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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.

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Deck the Halls With Health

Posted: 12/19/11 05:12 PM ET

There's something about the scent of fresh pine, cinnamon tickling the nose and the palette or a cluster of mistletoe in the doorway that brings a little holiday magic into our homes this time of year.

To call these beloved holiday botanicals themselves magic would be going too far. But did you know that many of them also claim to carry medicinal properties that can provide a wow factor right along with even the most festive display?

There's more to these plants than merely decking the halls on the holiday season. Some of them are among the more interesting and promising subjects of medical research.

Mistletoe: Not Just for Sneaking Kisses
Going back even as far as the ancient Greeks and Druids, there are legends of this little plant's use as a panacea -- while today, most just think of it as a cure-all for getting a little smooch around the holidays. It's been used as a treatment in epilepsy, hypertension, headaches, menopause symptoms, infertility, arthritis and rheumatism, and today it shows promise as a potential cancer therapy.

Interest in mistletoe for treating cancer dates back to the 1920s. Today in Europe, extracts from the European white-berry mistletoe often are used to treat cancer patients, usually in conjunction with other cancer drugs. Extracts of the plant, a semiparasite that grows on apple, oak, pine, birch and maple trees, have been shown to kill cancer cells grown in test tubes. There's also evidence in the laboratory that they can boost the immune system and prevent the growth of new blood vessels that feed tumors. Most clinical trials with humans have occurred in Europe, mostly published in German. One study done between 1993 and 2000 examined mistletoe extract as a long-term additional therapy to reduce the risk of cancer's return. The study included 800 patients treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy for colorectal cancer and found that patients treated with the extract had better symptom relief, fewer adverse events and better disease-free survival.

While there have been a number of studies, most have been flawed -- many included only small numbers of patients, had incomplete data or had major issues in design. The results are promising enough to warrant further research -- and respect for the little plant that seems mostly known for being poisonous if you eat it and a mandatory pucker-up if you find yourself lingering under it.

Cinnamon: Spicy Tool for Fighting Diabetes
While cinnamon is enjoyed year round, its spicy aroma and taste add a seasonal punch, whether in cookies, cakes, mulled cider or wine. Its fragrance wafts through stores, enticing shoppers into the holiday spirit.

This tasty bark also may have some bite in fighting diabetes. As the worldwide incidence of diabetes spikes -- like blood sugar after a heavy holiday meal -- scientists are seeking treatments and potential cures for the life-altering disease. Some are turning to cinnamon, a common ingredient in every baker's cabinet -- as a potential answer. It's been lauded as a natural insulin sensitizer, with animal studies to back up those plaudits.

A 2009 study found that a daily gram of cinnamon, in addition to usual diabetes care, seems to lower the glycated hemoglobin in patients with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes. Glycated hemoglobin is formed when glucose molecules react with hemoglobin; this substance occurs in much higher quantities in those with poorly controlled diabetes compared to healthy people. The study found that it could be a safe supplement for patients attempting to lower their glycated hemoglobin. This particular study did its best to stay true to the conditions doctors find in primary care: it included patients with frequent medication changes, comorbidities and dietary changes. In addition, it used regular off-the-shelf cinnamon capsules that are common and easy to find -- offering up an easily accessible and cheap supplement to help with type 2 diabetes.

However, studies in humans are a bit of a mixed bag -- with some randomized, placebo-controlled trials showing positive changes and others showing none. But researchers continue to examine cinnamon for its potential to help diabetes patients of all types.

Pine Good for More Than Tannenbaum Memories
Pine essential oils are beloved by aromatherapy and health food enthusiasts. Pine products commonly go into bath oils, cleaning products and massage oils. It's also another widely loved scent of the season, as many cling to the less convenient, more romantic, sap-leaking real Christmas trees instead of the ready-out-the-box pre-lit plastic variety. Who doesn't prefer the pungent smell as much as the earthy aesthetic?

While holiday tree scents can bring back strong memories, a recent study of a French maritime pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) indicates it may boost mental performance. An Italian study published in the journal Panminerva Medica this month proposes that the extract may improve blood flow to the brain. In the study, 108 Italian university students were randomized to receive either a dose of the bark extract or placebo. Those on the bark showed improvements in attention, memory and mood, as well as decreased anxiety.

An earlier study on the same extract, this time out of Australia, indicated that it might work as well on grandparents as it did on college students. The study looked at the substance in healthy elderly adults. The group taking 150 mg daily dose of the extract showed improved working memory.

So, it would seem that pine festooning mantles, wreathing doorways and, of course, bearing Christmas ornaments, makes memories in more ways than one.

Olive Oil Could Be Behind Medical and Holiday Miracles
Hanukkah is the Jewish celebration of an historic victory over a tyrant king and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. For their ceremonies, the rebels needed oil to light the menorah but found only enough to keep the blaze going for a single night. Miraculously, the supply lasted eight days, during which more oil could be made to keep the eternal flame burning.

Experts believe this oil was pressed from olives. Olive oil is beloved for its taste and versatility, and is the crowning champion of "good" fats. Aside from being the perfect accompaniment to a crusty piece of Italian bread, or favorite salad drizzle, this staple of the lauded Mediterranean diet, studies have shown, may also mimic some of the anti-inflammatory benefits of ibuprofen.

A 2005 study said a daily four-tablespoon dose of olive oil is equal to about 10 percent of the ibuprofen dose recommended for adult pain relief. So, while guzzling olive oil probably won't offer headache relief, consuming it in small amounts daily may offer some of the long-term benefits of ibuprofen use. Researchers believe the secret is in oleocanthal, a compound in olive oil that -- like ibuprofen -- stifles components of the prostaglandin system. Because their molecular structure is different, however, olive oil may possibly provide a road to the benefits of ibuprofen without the side effects such as kidney and digestive system damage.

To find oleocanthal, choose the most authentic tasting extra virgin olive oil. It's oleocanthal that causes the throat-stinging sensation of high quality extra-virgin olive oil. Sip the oil, and the stronger the sting, the more oleocanthal is present.

"Original" Christmas Gifts That Keep on Giving
The actual 12 days of Christmas stretch from Dec. 25 through Epiphany on Jan. 6. On Epiphany, Christians celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the human son of God, and the visitation of the gift-bearing Magi. And no, despite it being the twelfth day of Christmas, they did not come with 12 drummers drumming. Rather, they are believed to have presented the baby with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Since the Biblical days, scientists have come to some epiphanies about the latter two gifts. Frankincense is a resin for perfume and aromatherapy. Egyptians are believed to have ground the charred resin into kohl, the distinctive black eyeliner seen on royals in Egyptian art.

In addition to making things smell and look pleasant, it's also been investigated as a treatment for chronic inflammatory diseases. Preparations from Boswellia serrate have been traditional remedies in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for treating inflammatory disease. Animal studies and pilot trials in humans showed promising results for inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic colitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and asthma.

Ancient writings detail use of myrrh for infected teeth, worms, wounds and sepsis. It has been used throughout history for infections, coughs and anesthetic purposes. Researchers have studied myrrh for treatment of ulcers, diabetes, a parasitic disease called schistosomiasis, topically for wounds and abrasions and a variety of other uses. Immune stimulation, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, deodorizing, astringent and anti-tumor properties have been described in some studies.

So many of our holiday traditions -- cookies, cakes, latkes, wine, revelry, expensive gifts -- can turn into unhealthy indulgences, even though they can be enjoyed in moderation even at this time of year. So make merry and wise choices through the holiday season. And be healthy and prosperous, too.