For 2,000 years, Christians have associated frankincense and myrrh with Christmas, as the well-known gifts of the Magi. But modern-day scientists have found these old-world herbs also offer surprising health benefits — as do other plants traditionally tied to Christmas, including mistletoe, holly, and evergreen trees.
Promising new research has found frankincense extract helps ease arthritis, and an antibacterial compound in myrrh effectively treats acne. In addition, holly leaf preparations have been used to alleviate digestive disorders, a natural substance in mistletoe has been shown to combat hypertension and cancer, and essential acids in pine nuts — as well as spruce-tree bark — boost weight loss and gastrointestinal health.
What’s driving the new scientific research is a growing desire to identify natural alternatives — some used in traditional healing practices that predate Christianity — to commonly used drugs and conventional treatments for chronic conditions.
"Right now we're seeing a cultural shift where an increasing number of people want to avoid standard pharmaceuticals," notes John Bisognano, M.D., a University of Rochester Medical Center cardiologist who recently published a study showing that mistletoe extract can reduce blood pressure. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension.
"We're also seeing a growing number of patients who require a large number of drugs to control their blood pressure and are looking for something else to help manage it."
Dr. Bisognano’s work is part of a large body of leading-edge research that is delving into the health-boosting properties of natural substances, including some common symbols of Christmas:Frankincense:
Since ancient times, people have burned frankincense — derived from the resin of Boswellia trees — as part of religious ceremonies, including those conducted by the Catholic Church. But the herb has also been used in traditional healing practices, including Indian Ayurvedic medicine, as a pain remedy.
Cardiff University scientists in the U.K. recently published a study showing frankincense contains a natural compound with strong anti-inflammatory properties that may offer a potential new way to treat arthritis without drugs. The Cardiff research demonstrated that an extract of Boswellia frereana — a rare frankincense species — inhibits the production of key inflammatory molecules which helps prevent the breakdown of cartilage that causes arthritis. SPECIAL: This Small Group of Doctors is Quietly Curing Cancer — Find Out How
"The search for new drugs to alleviate the symptoms of conditions like inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis is a priority area for scientists,” says researcher Ahmed Ali, M.D. “What our research has managed to achieve is to use innovative chemical extraction techniques to determine the active ingredient in frankincense.”
German scientists with the Friedrich Schiller University Jena have reached similar conclusions, but believe the anti-inflammatory substances in Boswellia resin may also be effective against other immune disorders, such as asthma and atopic dermatitis. Researchers with Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have also found frankincense smoke contains psychoactive substances that can relieve depression and anxiety, based on studies in mice.Myrrh:
The herb myrrh is derived from the same family of plants as frankincense and has been used medicinally and for spiritual practices for thousands of years. But more recently, myrrh — extracted from the Commiphora Mukul tree — has been added to skin creams, toothpaste, and other cosmetic products, primarily because of its antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Researchers from Leeds Metropolitan University tested the effect of tinctures made from myrrh, as well as thyme and marigold, on the bacterium that causes acne. The researchers found all three herbal preparations killed the bacterium after five minutes of exposure — at least as well as standard concentrations of benzoyl peroxide, the active ingredient in anti-acne creams and washes.
Other studies have found myrrh may also be useful in healing wounds and preventing skin infections, eczema, and gum and mouth ulcers. But researchers also caution that myrrh oil can have toxic effects if used in excess and should be avoided during pregnancy.Mistletoe:
Scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia recently published a study showing mistletoe — the kiss-inducing Christmas plant — contains a natural compound that has potent anti-cancer properties. The findings suggest the compound could either complement chemotherapy or act as an alternative to drugs used to treat colon cancer.
Mistletoe extract is now used as an alternative colon cancer therapy in some parts of Europe, but lack of scientific testing has kept it off the market in Australia and the United States. The new Adelaide research, led by Zahra Lotfollahi, could change that. Lotfollahi and colleagues compared the effectiveness of three types of mistletoe extract and chemotherapy on colon cancer cells and healthy intestinal cells.
In laboratory studies, she found that one of the mistletoe extracts — from a species known as Fraxini — was more effective than chemotherapy against colon cancer cells and less harmful to healthy cells than conventional chemo. The lab tests also found the extract boosted the anti-cancer properties of the drugs.
Public interest in mistletoe’s potential health benefits was spurred in 2001 following actress Suzanne Somers’ widely reported decision to take an extract made from the plant — known as Iscador — instead of having chemotherapy following breast cancer surgery and radiation.
The new research by Lotfollahi and Bisognano, the University of Rochester cardiologist, have further increased interest in mistletoe as a health-boosting agent. Despite the promising findings, Bisognano notes that mistletoe extract may be toxic at high doses. Holly:
There are many types of holly plants — with English and American holly varieties most commonly used in Christmas decorations. But other members of the holly family — including the species known scientifically as Ilex opaca, Ilex vomitoria, and Ilex aquifolium — have been used to make medicines to treat everything from digestive disorders to chest congestion to heart conditions.
Tea made from Ilex opaca holly leaves was used as a traditional heart stimulant by Native American Indians, Ilex vomitoria was used to induce vomiting, and a drink made from the leaves of several medicinal holly plants was used as a ceremonial “cleanser” in South America.
Today, holly leaf preparations are used in alternative treatments for coughs, digestive problems, jaundice, joint pain, swelling, hypertension, and to boost heart health. But health experts note that very little scientific research has been published to verify the health benefits of holly remedies, and that those pretty red holly berries are known to be poisonous if swallowed.Christmas trees:
Evergreens, including pine and spruce trees, contain many compounds that have been tied to health benefits and are used in remedies, potions, and treatments.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of TV’s popular “The Dr. Oz Show,” recently set off a wave of public interest in pine nuts by noting that the tasty kernels — used in snacks, salads, and other foods — may reduce food cravings and may offer significant weight-loss benefits. Pine nuts are loaded with pinolenic acid, which has been found to suppress hunger cravings and make people feel full faster than other foods. As a result, adding them to a healthy diet — eaten raw or in powdered or liquid form — might help some people eat less and lose weight.
Pine nuts aren’t the only evergreen tree product found to offer health benefits. New research from Finland's University of Turku has found that a compound in the bark of spruce trees and other tree-wood barks is a powerful and functional prebiotic that feeds healthy gut bacteria and may boost digestive health.
The compound — known scientifically as galactoglucomannan — is the primary component of the cellulose in many softwood tree species. Native Americans and other traditional cultures chewed the bark of the spruce to treat urinary tract infections,wounds, influenza, colds, rheumatism, and even tuberculosis, the Finnish researchers note. Editor’s Note: 3 Secrets to Never Get Sick Again. Get Super Immunity for Only $4.95. Click here.