Fungi are integral to the planetary web. The lives of plants, animals, and people depend on fungi. They support all forms of life, all stages of the natural life cycle, and play important roles in health and disease.
The earth supports more than 1.5 million species of fungi, a family comprising yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Yeasts are unicellular. Molds and mushrooms are multicellular. They form networks of threadlike membranes called mycelia, which can infest a rooting apple or infiltrate an entire field or forest floor.
Mycelia help create soil by secreting enzymes that break down rocks, releasing minerals that help form organic matter. A type of fungi called “white rot” secrets enzymes that turn lignin in wood to carbohydrates. The mold Phanerochaete chrysoporium is capable of digesting oil from spills.
Thousands of years ago, humans learned to harness fungi for food and to ferment cheese, beer and wine, and leaven bread. Aspergillus oryzae is necessary to ferment soybeans into soy sauce and miso. Rhizopus oligosporus is part of the process in making tempeh, a high protein food product from soybeans popular in Japan.
We cook with wild and cultivated edible mushrooms to enhance flavor and improve nutrition. Mushrooms were included in traditional diets to prevent disease.
Mushrooms for Health
For their own protection, fungi have developed an arsenal of medicinal compounds with antibacterial and antiviral properties. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered in the Penicillin rubens mold. Ganomycin, a powerful modern antibiotic, comes from Reishi mushrooms.
According to Robert Rogers in The Fungal Pharmacy, there are more than 270 species of fungi with known medicinal properties, including antioxidant, blood pressure lowering, cholesterol reducing, liver protection, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and immune modulating properties.
Mushrooms contain disease-busting polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenoids, and immune-boosting chemicals. Agarikon mushrooms have antiviral properties against H1N1 swine flu and H5N1 bird flu. Trametes versicolor, a type of turkey tail mushroom containing the protein-bound polysaccharide extracts PSK and PSP, can increase natural killer cell activity and increase T helper lymphocytes useful in complementary treatment of cancer. They can also be used to bolster a declining immune system during aging.
Let take a closer look at some of the top medicinal mushrooms and learn how they might help you.
Top Five Medicinal Mushrooms
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Mitake (Grifola frondosa)
- Agarikon (Laricifomes officinalis)
- Coliolus (Trametes versicolor)
- Shitake (Lentinula edodes)
The compound common to nearly all medicinal mushrooms is the polysaccharide “beta-D-glucan.” Polysaccharides are long chain carbohydrates with oxygen-carrying molecules. Their function in living organisms is structural and to store energy.
Examples of polysaccharides include starches, cellulose, and chitin. Beta-glucans are polysaccharides that contain glucose with oxygen bridges. The most important one for health is Beta-1,3/1,6 glucan. It has anti-infection properties, reduces allergies, fights cancer, beats arthritis, and protects against radiation. Beta-glucan improves gut-associated lymphoid tissue activating immune boosting activity in the body. It also stimulates healthy levels of interferon, interleukins, tumor necrosis factor, and T-lymphocyte cells, and activates natural killer cells.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Ganderma species, called lingzhi in Mandarain and reishi in Japanese, possess anti-cancer and immune boosting activity. They inhibit platelet aggregation and inhibit angiotensin-converting enzyme helpful in lowering blood pressure. They also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Grifola mushrooms, known by their Japanese name miatake, are well known for their health benefits. The active portion of the Maitake mushroom is called “Maitake D-fraction.” It has anti-cancer effects and helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Researchers found that an extract of Maitake inhibited blood vessel formation in tumors by inhibiting vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a blood test marker for cancer activity.
The Agarikon family has strong anti-inflammatory properties with antibacterial and antiviral properties. Researchers tested 11 strains of Agarikon found in North America and discovered strong activity against swine flu (H1N1), bird flu (H5N1), and herpes (HSV1, HSV2) viruses. The ancient Chinese believed that Ganoderma mushrooms promoted longevity, and the Greeks called Agarikon the elixir of long life.
Coriolus (Trametes versicolor) is a common mushroom containing powerful medicine. The Asian variety contains a potent polysaccharide, PSK, which has shown benefits as an adjuvant in the treatment of gastric, esophageal, colorectal, breast and lung cancers.
Healthy volunteers, as well as breast cancer patients, who used a formula containing Coriolus and the herb salvia, a type of sage, had higher levels of T-helper lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes. TNF-alpha and IL-8 gene expression were significantly higher after taking PSK by healthy volunteers and gastric cancer patients. World famous MD Anderson Cancer Center reported PSK has promise for chemotherapy protection due to the its many effects on the malignant process, limited side effects, and safety when used over time.
Shiitake mushrooms are not only tasty, but they also fight disease. Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC) is an alpha-glucan rich compound produced from the mycelia of shiitake. AHCC is used to protect the immune system of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in over 700 clinics and hospitals in Japan. In my practice, I regular use medicinal mushrooms, especially AHCC, for all cancer patients. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, and exhibits antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Using Medicinal Mushrooms
Traditionally, medicinal mushrooms were carefully collected, dried and preserved. When used as a medicine or as longevity elixirs, they were slowly infused in hot water and drunk in small amounts daily. They are held to such a high degree of respect as to border on the sacred.
Modern labs are learning how to release mushroom magic by extracting and concentrating the active components. These product are taken as concentrated liquids, powders, or capsules.
It’s not clear that taking medicinal mushrooms as part of a daily supplement program for general health provides preventive benefits against disease. However, because of the positive effects on gut immunity—a critical aspect of general health and infection prevention—it’s possible that low doses of a medicinal mushroom combination might be beneficial. Why not add a teaspoon of medicinal mushroom powder to your daily healthy smoothie?
Adding mushrooms to your diet may be wise. Traditional Chinese and Japanese diets commonly include many types of edible fungi especially shiitakes. They are lightly cooked to release aroma, flavor, and free up active ingredients bound in structural cells.
For those with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as an adjunct to cancer therapy, for the management of radiation exposure, and the treatment and management of chronic bacteria and viral infections, medical mushrooms are invaluable. They are safe and without side effects, so may be taken daily over long periods of time even by frail and older people.
For this blog, I choose five medicinal mushrooms that interest me and have the most scientific research. However, there are many other equally as important medicinal mushrooms that could have been included.