infections, such as aspergillus – a flesh-eating microbe – and candida.13
  • Mistletoe shows bi-directional activity in the treatment of cancer. Helping with fatigue, anxiety, and pain and it shows antitumor activity by cytotoxicity, inducing apoptosis as well as the inhibition of angiogenesis.4,14-19
  • In China, medicinal plants from ancient to modern history have been used in patients with angina pectoris, congestive heart failure (CHF), systolic hypertension, arrhythmia, and venous insufficiency for centuries.20

Holiday traditions can be because of religion, customs, and folklore. During this season of cheer, when you look up and see the lovely decoration while deciding if this is a kissing moment or not, remember there is a history and use for the mistletoe that we know and love.

Disclaimer: This article should not be used as medical advice. There are reasons of concern with the use of herbs because they are not regulated or supervised. Their use could lead to serious complications or interactions with their combination with traditional medicines. Please search out advice from your medical provider.

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  1. Dunn, R. (2011, December 21). Mistletoe: The Evolution of a Christmas Tradition Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mistletoe-the-evolution-of-a-christmas-tradition-10814188/
  2. Spiller, H.A., Willias, D.B., Gorman, S.E., Sanftleban, J. Retrospective Study of Mistletoe Ingestion. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 1996; 34(4): 405-408. doi:10.3109/15563659609013810. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8699554/
  3. Beshay, E.V.N. Therapeutic Efficacy of Artemisia absinthium against Hymenolepis nana: In Vitro and In Vivo Studies in Comparison with the Anthelmintic Praziquantel. J Helminthol. 2018; 92(3): 298-308. doi:10.1017/S0022149X17000529. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28606189/
  4. Kienle, G.S., Kiene, H. Review Article: Influence of Viscum album L (European Mistletoe) Extracts on Quality of Life in Cancer Patients: A Systematic Review of Controlled Clinical Studies. Integr Cancer Ther. 2010; 9(2): 142-157. doi:10.1177/1534735410369673. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20483874/
  5. Xie, W., Adolf, J., Melzig, M.F. Identification of Viscum album L. miRNAs and Prediction of Their Medicinal Values. PLoS One. 2017; 12(11): e0187776. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0187776. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29112983/
  6. Abdel-Sattar, E., Harraz, F.M., Ghareib, S.A., et al. Antihyperglycaemic and Hypolipidaemic Effects of the Methanolic Extract of Caralluma tuberculata in Streptozotocin-induced Diabetic Rats. Nat Prod Res. 2011; 25(12): 1171-1179. doi:10.1080/14786419.2010.490782. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21740282/
  7. Adaramoye, O., Amanlou, M., Habibi-Rezaei, M., Pasalar, P., Ali, M.M. Methanolic Extract of African Mistletoe (Viscum album) Improves Carbohydrate Metabolism and Hyperlipidemia in Streptozotocin-induced Diabetic Rats. Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2012; 5(6): 427-433. doi:10.1016/S1995-7645(12)60073-X. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22575973/
  8. Kim, M.J., Park, J.H., Kwon, D.Y., et al. The Supplementation of Korean Mistletoe Water Extracts Reduces Hot Flushes, Dyslipidemia, Hepatic Steatosis, and Muscle Loss in Ovariectomized Rats. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2015; 240(4): 477-487. doi:10.1177/1535370214551693. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25258426/
  9. Sengul, M., Yildiz, H., Gungor, N., Cetin, B., Eser, Z., Ercisli, S. Total Phenolic Content, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Some Medicinal Plants. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2009; 22(1): 102-106. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19168430/
  10. Papuc, C., Crivineanu, M., Goran, G., Nicorescu, V., Durdun, N. Free Radicals Scavenging and Antioxidant Activity of European Mistletoe (Viscum album) and European Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis). Revista de Chimie. 2010; 61(7); 619-622. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  11. Kim, B.K., Choi, M.J., Park, K.Y., Cho, E.J. Protective Effects of Korean Mistletoe Lectin on Radical-induced Oxidative Stress. Biol Pharm Bull. 2010; 33(7): 1152-1158. doi:10.1248/bpb.33.1152. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20606306/
  12. Kim, S.Y., Yang, E.J., Son, Y.K., Yeo, J.H., Song, K.S. Enhanced Anti-oxidative Effect of Fermented Korean Mistletoe is Originated from an Increase in the Contents of Caffeic Acid and Lyoniresinol. Food Funct. 2016; 7(5): 2270-2277. doi:10.1039/c6fo00138f. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27072079/
  13. Deeni, Y.Y., Sadiq, N.M. Antimicrobial Properties and Phytochemical Constituents of the Leaves of African Mistletoe (Tapinanthus dodoneifolius (DC) Danser) (Loranthaceae): An Ethnomedicinal Plant of Hausaland, Northern Nigeria. J Ethnopharmacol. 2002; 83(3): 235-240. doi:10.1016/s0378-8741(02)00244-1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12426091/
  14. Brandenberger, M., Simões-Wüst, A.P., Rostock, M., Rist, L., Saller, R. An Exploratory Study on the Quality of Life and Individual Coping of Cancer Patients during Mistletoe Therapy. Integr Cancer Ther. 2012; 11(2): 90-100. doi:10.1177/1534735411413267. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21733987/
  15. Cebović, T., Spasić, S., Popović, M. Cytotoxic Effects of the Viscum Album L. Extract on Ehrlich Tumour Cells In Vivo. Phytother Res. 2008; 22(8): 1097-1103. doi:10.1002/ptr.2464. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18570233/
  16. Park, Y.K., Do, Y.R., Jang, B.C. Apoptosis of K562 Leukemia Cells by Abnobaviscum F®, a European Mistletoe Extract. Oncol Rep. 2012;2 8(6): 2227-2232. doi:10.3892/or.2012.2026. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22972372/
  17. Han, S.Y., Hong, C.E., Kim, H.G., Lyu, S.Y. Anti-cancer Effects of Enteric-coated Polymers Containing Mistletoe Lectin in Murine Melanoma Cells In Vitro and In Vivo. Mol Cell Biochem. 2015; 408(1-2): 73-87. doi:10.1007/s11010-015-2484-1 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26152904/
  18. Park, W.B., Lyu, S.Y., Kim, J.H., et al. Inhibition of Tumor Growth and Metastasis by Korean Mistletoe Lectin is Associated with Apoptosis and Antiangiogenesis. Cancer Biother Radiopharm. 2001; 16(5): 439-447. doi:10.1089/108497801753354348. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11776761/
  19. Elluru, S.R., Duong Van Huyen, J.P., Delignat, S., et al. Antiangiogenic Properties of Viscum Album Extracts Are Associated with Endothelial Cytotoxicity. Anticancer Res. 2009; 29(8): 2945-2950. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19661299/
  20. Naveed, M., Majeed, F., Taleb, A., et al. A Review of Medicinal Plants in Cardiovascular Disorders: Benefits and Risks. Am J Chin Med. 2020; 48(2): 259-286. doi:10.1142/S0192415X20500147. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32345058/
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Anne O. Rice, RDH, BS
Anne O. Rice, RDH, BS, has been a clinical dental hygienist for over 30 years and received her degree from Wichita State University. Her oral-systemic passion led her to found Oral Systemic Seminars in 2017, in which she now devotes her time, focus, and study primarily to dementia prevention and sleep hygiene. She completed the Bale Doneen Preceptorship for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention for Healthcare Practitioners. In 2020 Anne became certified as a Longevity Specialist with the Alzheimer’s Research and Dementia Foundation, a Fellow with The American Academy of Oral Systemic Health, and in 2021 published her manuscript Alzheimer’s Disease and Oral-Systemic Health: Bidirectional Care Integration Improving Outcomes. The perspective article was part of a research topic: Integrating Oral and Systemic Health: Innovations in Transdisciplinary Science, Health Care and Policy. Anne is a consultant with Weill Cornell Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic and is a consultant with Florida Atlantic College of Medicine under the direction of Dr. Richard Isaacson.