Kiss of life
Itâ€™s the season to be jolly and that also means that it is the season to be very careful who you find yourself standing under a sprig of mistletoe with. Yes, as the shopping malls fill with shoppers with a slightly crazed glint of desperation in their eye, television screens brim with advertisements for things you would not even consider buying were it not for a need to get something for Aunt Mabel, and red and green bunting springs from every societal orifice; you know itâ€™s Christmas. You are also aware that because itâ€™s Christmas certain things start to happen and one of those things is that â€œmistletoeâ€ becomes part of your lexicon where for 11 months you donâ€™t even give this parasitic plant a thought. Tradition is, of course, that the unwary traveller trapped beneath a mistletoe sprig should offer up a kiss but there is a lot more to this plant than being a venue for leering would-be osculators. For many years mistletoe has been used medicinally and now research is suggesting that it has anti-cancer effects.
The plant mistletoe (Viscum album) is a parasitic evergreen shrub that grows in branches of host trees. It has narrow leathery leaves, yellow flowers and white berries. The tradition regarding kissing is dated back to a Norse myth wherein Balder, the God of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of mistletoe. The gods and goddesses restored him to life and the mistletoe was given into the keeping of the Goddess of Love, who decreed that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss to show it had become an emblem of love and not hate. Additionally, mistletoe does have a long history of use in herbal medicine as a treatment to lower blood pressure and also as a relaxant. It does, however, have the potential to be toxic so should only be used under the guidance of a qualified health practitioner. It has also been said for some time that it might be useful in cancer treatment and this has been confirmed in a new study.
The new research used three different types of mistletoe extract against colon cancer cells and also healthy intestinal cells. The research also compared the effects of the extracts to chemotherapy. The results showed that a species of mistletoe that grows on Ash trees (known as Fraxini from Fraxinus the genus name for Ash) was highly effective at killing off colon cancer cells and it was the only one that showed a reduced toxicity against healthy intestinal cells. The mistletoe extract also was shown to make chemotherapy more effective.
The gold standard for cancer treatments is to kill off cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue. While the mistletoe extract still did some damage to healthy cells it did less damage to them than to cancer cells, which is a positive step. In Europe mistletoe is already authorised for use by colon cancer sufferers and a closer look is warranted by Australia regulators. Although, as mentioned, it would only be used under practitioner supervision.
In the meantime though, now armed with your knowledge of the mythological origins of mistletoeâ€™s connection to kissing, should you find yourself unwittingly trapped beneath mistletoe with a too-eager companion you might just point out, â€œThis stuff can be made into arrows as well you know.â€