Mulled wine – packing a healthy punch

Mulled or spiced wine is a traditional Christmas treat dating back centuries and with many variations across Europe. In fact one mediaeval English recipe circa1390, sounds very familiar, including ground cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, and cardamom. These spices were mixed with red wine and sweetened with sugar (‘for the Lords’) or honey (‘for the people’). For those who don’t get on with red wine, traditional variations include spiced hot cider or ale. The addition of fresh fruit (sliced apple, pear, orange) or dried fruit (raisins, prunes etc) and fruit juice (apple, orange or grape juice) make the drink into a sweeter, less alcoholic hot punch.

In this article I am going to look at the health benefits of several of the key ingredients.

Read time 9 minutes (1800 words )

Continue reading

The bitter truth is sweeter than we thought

Cocktail bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s have pedigrees going back to the 1830’s. Looking like something out of a victorian apothecary these intriguing botanical preparations may indeed have medicinal properties deeper than anyone thought.

Following our recent infographic (Health Hack #1: An alternative to fizzy drinks) in which I recommended using Angostura bitters as a basis for a healthy fizzy drink, I felt I had more to say about bitters in general.

In traditional herbal medicine bitter herbs were considered aids to digestion through stimulation of bile and digestive juices. Taken fifteen minutes before a meal they were used to increase appetite –  the concept behind the idea of the aperitif – or after a meal as a digestive, but they are also thought to stimulate and ‘detoxify’ the liver, and generally are considered a ‘tonic’ to revivify the blood and to ‘enhance the vigour’ of the digestive system. Such vague and ill-defined terminology has led to these claims being largely dismissed. However, recent research is not only confirming the health value of bitter tasting substances but discovering that they have important physiological effects throughout the body.

The story of herbal bitters just took a fascinating turn that is proving to be sweeter than anyone might have imagined …

Read time: 12 minutes (2300 words) Continue reading

Neanderthal Herbal Medicine

Our closest, extinct, cousins the Neanderthals are often thought of as thuggish and unsophisticated, but evidence over the last decade has began to challenge this picture, indicating that they had a broad range of skills, knowledge and, yes, sensitivity.

There is a lot of evidence from bone assemblages that Neanderthals often behaved as top predators, hunting a wide range of animals including deer, rhinoceroses, bisons and even brown bear. In this pursuit they were highly skilled and more successful than hyenas with whom they competed, indicating a high level of strategic intelligence and cooperation.

  • Read more about Neanderthal hunting prowess here: ScienceDaily

As well as a good knowledge of animal behaviour Neanderthals also used botanical material. Skeletons excavated in the 1950’s from Shanidar cave in northern Iraq indicate that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. These skeletons also showed evidence of injuries that had been tended and healed indicating that the sick and wounded had been cared for effectively. Continue reading

Aloe vera plants – why every home should have one


We always have a few Aloe vera plants growing in our house. They are easy to look after, drought tolerant succulents that do best in a sunny window but are surprisingly adaptable to lower light levels too.

Aloe is often touted for it’s health and beauty functions, from skin cleansing to collagen support when ingested. However, the stand out function, and the reason I make sure I always have a plant in my house, is for treating burns.

When it comes to first aid when someone has been burned or scalded, nothing beats Aloe vera. The standard hospital treatment for burns is silver sulfadiazine cream. Indeed medical students are taught that silver sulfadiazine is the most effective treatment for minor burns, but this is simply not true. Another common burns treatment is Nitrofurazone, but again this standard of care is beaten hands down by aloe vera. The published literature shows that there are many superior treatments, and aloe vera frequently comes out top. Here is what just a small selection of such studies found:

  • These results clearly demonstrated the greater efficacy of aloe cream over silver sulfadiazine cream for treating second-degree burns. [Khorasani, 2009]
  • Thermal burns patients dressed with Aloe Vera gel showed advantage compared to those dressed with silver sulfadiazine regarding early wound epithelialization, earlier pain relief and cost-effectiveness. [Shahzad, 2013]
  • Speed of healing was better in aloe vera group than silver sulfadiazine… In terms of wound surface area maximal improvement was observed… in the second degree wound of aloe vera. [Akhoondinasab, 2015]
  • In patients treated with Aloe Vera gel, epithelialization and granulation tissue of burn wounds were remarkably earlier than those patients treated with nitrofurazone [Irani, 2016]

So, how would I use Aloe vera with a burn?

It depends on the severity of the burn, but essentially I always try to cool down the site first, with cold water if available, for a good few seconds/minute then I find my Aloe plant and with a clean damp cloth I clean a leaf to remove dust, which can easily be present, then I either cut just the tip off the leaf and dab the cut end on the burn to get some of the clear gelatinous contents of the leaf directly on it, or, if the burn is more extensive I will cut the whole leaf off the plant near the base, with a clean sharp knife. I then lie the leaf on a chopping board and cut off the tooth-like serrations down both edges. Then I slit the whole leaf open, revealing a trove of cool, kind, healing jelly which can be removed with the knife or a spoon and applied directly to the burn or scald.

Scalds: an accidental n=1 trial

On one occasion I poured boiling water onto three fingers of one hand and was convinced I would have very serious and painful blisters the next day. However, I quickly took three finger length leaves off a plant, cut them in half lengthwise and encasing each of my very painful and hurt fingers in a leaf, like three finger puppets, lightly fixing them in place with elastic bands. I kept them on over night (a bit awkward, but I managed). Incredibly, in the morning my fingers were very nearly normal! This astonished me as I had on a previous occasion, some years earlier, managed to similarly scald a finger with boiling water and even though I kept it in cold water all day, I didn’t use aloe. On that occasion my finger was extremely painful for many days afterwards, and it resulted in my nail growing deformed for a time. The Aloe vera was SO much more effective, and the pain vastly reduced.


For sunburn Aloe is a real workhorse. Try not to get sunburnt in the first place, but if you do, simply prepare a leaf as I have described above, trimming off the sharp thorns first, cutting the leaf in half lengthwise, and rubbing the opened up gel onto the shoulders/forehead/thighs or wherever is sore. It works as an ‘after sun’ treatment even if you have not burnt. Skin just loves Aloe vera!

Tongue burns

Coffee too hot? Soup scalded your tongue? Aloe vera to the rescue! A burnt tongue can interfere with eating for days afterwards, so the quicker you can heal it the better. Just wipe any dust off your chosen Aloe vera leaf, cut the tip off, or the next bit down if you have already used the tip, and dab the jelly onto your poor tongue. Hold it outside your mouth for as many seconds as you can manage (which won’t be many) and then carry on, swallow it, re-apply a couple of times if you can, then try to forget the burn. Although you might be aware of the tender area for the rest of that day, it will have resolved by the next day. I am not sure how that happens, but I can assure you that is the pattern I have seen, many times.

Internal use

Internally this ancient healing plant is wonderful for soothing the digestive tract when inflammation occurs for any reason. It speeds up healing, soothes, cools, and restores. You can eat the gel straight from the leaf, with a spoon, or purchase the many refined versions found in health food shops. They will have varying degrees of preservative in, but seek out the most pure. The taste is rather bitter, but if a comfortable stomach is what you are looking for, the taste will be the least of your concern. Obviously, cereal grains are by far the main cause of inflammation in the digestive tract, but this gel is really helpful for all causes of gut inflammation.

In the inner leaf area of the plant, is the ‘latex’ or aloin. This contains high levels of a chemical called anthraquinone, which is a pretty powerful laxative, causing greater peristaltic acton of the colon. Some commercial Aloe vera juices contain this portion as well as the jelly, and others have this part removed. If you are seeking a laxative effect along with the soothing healing properties then seek out a product that contains the latex. Pregnant women, however, should not use this as the action on the colon can also activate the uterus, which is, of course, undesirable. Instead they should seek aloe gels that have had the latex/aloin/anthraquinones removed if they wish to use them internally. Of course externally all versions are safe and excellent on burns.


Every household should ensure they have one of these superb plants at hand, because accidents will happen! Quick, safe, cheap and reliable solutions like having fresh Aloe vera on the spot are invaluable. They look nice too.

Thanks for reading. Give me your comments and Aloe vera experiences below!

The three wise herbalists brought… Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh




Everybody knows the story of the three wise men bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus in the Christmas nativity. There is plenty of symbology around these iconic gifts allowing a host of interpretations. What I want to focus on here are some very real medical uses of the herbs Frankincense and Myrrh, and if you allow me a little bit of poetic licence, Saffron (as gold)…



Whilst the metallic element, gold, does have some medical uses, as a Medical Herbalist I do not use it, so I am going to talk about the golden herb saffron, which can literally be worth its weight in gold. [Daily Mail: How an ounce of saffron is more expensive than gold: Cultivation of exotic spice returns to Essex for the first time in 200 years]

Saffron is made from the stamen of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Each crocus produces just three of these delicate strands per year, and they must be laboriously picked by hand before drying, at the right temperature and duration.

When used in cooking – such as saffron loaf or saffron rice – it adds a strong golden colour and has a distinctive aroma and flavour. I always add half a dozen strands of Kashmiri saffron when making a small pot of special gunpowder green tea. When used medicinally it has serotonergic (mood enhancing) effects, is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulscent, has anti-timor effects, neuro-endocrine (hormone engaging) influence and has neuro-protective properties [ref].

Here is some evidence of medical efficacy:

  • Depression
    A 2014 review of the scientific literature [ref] identified six high quality studies that demonstrated  a positive effect, similar to that seen with anti-depressants drugs, and without the dependence or side effects.
  • Psychological and behavioural
    An excellent 2015 review paper from an American research team [ref] concluded: “Findings from initial clinical trials suggest that saffron may improve the symptoms and the effects of depression, premenstrual syndrome, sexual dysfunction and infertility, and excessive snacking behaviors.”
  • Cardiovascular
    It is reported that regions of the world that regularly consume saffron have lower levels of heart disease. The anti-atherosclerotic, antioxidant, anti-diabetes, hypotensive, anti-ischemic, anti-platelet aggregation effects of saffron suggest it is cardio protective and animal studies show this to be the case. [ref]
  • Diabetes
    Saffron has a hypoglycaemic effect and has been shown to raise insulin levels in diabetic rats with low insulin, whilst enhancing glucose uptake. Its antioxidant properties may reduce diabetic vascular complications too [ref].
  • Obesity & Weight Loss
    Saffron has been shown to reduce body weight in rats, whilst in humans it has been shown to reduce appetite and increase satiety [ref] “After 2 months, the subjects using the saffron extract reported a decrease in snacking and lost more weight than the control group”

Safety: The widespread use of saffron as a culinary spice suggests it is safe at those doses. This superb paper, published in 2012 by an Italian team of researchers reviews the known biological effects of this amazing herbal medicine [ref] and it concludes: “To date, very few adverse health effects of saffron have been demonstrated. At high doses (more than 5 g per day), it should be avoided in pregnancy owing to its uterine stimulation activity.” Well that’s fine, as it is therapeutic well below that dose. It is a significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and since these processes a known to be the drivers of most major diseases I think it worth revisiting the use of this herb more widely. The problem is just the cost!



As well as being burned for incense in religious ceremonies this gum distinctly medicinal. Chewing on bobbles of frankincense is good for mouth ulcers and gum disease, but tastes like soap or turpentine. Mostly it is therefore used either as an essential oil or powdered and encapsulated. One can also concentrate the 5-Loxin component to optimise the anti-inflammatory properties, as in one of the products I stock.

This traditional medicine of the Middle East has expectorant, antiseptic, and even anxiolytic (i.e. calming) and anti-neurotic effects as well as the well recognised anti-inflammatory ones. Indeed recent studies have shown it has analgesic, tranquilising, anti-bacterial and anti-tumour effects too, which gives it a role in the treatment of quite a range of common conditions. [ref]

The following medicinal effects come from a 2016 review:

  • Gastro-Intestinal
    Its anti-inflammatory effect gives it a place in inflammatory bowel disease (i.e. ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), irritable bowel syndrome, bronchitis and sinusitis. In human studies of colitis patients, the resin was far more effective than the standard drug: “Out of the patients treated with Boswellia gum resin, 70% went into remission while in the case of sulfasalazine [the standard drug it was compared to] the remission ratio was 40%”
  • Anti-fungal
    Frankincense is strongly anti-fungal towards candida species. As well as many other moulds including food borne moulds. (One wonders if it would be effective burned as incense to reduce mould spores in houses… )
  • Asthma
    Severity and risk of asthma attacks is reduced by consumption of Frankincense gum, or by inhalation of the smoke when burned.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis Multiple lines of evidence suggest that frankinscence could help via anti-oxidant and potent anti-inflammatory effects. One researcher noted that “at a dose of 200 mg/kg, B. serrata extracts shift the balance of cytokines towards a bone-protecting pattern”

Memory, Dementia, Alzheimer’s
There is considerable interest in the role of Frankincense gum in cognitive impairment as it has been shown to improve memory in animal models of Alzheimer’s [ref]. In fact recent studies have shown that it increases neurone formation in the hippocampus [ref], i.e. that part of the brain that is essential for new memory formation. A recent human study of cognitive impairment in multiple sclerosis found that it “showed significant improvement in visuospatial memory, but had no effect on verbal memory and information processing speed.” [ref]. I would not be using simply frankincense for dementia, as there are other very valuable measures that should be employed, but this resin, depending on the case, could play a significant role in a rounded treatment approach.

In my clinical practice I find Boswellia particularly useful in autoimmune disorders, and when inflammation suddenly occurs, such as polymyalgia rheumatica, for example, which can come on over night and cause severe joint pain, disability and exhaustion. The usual drugs used by doctors have real problems associated with them, as they are aimed at suppression of the immune system, which you cannot do without negative consequences, whereas taking a deeper look at what may have triggered the condition, and treating in a more thoughtful way with medicinal herbs, including frankincense, has been very successful to date with no long term adverse effects.



Another aromatic resinmyrrh, (Commiphora mol mol) also comes from the Middle East, in fact Yemen originally and it has been used in the Western Herbal Medicine tradition for hundreds of years. I prefer the alcoholic extract (tincture) to the resin itself for ease of use, and offer it as part of my Home Herbal set in a dropper bottle as shown above. It is part of the Home Herbal range of medicines that I encourage my patients to keep in their medicine cupboard at all times because it is so reliable, effective and practical to use.

Ten to twenty drops added to a glass of water makes an excellent gargle for sore throats, gingivitis (inflamed gums), receding gums, loose teeth, mouth ulcers, and as a general antiseptic mouth wash which can be swished between the teeth where toothbrush bristles may not reach. A few drops can be put onto the toothbrush along with toothpaste (or my favourite alternative – salt and sodium bicarbonate). Tincture of myrrh can be dabbed neat onto small cuts or bites as it is strongly antimicrobial, antiseptic and astringent, thus helping to defend against any nasty bugs that can get in when bitten by a mosquito or whenever the skin barrier is breached, and as an astringent it helps bring swelling down [ref]. It has been used successfully in the treatment of intestinal worms, as have certain other herbs, most of which, like myrrh, taste bad (to humans and to worms, clearly)!

Myrrh has many similar properties to Frankinscence, including analgesia (pain relief), anti-inflammatory and anti-obesity properties [ref]. I find it has a vital place in the treatment of most infections, including gastroenteritis, ‘flu, colds, sore throats, bronchitis, pneumonia etc, as well as ulcers in any tissue (incl legs, stomach and mouth) and in arthritis. As an anti-inflammatory it has a role in cancer [ref] along with other herbs and dietary measures.

Apart from the above uses, myrrh has also been used in leprosy and syphilis too, which, though it may sound far fetched is quite reasonable. It is a powerful antimicrobial herb, so any bacterial infections can sensibly be treated with this age old defender of health, including common candida albicans and staphylococcal infections. They didn’t give it to the Messiah for nothing! In fact midwives used to dab myrrh onto the cut umbilical cord of new born babes in the less hygienic environment of the past [ref].

  • Gastro-Intestinal
    The anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects of myrrh are of great value when treating inflamed gut disorders [ref]. As myrrh raises white blood cell numbers it assists in ulcer and wound healing too [ref]
  • Skin
    Myrrh has been shown to be effective at treating fungal infections of the skin [ref] including ringworm, and systemic fungal problems caused by candida albicans (once treated, maintenance through a low carbohydrate diet would be wise too).
  • Liver
    Myrrh has been shown to protect the liver from lipopolysaccharides (a major gut endotoxin) and “might be sufficient to combat cellular damage caused by various conditions that resemble fulminant hepatitis” according to researchers in Saudi Arabia [ref].
  • Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
    Myrrh “has the ability to improve insulin sensitivity and delay the development of insulin resistance… and may be used as an adjuvant therapy for patients with insulin resistance.” [ref]
  • Parasites
    Here is an in-depth paper: Myrrh: A Significant Development in the Treatment of Parasites (pdf) by a colleague of mine, the Medical Herbalist Kerry Bone. Two of the most studied areas are for the treatment of schistosomiasis (a flatworm) and fasciola (a liver fluke) – two common parasitic infections in the tropics and subtropics [ref].

So, in wishing all my readers and patients a very Merry Christmas, I also want to encourage you to use your gold, frankincense and myrrh as wisely as those three wise men. Or rather, if you have any sort of medical problem or niggle, book an appointment with me and we will see what how best to approach it using medicinal herbs and nourishing foods. Chances are you will find me to be a wise woman too.

A quick tour of my clinic

I have just finished giving my consulting room a bit of a make-over and I’m pleased with the results. If you have a couple of minutes, I’d like to show you around…

Come in! … Yes, everyone comments on the smell of herbs – it’s nice isn’t it?

The cabinets along the wall are new. Previously there were a random set of pine cupboards, filing cabinets and display cases there. The new white billy bookcases came from IKEA – thank goodness for IKEA eh? I keep my dried herbs in there. I think they look smart don’t you? Continue reading

Mistletoe in Cancer

Mistletoe: sacred herb of the Druids. Photo – Stephanie Berghaeuser

Mistletoe leaf (Viscum album) has a long tradition in herbal medicine. It is an evergreen semi-parasitic plant, growing only on trees where it survives by rooting into the branches and sucking sap, vampire-like. It forms large spherical clusters of stems and leaves which can be up to 6ft across, famously on old apple trees but also on hawthorn, ash, oak and many others, though rarely on pear trees. Its name possibly comes from Anglo-Saxon Mistletan; mistle meaning ‘different’ and tan meaning ‘twig’ – as it was clearly not part of the original tree. The Latin viscum means ‘sticky’ – referring to the berries which are dispersed primarily by birds such as the mistle thrush, who, finding the seed stuck to it’s beak, wipes it off onto a branch where the sticky seed lodges. Later the seed will grow a thin root which will penetrate the bark and tap into the living tissue beneath.

Historically mistletoe was a sacred plant of the Druids, who would collect it with great ceremony using a golden knife at a certain phase of the moon. In Norse mythology an arrow of Mistletoe was used to kill Balder, the God of Peace. When the other Gods called for him to be restored to life mistletoe was given the care of the Goddess of Love, and it was ordained that anyone walking under it should receive a kiss – hence the modern custom of kissing ‘neath the Mistletoe at Christmas. [1]. I am left wondering how an arrow, capable of killing anyone, could have been made out of this plant as it has no bark nor really firm structures anywhere, but then probably I, a mere mortal, cannot be expected to understand such niceties.

Mistletoe leaf has a range of uses in the hands of the Medical Herbalist. It is frequently used to lower high blood pressure, where it is safe and effective, partially due to its antispasmodic properties through which arteries can be relaxed. It is gentle enough for long term treatment when this is necessary. It can also be used as a ‘nervine’ in many nerve related conditions and historically was used in epilepsy.

A very significant aspect of the therapeutic uses of mistletoe leaf is its anti-neoplastic properties. Traditionally mistletoe leaf has been used as a strong tea, tincture or fluid extract (an extra strong form of tincture) taken orally for all forms of cancer, but for the past eighty or so years an injectable preparation of this significant herbal medicine has been used, especially in Germany and the German-speaking nations, spreading throughout Europe due to its clear efficacy. The Anthroposophists (Rudolf Steiner inspired medics) have been at the forefront of its promotion and there are now  specialist centres that will carry this out in many countries, including in the UK. One of my young cancer patients is following this path (along with sticking very firmly to a ketogenic diet, and has already outlived, by a wide margin, the prognosis of all her oncologists and doctors) and she recently sent me these published papers on mistletoe leaf in its injectable form known as Iscador. Here they are, with my comments, followed by some other papers using mistletoe leaf in other ways:

1. Mistletoe and Colorectal Cancer [2]

Disease-free survival hazard ratio (DFS-HR) estimated in the mistletoe extract Iscador group (full line) versus the control group (dotted line)

Disease-free survival hazard ratio (DFS-HR) estimated in the mistletoe extract Iscador group (full line) versus the control group
(dotted line)

Friedel et al, 2009, looked at the effects of using injectable mistletoe leaf therapy (Iscador) alongside conventional treatment (chemo- and radio-therapy).They tracked 804 colorectal cancer patients for over 4 years with just over half of these receiving the herbal injections.

The results showed that those receiving Iscador had a lower risk or relapse or death, had fewer and milder disease symptoms and fewer adverse events, compared to the controls,who only received the standard chemo- and radio therapy.

You can see from the graph that the mortality rate in the Iscador (mistletoe) group is lower than in the control group. The graph shows that the Iscador group had a 20% extension in life compared to controls. For a majority of patients that equated to an extra one to four years.

A strength of this study is the size and duration, however a weakness of the study is that it was not randomised.

2. Mistletoe and Breast Cancer [3]

Chemotherapy for breast cancer can leave many patients feeling extremely unwell – severe nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, serious fatigue and mental ‘fog’, all of which seriously reduced quality of life. On top of this immunosuppression due to reduction in white blood cells (neutropenia) leaves sufferers prone to infection. Mistletoe, has been shown to significantly reduces the severity of these effects. For example, Tröger et al, report in 2009, a randomised controlled study involving 90 breast cancer patients. They compared chemotherapy alone to chemotherapy and mistletoe treatment over six courses of chemotherapy. The herbal medicine (mistletoe) group showed reduced symptoms and improved quality of life, including better physical, emotional, cognitive and social function, less fatigue, nausea, pain, insomnia and appetite loss. There was a trend towards fewer cases of neutropenia (low white blood cell count), but there were too few participants to reach statistical significance.

A strength of this study is that it was randomised, but weaknesses are that it was rather small scale (90 patients) and was not placebo controlled – so patients knew they were having an additional treatment.

3. Mistletoe and Pancreatic Cancer [4]

12-month overall survival of 220 patients with advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer assigned to a therapy with extract of VaL (Mistletoe) or to no antineoplastic therapy (Control)

12-month overall survival of 220
patients with advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer assigned to a
therapy with extract of VaL (Mistletoe) or to no antineoplastic therapy (Control)

Hot off the press is this study, also by Tröger et al, published in 2013. They looked at the overall survival rates of patients with advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer – one of the most aggressive forms of cancer – when given mistletoe/Iscador alongside conventional treatment. 220 patients were followed for 12 months. You can see in the graph opposite that those on the herbal therapy had a higher survival rate. (BTW , notice how much steeper this graph is compared to the one for colorectal cancers, above, relating to the fact that pancreatic cancer is far more aggressive)The Iscador group had reduced symptoms too with fewer reporting back pain, dyspepsia, headaches, urinary tract infections and abdominal pain. They also developed fewer metastases (i.e. cancer spreading to other tissues).

The medicinal herb, mistletoe – in the injectable form Iscador – was so effective that the ethics committee recommended the trial to be stopped and that all patients be placed on it. Unfortunately, due to licensing restrictions in Serbia (where the trial was conducted) it transpired that it was illegal for patients to be given the mistletoe treatment outside of a trial setting, so instead the ethics committee continued the trial which allowed patients to maintain treatment with Mistletoe!

Strengths of this study were that it was a randomised prospective study, with a large enough cohort to engender confidence in the results.

Can the Ketogenic Diet enhance Mistletoe therapy?

Cancer is being recognised more and more as a metabolic, rather than genetic, or just ‘bad luck’ disease. Due to a metabolic malfunction, in which the mitochondria (energy centres) of the cell become non-functioning, cancerous cells switch to glycolysis – a primitive form of metabolism used by yeasts and bacteria. This makes many cancer cells dependent on glucose as without mitochondria they do not have the ability to switch to other substrates such as fats or ketones for their energy, yet healthy cells can switch easily to these alternative fuels. Consequently a ketogenic diet – high in fat and very low in carbohydrates (which are turned into glucose) – reduces the fuel supply to cancer cells, thus selectively ‘starving’ them, whilst permitting healthy cells to continue to function well on fats and ketones.

So, when working with cancer patients the first thing I do is help them switch to a full-blown ketogenic diet. The ensuing reduction in blood glucose (and therefore insulin) that this instigates brings about a major metabolic shift that goes a long way to undermining the growth of cancerous tumours and malignant processes. In my opinion this is an absolutely essential factor in beginning to reverse cancer. (Interestingly, the same diet is used widely in pediatric medicine to treat children with epilepsy – a surprising overlap with the traditional use of mistletoe leaf for its nerve relaxing properties!)

Tumor weight on (SD-UR) standard diet (SD-UR+2DG) Standard diet + 2-deoxy-D-glucose (KD-R) ketogenic diet, (KD-R +2DG) ketogenic diet + 2-deoxy-D-glucose

Tumor weight on (SD-UR) standard diet (SD-UR+2DG) Standard diet + 2-deoxy-D-glucose (KD-R) ketogenic diet, (KD-R +2DG) ketogenic diet + 2-deoxy-D-glucose

Professor Thomas Seyfried of Boston College, Massachusetts, whose work focuses on the ketogenic diet in cancer, has demonstrated the beneficial action of combining a ketogenic diet with adjunct therapies.

In one study he used 2-deoxy-D-glucose (a non-metabolisable form of glucose) which is known for its anti-tumor effects, to supplement the diet of mice.

The effect on tumor sizes between mice fed a standard diet and those given additionally 2-deoxy-D-glucose (the two bars on the left of the graph above), representing just a few percent reduction. When placed on a ketogenic diet, however, the tumor weight was nearly halved, showing the highly anti-cancer nature of this diet. But the really striking thing about this study was the effect when the ketogenic diet was combined with the 2-deoxy-D-glucose (right hand bar on graph) as there was a huge synergistic effect – reducing cancer growth far more than the therapies when used separately [5]. Similarly, and more recently, the ketogenic diet has been paired with hyperbaric-oxygen therapy to great effect [6]. It seems that ketosis (the metabolic state brought about by the ketogenic diet) places cancer cells under such stress that otherwise ‘mild’ anti-cancer therapies can then deliver the knock-out blow.

The three mistletoe/Iscador trials show beneficial effects in prolonging life and reducing symptoms and side effects. Whilst this represents an undoubted benefit, it is still a long way from a ‘cure’. But how would those trials have looked if the patients had been on a ketogenic diet as well as having mistletoe leaf therapy? I would anticipate we will see the same powerful synergistic effect demonstrated by Professor Seyfried. What we really need now is clinical trials to test these ideas.

There are many other aspects to the research of mistletoe, which are starting to tease out how it exerts its anti-cancer effects. In the studies below oral mistletoe extract was used (more like the tincture that I use as opposed to the injected ‘Iscador’ forms)

Many common chemotheraputic drugs are highly toxic, and perversely, carcinogenic! So it is no wonder that patients often feel that the treatment is worse than the disease. Consequently, researchers are very interested in how mistletoe reduces the damage to healthy cells during chemo. In 2009 two researchers, Sekeroglu and Sekeroglu at a major Turkish university demonstrated that mistletoe extract reduces chromosome damage caused to bone marrow cells by methotrexate, (a common and pretty horrendous chemotherapy drug, and a powerful immune system suppressant) [7]. Another study in 2011 showed that the heart, bladder and chromosome damaging effects of another chemo-drug, cyclophosphamide, were reduced when giving mistletoe alongside it. They concluded that mistletoe reduced oxidative stress and inflammation [8] and found that flavanoids extracted from mistletoe “possess remarkable antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory activities per se without inducing any apparent acute toxicity as well as gastric damage” [9]

Researchers are also investigating how mistletoe slows cancer development. Jean-Paul Duong Van Huyen et al investigated the effects of mistletoe lectins on cancer cells in vitro. [10] They focused on endothelial cells, as cancers usually begin with endothelial dysfunction and angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels on which tumours depend) relies on endothelial activity. A hallmark of cancer is that cells become ‘immortal’ – able to divide endlessly, and do not undergo apoptosis, the programmed cell death that protects normal cells when they become irreparably damaged or deranged. They found that mistletoe, caused endothelial cancer cells to undergo increased apoptosis, i.e. proper, healthy behaviour, which they believe may go some way to explain the observed anti-tumour effects of this remarkable herb, mistletoe.

Interestingly, they found that the species the mistletoe grew on (apple, oak etc) affected the degree of tumour suppression. Mistletoe that had grown on oak trees had the greatest effect, returning us neatly to the start of this post, as those wise old Druids held the mistletoe that grew on oak trees in the highest esteem!

My dispensary is never out of stock of Viscum album, as tea or strong tincture, and I am grateful for these researchers, beavering away in their respective universities, for their vindication of the ancient knowledge that medical herbalists like me utilise on a daily basis in their clinics.


  1. Mrs Grieve – A Modern Herbal – 1931/1993
  2. Friedel et al, Clinical Effects of Supportive Mistletoe Treatment in Nonmetastatic Colorectal Carcinoma, Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology, Fall 2009, Vol 7, No 4 (pdf)
  3. Tröger et al, Quality of Life and Neutropenia in Patients with Early Stage Breast Cancer: A Randomized Pilot Study Comparing Additional Treatment with Mistletoe Extract to Chemotherapy Alone, Breast Cancer: Basic and Clinical Research 2009:3
  4. Tröger et al, Viscum album extract therapy in patients with locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer: A randomised clinical trial on overall survival, European Journal of Cancer, 2013
  5. Drug/diet synergy for managing malignant astrocytoma in mice: 2-deoxy-D-glucose and the restricted ketogenic diet, Nutrition & Metabolism, 2008, 5:33 (full text)
  6. Poff et al, The Ketogenic Diet and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Prolong Survival in Mice with Systemic Metastatic Cancer, PLOSONE, 2013 (full text)
  7. Sekeroglu ZA and Sekeroglu V, Effects of Viscum album L. extract and quercetin on methotrexate-induced cyto-genotoxicity in mouse bone-marrow cellsMutation Research July 4th 2012 (abstract)
  8. Sekeroglu V et al, Viscum album L. extract and quercetin reduce cyclophosphamide-induced cardiotoxicity, urotoxicity and genotoxicity in mice. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2011. (full text pdf)
  9. Orhan DD et al, ‘Anti-inflammatory and antiociceptive activity of flavonoids isolated from Viscum album ssp. album. Z Naturforsch Jounal of Biosciences, 2006 (abstract)
  10. Jean-Paul Duong Van Huyen et al Induction of Apoptosis of Endothelial Cells by Viscum album: A Role for Anti-Tumoral Properties of Mistletoe Lectins, Molecular Medicine, 2002 (full text)


I have about 25 years experience with the therapeutic use of Echinacea species, but you will all be heartened to know that this study has just confirmed that it does indeed do what we herbalists have known for many generations.

A doctor handed me a piece torn out from a newspaper, but omitted to include which newspaper he tore it from. Nevertheless the study quoted, which was carried out at Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre demonstrated that by using this Native American herb colds were cut by 60% in people who usually suffered from recurrent colds, and also found that the number of days study subjects were ill for when they did get colds was significantly reduced.

In my experience I would estimate a 70-80% success rate in the ability of Echinacea root tincture (the form I use) to either prevent or ameliorate colds. Which is pretty similar to the results of this study.

It is nice to know that my own experience is so similar to the results of a properly conducted study of 755 participants.

Well done Cardiff!