Mistletoe Isn't Just for Kissing: Christmas Plant May Ward Off Obesity-Related Liver Disease

First Posted: Dec 18, 2014 07:57 AM EST

When you sneak a kiss under the mistletoe during holiday season, do you ever wonder where the tradition comes from? And do you ever consider exactly what the plant can be used for? It turns out that mistletoe is far more than meets the eye.

Mistletoe, surprisingly enough, is actually a parasitic species. It attaches to and penetrates the branches of a tree or shrub, and then absorbs water and nutrients from the host plant. There are several different types of mistletoe, but the species that you commonly see in the United States that's used around the holidays is called Viscum album.

The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe around the holidays came from a time when it was hung in households to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. In Norse mythology, it was also used as a sign of love and friendship. When Christians first came to Western Europe, some tried to ban the use of it in churches. However, many still continued to hang it. 

What's interesting is that mistletoe isn't just decoration. A compound produced by a particular variety of the plant can actually help fight obesity-related liver disease in mice. Mistletoe actually created a number of biologically active compounds, such as steroids and flavonoids.

That said, it's important to note that mistletoe is poisonous in and of itself. Eating any part of it, rather than eating the compounds that are extracted from it, can result in poisoning.

In a recent study, though, researchers identified a compound called vicothionin within Korean mistletoe that affects fat metabolism in the liver. When they treated obese mice with it, their body and liver weights dropped.

In other words, it turns out that mistletoe isn't just for the holidays. In fact, it's possible that this plant may possess other compounds that could be used for other purposes. Next time you kiss under the mistletoe, remember that this plant is far more than meets the eye.

The recent study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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