Christmas cures: Three healing gifts

The gold, frankincense and myrrh in the Christmas story all have a place in modern medicine – and now mistletoe injections are even being used to treat cancer. Jane Feinmann reports
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Exactly 2009 years after the Magi handed over the first gift set to baby Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh are still essential Xmas- factors – whether as props in the school nativity play or essential ingredients in the "Ooh, that smells lovely" response to the Neal's Yard school of present-giving. What's more, along with mistletoe, holly and ivy, they all lay claim to having serious health benefits. But do these claims stand up to scrutiny – or are they are all Christmas quackers?



Gold

Gold injections have been an established treatment to halt the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for more than a 100 years. Today they're used only as a last resort, now that more effective biologically engineered therapies have become first-line treatment. But gold could regain its therapeutic importance now that scientists have finally gained an understanding of the particular properties of gold that halt this unpleasant disease.

Gold salts, according to a breakthrough study published in 2008, inhibit the production of a molecule (HMGB1) that provokes the inflammation responsible for RA when it accumulates in excessive quantities in the tissue around the joints of the hands and feet. This molecule, it seems, is implicated in a whole range of inflammatory and infectious diseases. And the discovery relating to RA is being hailed as a pivotal advance which could lead to gold as the base for new, safer- acting treatments for RA – and perhaps create a new way of approaching inflammatory diseases.

There's less enthusiasm, however, for aurum metallicum, a homeopathic preparation made from very diluted gold – and which according to homeopaths is "renowned for its ability to cure the deepest imaginable depressions and suicidal states". If you or a loved one have bought aurum metallicum from a reputable homeopathic pharmacy on the off-chance that it might do what it says on the tin, let's hope it worked. If so, it might be well to recall the wise words of that scientist of laughter, Dara O'Briain: "Homeopathy is just water. You're healing yourself. Why don't you give yourself the credit?"



Frankincense

The resin from trees of the Boswellia family, frankincense (also known as B Serrata), has been used as a medicine for thousands of years as well as for perfume production and in religious ceremonies. As such, it has proved of considerable interest to modern scientists, with more than 40 clinical trials testing the impact of chemical derivatives of frankincense for a wide range of health problems including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, knee osteoarthritis and colitis.

Unfortunately, these studies have been too small to deliver robust findings, says Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University. But they do confirm that this ancient cure-all is safe, with a clinical impact that is "encouraging but not compelling", according to Ernst. For knee osteoarthritis, for instance, the research is "interesting but the patient numbers are small", says Professor Philip Conaghan of Leeds University, who is a spokesman for the Arthritis Research Campaign. He recommends first trying muscle strengthening exercises, shock-absorbing footwear, and weight loss.



Myrrh

This resinous and bitter plant extract has been used for centuries in all sorts of healing rituals. It was an essential oil in biblical times, according to Dr David Stewart, in his book, Healing Oils of the Bible. It featured in Psalms as well as the Song of Solomon. Egyptian pharaohs were embalmed in it and the (wealthy) Greeks used it to treat ill health generally – and it's also a key therapeutic agent in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

Today, the plant's glittering reputation is tarnished. Mirazid, a myrrh-derived drug, marketed by the Egyptian pharmaceutical company Pharco, was briefly heralded as a "miracle" cure for schistosomiasis, a tropical disease caused by liver fluke, with early trials claiming a total absence of side effects and a cure rate of 91.7 per cent. More recently, a rigorously scientific head-to-head study revealed that Mirazid performed very poorly compared with Praziquantel, the first-line treatment for schistosomiasis. "Mirazid is not in fact antischistosomal," the authors concluded.

Together, frankincense and myrrh are also big business in the cosmetic industry. You can barely move in Neal's Yard or Space NK for revitalising lotions containing frankincense and myrrh – especially at Christmas when the fact that these are anti-ageing ingredients as given to the baby Jesus is an extra selling point.

Whether these cosmetics work or not – and whether it matters – divides critics of complementary medicine. Professor Ernst insists that it's not just clinical claims that should be backed by good evidence. He points out that there are currently more than one million websites on frankincense, and hundreds of thousands about myrrh, almost all of which fail to offer reliable information as to their effectiveness: "Their trade names speak for themselves: regeneration body balm, intensive eye serum, supernatural instant youth serum, lifting and firming body lotion, joie de vivre face lotion, radiance anti-ageing, joint and muscle balm, ultra inflammactin. These cosmetic claims are not supported by the evidence."

But Andy Lewis, founder of Quackometer.net and normally a fearless critic of all things complementary, takes a different view. He goes all soft and fluffy when discussing the "daft" claims made by the beauty industry for products such as Neal's Yard's Organic Frankincense Toning Body Cream. Apparently, as long as it smells nice and doesn't claim to cure AIDS it is "tolerable quackery" and therefore entirely ok.

Christmas cures: Holly, ivy and mistletoe

The holly and the ivy both have a following for their health benefits. Mate, a stimulating herbal tea – an acquired taste for Europeans but much-sipped in South America, particularly in Argentina – is made from a species of holly bush found in the rainforests of South America. It is claimed to reduce cholesterol even in people already taking statins, and may also suppress appetite and thereby aid weight loss. Meanwhile ground ivy is an expectorant and a key ingredient in several herbal cough remedies.

But it's mistletoe that could be the real plum in the Christmas remedy pudding – with growing interest in the impact on cancer of the white-berried plant, best known in the UK for encouraging Christmas kisses.

For in Germany a fermented injectible extract of mistletoe has been widely used as a complementary therapy for cancer for more than 90 years – and today it is all but accepted as a mainstream medicine.

Mistletoe was first claimed as an anti-cancer therapy by the mystic, Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. He believed it was a perfect example of "anthroposophical" medicine, which is "an organic culture of mind, body and spirit". He claimed, rather bizarrely, that as the parasitical plant feeds on and eventually strangles its host tree, just like cancer does in the body, mistletoe would have "killing-like-with-like" homeopathic effect on the human disease. But if the rationale doesn't stand up to scrutiny, the remedy itself certainly does.

Modern mistletoe products such as Iscador or Viscumalbum are prescribed for two out of three German cancer patients, most of whom insist on being treated with a product they are confident will safely stimulate the white blood cells that are depleted during cancer treatment – thereby improving quality of life during treatment, and possibly extending life.

The problem for many UK experts is that, as with so many herbal remedies, while there is anecodotal evidence supporting its use, no clinical study proves conclusively whether this mid-European enthusiasm is misplaced or not. In 2008, an authoritative Cochrane review published the result of a thorough investigation into the existing published studies – and found that there was not enough evidence to reach clear conclusions about its effects on the outcome of cancer.

"There is some evidence that it does have a weak but positive effect on cancer patients," says Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University. "To really believe in this remedy, you have to cherry-pick the positive findings and ignore the equal number of negative studies – though I understand why patients want what they see as a drink from the last straw that promises survival."

But it could be used throughout the cancer journey, as happens in Germany, according to George Lewith, Professor of Health Research at Southampton University's Complementary & Integrated Health Research Unit. "This is a largely safe remedy that is made to high quality standards and has been taken as an adjunct to mainstream treatment for many decades by cancer patients in a country only a couple of hundred miles away from the UK," says Professor Lewith.

"It's certainly not a cure-all but there do seem to be strong suggestions that it could make cancer treatment easier to bear and possibly improve the chances of survival – all for about £30 a month. If you can afford it, why wouldn't you use it?"

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