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Mistletoe: Why Some Kiss Under it, Others Use it Medically, and All Should be Cautious With It

Adults turn into kids again every year when the mistletoe gets hung. As the tradition goes, any woman standing beneath it is puckered up and ready for a kiss, though in modern times men, too, can take their turn under the holiday plant.

Mistletoe may be the most fun plant around ... as long as you don't eat any of its poisonous berries.

There are two major types of mistletoe, European, which has pairs of oval-shaped leaves and waxy white berries, and American, which is similar but has shorter, broader leaves. It is the American mistletoe, native to North America, that is used in holiday decorations.

Mistletoe Medicine

The mistletoe plant, particularly the berries but also the leaves, is poisonous, but ironically has also been used, in the form of extracts, tinctures, teas and intravenous injections, for many medicinal purposes.

Most notably, European mistletoe has been used to treat cancer in Europe and parts of Asia for decades. In fact, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed or approved the use of mistletoe for the United States, it's estimated that Germans alone spend more than $30 million each year on mistletoe preparations to fight cancer.

According to doctor Brent Bauer, Mayo Clinic's director of Complementary and Intergrative Medicine, chemicals in mistletoe may boost the immune system and slow or stop the growth of cancer. Trials are underway in both the United States and Europe to investigate this further, as human studies so far have yielded conflicting results.

Bauer pointed out that you should never eat or drink mistletoe extract, because its poisons could lead to death. However, he says, "We should treat all herbs with respect because there are a great number of chemicals that can be both good and bad and often times how we use them or knowledge about how to do that is what determines whether they're good or bad."

Lengthening Lives of Cancer Patients

One study, published in the May 2001 issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, did find some good news about mistletoe: It appears to prolong survival in people with breast, rectum, colon, throat, lung and stomach cancers. In the study, 56 people received mistletoe extract while another 56 received a placebo. Results showed:

  • Participants with breast cancer who were given the extract had a mean survival time of 4.79 years.

  • Those who received placebo had a mean survival time of only 2.41 years.

Mistletoe Traditions: Beyond Christmas

Using mistletoe for medicinal purposes is a trend that has spanned many cultures and for centuries. Not to mention has been associated with improving a variety of illnesses. Some of the first recorded uses for this plant include:

  • Treating diseases of the spleen
  • Menstruation problems
  • Infertility
  • Ulcers and swelling tumors

In the Middle Ages, mistletoe was regarded as a treatment for epilepsy and nervous convulsive disorders. Other uses included bone fractures, labor pains and lowering blood pressure.

More recently, mistletoe has been used for:

  • Hypertension
  • Hypertensive headache
  • Degenerative inflammation of the joints
  • Hysteria

The Kissing Tradition

Ancient cultures believed mistletoe had beneficial effects on fertility, conception and illness, and would protect its keeper from evil.

All of this talk about mistletoe begs the question, "Where did the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe come from?" There are a number of theories out there, but the definitive answer has yet to be found.

Some believe the tradition stems from the ancient Druids, who regarded mistletoe with much esteem. They believed it would protect its keeper from evil, provide an antidote to poison and cure illnesses. Branches of the plant were used to bring in the New Year, which may be why we use mistletoe to decorate for the holiday season today.

The first recorded case of someone actually kissing under the mistletoe occurred in 16th century England. However, some say the premise evolved much earlier than that when people believed the plant had powerful effects on fertility and conception.

Mistletoe Etiquette

Many people think that you can kiss under the mistletoe for the entire season, but this is not necessarily the case. As the real tradition goes, every time a kiss is made, the man must take a berry from the mistletoe branch. When all the berries have been removed, there's no more kissing allowed.

If you're going to be decking your halls with mistletoe this season, please remember that although it is traditionally thought to bring peace, goodwill and love, it is a poisonous plant that can cause a lot of harm to humans and pets alike. Mistletoe can cause weakness, blurred vision, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, hallucinations and convulsions if ingested.

Lastly, here's a great tidbit to know if you'd like to impress your friends and coworkers at this year's holiday party: Mistletoe does not grow on the ground. It is actually a parasitic shrub, nicknamed the "vampire plant," that grows on other trees. It earned this nickname because it is able to drain water and minerals directly from underneath tree bark, allowing it to survive even during drought.

Hopefully, you'll find yourself underneath some mistletoe this year, and, if you want to sneak a kiss even though all the berries are gone, go ahead ... we won't tell!

Recommended Reading

The Health Benefits of House Plants, Including the Top Nine Healthiest Plants!

How to Keep Your Spirits High During the Upcoming Holidays


Medicinal Mistletoe

Whole Health MD: Mistletoe

Why Mistletoe is a Kiss-mas Plant

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

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