Therapy with mistletoe products is used in a number of different ways and for a broad spectrum of tumour diseases. Within a treatment plan, it can have a supportive (adjuvant), alleviating (palliative) or, most commonly, a general strengthening and preventive character.
In oncology, attention is devoted principally to the aspects of quality of life, prolonging survival and relapse prophylaxis. Mistletoe therapy can be used in a variety of ways for these purposes:
The body’s own defences are strengthened by mistletoe therapy in such a way that granulocytes, lymphocytes and natural killer cells appear in the blood to an increased extent. Any degenerated cells still found in the body can therefore be combated and the risk of metastatic spread reduced.
Mistletoe therapy can therefore improve the immune system weakened by surgery, anaesthesia, radiotherapy and chemotherapy in its role against cancer. A healthy immune system, i.e. one which reacts in a variety of ways, makes relapses less likely. To this extent, mistletoe therapy is also a preventive measure in terms of relapse prophylaxis.
Mistletoe therapy can reduce or make more bearable the pain which can occur in advanced stages of tumours by stimulating the release of endorphins. Endorphins are natural morphines produced by the body which have a pain-relieving action.
The loss of appetite and the disturbed sleep pattern that frequently occur in association with a cancer disease can be eliminated or alleviated. Healthy eating and sleeping behaviour should not be underestimated as a precondition for long-term recovery. This also applies to the reduced susceptibility to infectious diseases that can be observed during mistletoe therapy.
It has been shown in several studies that mistletoe injections have a protective effect on the genetic material (DNA) of human cells. This also explains the improved tolerance of chemotherapy or radiotherapy during mistletoe therapy.
As well as these effects which are based primarily on immunomodulation, a cytotoxic effect of Viscum album on tumour cells has also been demonstrated. Cytotoxic effects, i.e. which destroy cells, are exerted in particular by the lectins and viscotoxins contained in mistletoe.
Therapeutic Effects of the Ingredients of Mistletoe
Mistletoe preparations are plant-based medicines, and use the whole plant or the composition of active substances in the plant as the basis for their therapeutic effect. However, some manufacturers concentrate their efforts solely on one ingredient, the lectin content of mistletoe.
In this respect, the widespread belief that plant medicines are harmless is incorrect, for although the side-effects of therapy with mistletoe preparations are comparatively minor, some of the individual ingredients are among the most poisonous substances known. Mistletoe preparations for this reason can only be obtained on prescription and are not to be used without medical supervision. The fact that, despite this, the side-effects that occur are only minor is due to the interaction of the various ingredients in mistletoe. This effect, known as synergy, is however also shown in a totally different way when laboratory tests on different tumour cells have shown that individual ingredients of mistletoe, such as lectins, have a markedly lower therapeutic effect than the extract of the mistletoe plant as a whole.
Two important groups of substances in mistletoe are viscotoxins and lectins. Viscotoxins produce necrosis, in other words they cause cell death by poisoning the cell, accompanied by inflammation. Lectins, however, act on the cell nucleus where they cause an apoptotic reaction of the cell. Apoptosis means the stimulation of an ordered degradation of all the cell components, comparable to natural cell death. At present, four groups of mistletoe lectins are known.
In addition to the function described, directed specifically against the diseased cell, mistletoe possesses the property, as already mentioned, of having a modulating effect on the immune system. In this way, the immune system can be stimulated as a whole, non-specifically or specifically, in its capacity to deal with diseased cells or foreign substances. The nonspecific reactions, which are inherent in the immune system, include a marked increase in leucocytes in the blood. Specific reactions, i.e. the immune system learns this reaction as a result of administration of the drug, are for example the increased formation of T-cells and B-cells (see Index pages 51). Mistletoe therapy therefore stimulates the immune system to “remember” its tidying and cleaning function. This is confirmed by clinical studies.
Mistletoe therapy may therefore be seen as a meaningful supplement to conventional therapies.
The normal method of giving the subcutaneous injection is described below and reference is made to the typical side-effects and the readily observed therapeutic effects.