Mastic May Help Your Heart and Liver

Mastic Keeps Getting Better

Mastic May Help Your
Heart and Liver

Human clinical trial shows significant improvements in
markers for heart disease and liver damage
By Hyla Cass, M.D.

Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,
what the glory of thy boughs shall be?

— From Plant a Tree by Lucy Larcom


© iStockphoto.com/Marco Rametta
re you a tree hugger? Perhaps you should be, regardless of your views on environmental ethics. You might not even be alive today were it not for the many wonderful medicines that have been extracted from trees throughout history—medicines that may have saved the lives of some of your ancestors, or at least made their lives more tolerable when they were sick.

Some of our most common afflictions can be alleviated with chemicals derived from trees. Got a headache? Take aspirin, which comes from willow bark. Got a toothache? Clove oil from the buds or leaves of the clove tree is a fine anesthetic for that awful affliction. Got malaria? Quinine works—it comes from the bark of cinchona trees. Got intestinal worms? Why do you think wormwood is called wormwood? Is your prostate giving you problems? Saw palmetto can help you go with the flow. Are you a woman with menstrual-cycle woes? Try an extract from the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus).

OK, just a few more. If you have inflammatory disorders, you may benefit from frankincense (from trees of the genus Boswellia). If you’re concerned about controlling your blood glucose levels, the cinnamon and mulberry trees have some chemical goodies for you. If your peripheral circulation is poor, horse chestnuts can help. If healthy cognitive function is on your mind, go chew on a ginkgo tree (or take a supplement—it’s easier on the teeth). And for more ailments than you can shake a stick at, there’s the splendid Camellia sinensis tree, the source of green tea. Drink up!

Mastic—A Tree for the Ages

You gotta love trees. To the list above, add the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), a small evergreen that’s native to the Mediterranean region. It’s found abundantly in only one place: the Greek island of Chios (pronounced KEY·ose) in the Aegean Sea, near the west coast of Turkey. There a thriving commerce is based on harvesting and exporting the aromatic gum resin exuded by mastic trees. Since time immemorial, this resin has been used by people throughout the Mediterranean region, not just as a food item and a chewing gum but also to treat a variety of ailments, most notably gastrointestinal disorders of various kinds.

Thanks to modern science, we now know that mastic gum has potent antibacterial properties, and antiviral properties as well. Mastic is best known as a killer of Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium primarily responsible for peptic ulcers. Eliminating H. pylori from the digestive tract (which includes the mouth) can effectively prevent or cure gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) and ulcers, and it can help prevent stomach cancer, some forms of which have been linked with H. pylori infection.* It can also prevent tooth decay. (See “Mastic and Licorice Are Good for Your Belly” and “Chewing Mastic Gum Can Prevent Tooth Decay” in the June 2006 and March 2006 issues, respectively.)


*Although early clinical trials on humans indicated that mastic is effective against peptic ulcers, and subsequent laboratory studies demonstrated its potency in killing H. pylori, a recent mouse study and a small human clinical trial have not confirmed this effect for H. pylori infections in the stomach. Thus the role of mastic as a gastrointestinal therapy is currently controversial.1 More research is underway.


Further Health Benefits of Mastic

Additional health benefits of mastic, especially with regard to cancer, continue to emerge:

  • In laboratory studies, mastic kills human colon cancer cells. Actually, it induces them to commit biochemical suicide in a process called apoptosis—but dead is dead, the best way for a cancer cell to be. (See “Mastic Kills Colon Cancer Cells,” September 2005.)

  • Another lab study has provided tantalizing evidence that mastic may help prevent prostate cancer by interfering with the biochemical process by which androgens (male sex hormones) induce the growth and proliferation of prostate cells. (See “Mastic May Help Against Prostate Cancer,” July 2006.)

  • Yet another lab study has indicated that mastic oil (the oil extracted from the resin) inhibits the growth and survival of human leukemia cells, apparently by targeting VEGF, a substance that promotes blood-based malignancies. (See “Mastic Suppresses Human Leukemia Cells,” December 2006.)

  • Finally, there is evidence that mastic can help inhibit inflammation, not just locally but also systemically, via the mouth-to-bloodstream link in cases of periodontal disease, which involves bleeding gums. (See “Mastic Helps Curb Inflammation,” September 2006.)

Two Millennia of Medicinal Mastic

Researchers in Greece recently investigated mastic’s potential benefits for heart and liver health in humans.1 Evidence of probable protective effects in these arenas had already been reported by other researchers, based on laboratory and animal studies, in the past few years. The value of mastic for hepatic (liver) inflammation had first been suggested, however, 18 centuries earlier by the renowned Roman physician Galen (whose medical writings formed the basis of European medicine for more than a millennium, until the Renaissance). Galen also wrote of mastic’s value for disorders of the stomach and intestines, as had the great Greek botanist-physician Dioscorides before him; the latter also wrote of mastic’s benefits for oral as well as gastrointestinal health.

Getting back to the twenty-first century, the Greek researchers conducted a human clinical trial (which always trumps laboratory or animal studies for scientific relevance to actual medical practice). They recruited 133 men and women, all aged over 50, with no history of cancer, heart attack, or liver disease. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups—but not a treatment group and a placebo group, as one might have expected. In this study, both groups received treatment with mastic, albeit in different ways.

The “high-dose group” (48 individuals) received 5 g of mastic powder daily for 18 months. The “low-dose group” (85 individuals), by contrast, was followed for 12 months, during which time they received mastic in small amounts that fluctuated on a daily basis; their overall average intake represented at most one-seventh (14%) of the high dose, i.e., at most 0.7 g, or 700 mg, per day. The purpose of this odd protocol was to have the low-dose group mimic the widespread, low-dose daily consumption of mastic by the Greek population, thus providing a kind of real-life standard against which to compare the results seen in the high-dose group.

How to Monitor Heart and Liver Health

The researchers monitored the following measures of the subjects’ health: glucose; total cholesterol; low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”); high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”); triglycerides (fats); and two substances, called apolipoprotein B and lipoprotein (a), that act as negative indicators of cardiovascular health (i.e., elevated levels of these lipoproteins are a bad sign, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease). Also measured was a substance called apolipoprotein A-1, which acts as a positive indicator of cardiovascular health, because it is the major lipoprotein of HDL-cholesterol; thus, elevated levels of this substance are desirable.

The researchers also monitored several liver enzymes that act as negative indicators of hepatic health. Elevated liver enzymes can be a warning sign (a “canary in the mine”) of potential liver damage due to a wide variety of causes, including obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides, infections, autoimmune disorders, metabolic liver disease, excessive alcohol consumption, and the use of various medications, such as nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and antiseizure drugs.

Magic or Medicine?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Do you believe then that the sciences would ever have arisen and become great if there had not beforehand been magicians, alchemists, astrologers, and wizards who thirsted and hungered after … forbidden powers?” He was right. Science is, after all, very much a human enterprise, driven by human desires and aspirations. The powers scientists seek may no longer be forbidden, but they remain as alluring as ever.

It has been said that Isaac Newton (1642–1727), a supreme scientific genius, was also the last of the great magicians, owing to his avid pursuit of alchemy (he wanted to manufacture gold, in particular). He was also obsessed with religious mysticism, and he devoted more time, energy, and ink to that and to alchemy than he ever did to science. He lived at a time when there was no clear distinction between magic and science, and although his work in alchemy was scientifically worthless (as were his turgid and voluminous religious tracts), he laid the foundations of modern science and ushered in the Age of Reason with his immortal work in mathematics and physics.

Fortunately, Newton was revered during his long life, not hanged or burned at the stake. During the Middle Ages, that fate had befallen countless others whose pursuit of forbidden powers had brought them persecution as witches or sorcerers. Many of these hapless individuals (men and women alike) were, in fact, innocent physicians and midwives whose only “crime” was to create so-called magical remedies for healing the sick.

Many of the remedies actually worked, because they were based on ancient folk wisdom that had survived through the Dark Ages. There were, for example, prescriptions for clove oil for toothache, vitamin-containing herbal teas for pregnant women and listless children, and calcined eggshells for upset stomach (the calcium carbonate they contained is a main ingredient in modern antacids). Many other remedies did not work, however, perhaps because they were based on experimental methods of dubious validity. There were also, of course, worthless snake oils concocted by con artists out to make a quick ducat.

To our ancestors in those distant times, curing a disease with some plant product must have seemed like magic, especially if the sales pitch was larded with fancy jargon designed to wow the peasants. Another favorite trick—not just of hucksters but also of legitimate healers—was to mask the recognizable taste or odor of an herbal formulation with foul-tasting or foul-smelling ingredients. This helped the sellers protect their trade secrets, which were vulnerable to thieving competitors (there were no patent offices in those days).

For administering the remedies, the sellers also invented elaborate but pointless rituals, including strange incantations, so as to enhance further the impression that the healing was based on magic—to whose secrets only they, of course, were privy. Such rituals were useful in two ways: (1) they gave the patients a powerful emotional investment in a successful outcome (think of it as the placebo effect on steroids), and (2) they provided the practitioners with an easy excuse if the remedy didn’t work. They could say that the patient must not have used it in a graveyard at midnight facing east, as specified, or that the incantation must have been chanted incorrectly, etc.

Today, not much has changed—least of all human nature. To be sure, high technology has made our world incomparably more complex and sophisticated than it was centuries ago, but it will always be true, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Those who have not studied science in depth can be susceptible to the claims—some valid, some not—of modern-day “sorcerers.” The moral: know your source, and remember the timeless wisdom of caveat emptor—buyer beware.

High-Dose Mastic Produced Measurable Improvements

In the high-dose group, the researchers found significant decreases in total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and all the lipoproteins, as well as in the calculated ratio of total cholesterol to HDL-cholesterol (lower is better for this ratio). There were also significant decreases in the liver enzymes. On the other hand, there were no significant changes in glucose, HDL-cholesterol, or triglyceride levels. For most of the measured quantities, the protective effects of mastic did not vary between the two sexes; for a few, there were small but measurable differences.

In the low-dose (“real-life”) group, there was a statistically significant decrease in serum glucose levels, for men only. No other effects were seen—which is hardly surprising, since the point of the low dose was to approximate the average dietary mastic intake to which the subjects (being Greeks) were already accustomed. The glucose result was probably a fluke, considering that there was no decrease in glucose levels in the high-dose group.

Uh-Oh

You probably had an “uh-oh” moment two paragraphs back, when we said that all the lipoprotein levels were decreased—including the beneficial apolipoprotein A-1 (called apoA-1 for short). Note, however, that the subjects’ HDL-cholesterol levels did not decrease, so the decrease in apoA-1 was apparently not harmful in that regard. Furthermore, as the authors pointed out, the ratio of apoB to apoA-1 is a proven negative indicator (a higher ratio is worse) of cardiovascular health, but in their study, this ratio didn’t change, because both the numerator (apoB) and the denominator (apoA-1) decreased in parallel.

The authors concluded by discussing a possible reason why the observed cardioprotective and hepatoprotective effects of mastic might be related to each other. In brief, they suggested that mastic might act primarily on liver function in such a way as to modify lipoprotein metabolism, which plays an important role in cardiovascular health. They said, “To answer the question if the present findings are two sides of the same coin, experimental studies on the underlying mechanisms are sine qua non.” In other words, more research is needed (more research is always needed, because we can never be satisfied with what we know—we want to know more).

Sticky Business

The list of beneficial chemicals derived from trees—as well as countless other kinds of plants, including herbs, vines, mosses, ferns, grasses, weeds, and even seaweed—is endless, as are the blessings they provide us. Some scientists believe, by the way, that weeds will become an increasingly important source of new medicines in the future, owing to certain unique aspects of their physiology.2 This is yet another reason to preserve and protect all the natural treasures that Mother Nature has given us—even those disguised as lowly weeds.

So be kind to your weeds—and the next time you’re on a Mediterranean cruise, be sure to stop by Chios and hug a mastic tree. But wear an old shirt—they can be sticky.

References

  1. Triantafyllou A, Chaviaras N, Sergentanis TN, Protopapa E, Tsaknis J. Chios mastic gum modulates serum biochemical parameters in a human population. J Ethnopharmacol 2006 [online preprint, doi:10.1016/j.jep.2006.10.031]
  2. McCarthy M. Weeds, not jungle plants, are more likely to have medicinal value. Lancet 2001;357(9260):938.


Dr. Hyla Cass is a nationally recognized expert in integrative medicine, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and the author or coauthor of several popular books, including Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind-Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time and 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health: A Woman’s Take-Charge Program to Correct Imbalances, Reclaim Energy, and Restore Well-Being.

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