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Are Mushrooms The New Kale?
TOPIC: MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
Mycelium is a latticework of tiny threads that feeds the mushroom, akin to the root system of a plant.
In upper Michigan, researchers have found a mycelium system that is 1500 years old, covers 35 acres, and weighs a hundred tons. Using genetics, this system has been traced to a single mushroom spore.
Our beautiful cover photo this month shows Earth surrounded by an aura of mycelium.
Cover photo credit to Paul Stamets and Andrew Lenzer, Fungi Perfecti, LLC.
Scientists continue to confirm what ancient cultures have known for centuries: mushrooms have within them some of the most potent medicines found in nature. We know their cellular constituents can profoundly improve the quality of human health. – Paul Stamets, www.fungi.com
In his classic, Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets, renowned mycologist1, provides a cross-index of mushrooms and their therapeutic effects, including their activity against specific cancers. At the left, we list those effects. Within the text, we discuss 11 specific mushrooms and assign their effects.2
For example, reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) has been assigned the highest cumulative number of therapeutic and anti-cancer properties, scoring 21out of 30 possible. In our discussion of reishi, we express that data this way, 21:30.
Mycelium benefit our environment far beyond producing mushrooms for us to use for food and for healing. They can heal our planet. Fungi are the great recyclers of the planet, and are so connected with our survival that without them, all ecosystems would fail. In fact, because they create the soil, fungi create the food web. (Stamets calls mycelium “Nature’s Internet”.)
Mushrooms have no roots, leaves, flowers, or seeds. Also lacking chlorophyll, they are unable to photosynthesize their food. Instead, by developing rootlike structures called mycelium, they feed off organic matter.
Mushrooms’ ability to transmute waste matter into nourishment not only feeds them, the mushrooms are organic compost machines, creating new, rich soil for the planet and ridding it of rot.
Some researchers think this capacity translates to the ability of mushrooms to neutralize toxins in our body. Three groups of chemicals, common to all medicinal mushrooms, account for some of their beneficial effects.
These are 1) branched polysaccharide-protein complexes, 2) triterpenes, and 3) adaptogenic compounds.3
Polysaccharides are simple sugars bonded together in long molecular chains, forming complex carbohydrates. These are the same structures that form foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Other familiar polysaccharides are starches, glycogen (the energy storage substance found in muscles and the liver), and cellulose, an insoluble fiber, which helps maintain intestinal health. (It is the most common organic compound on the planet.)
Medicinal mushrooms contain a type of polysaccharide chain called beta glucan. There are many forms of beta glucan.4 The types found in mushrooms stimulate the immune response, accounting for the famous “mushroom power”. Interestingly, the polysaccharides in differing mushroom species appear to stimulate the immune system in differing ways.
Triterpenes belong to a very large, important group of compounds called terpenes. Both carotenoids and steroid hormones are based on terpene structures. The triterpenes found in mushrooms are similar to our own hormones. Terry Willard, PhD, has commented that these compounds work as hormonal communicators and have a “profound effect on subtle actions in our bodies.”5
Mushrooms can be classified as adaptogens because of their calming effects on stress. Reishi is the mushroom best known for this quality. In addition, mushrooms are good sources of nutrients, particularly of the trace minerals zinc, selenium, and germanium. In the following section, mushrooms have been arranged according to their number of healing properties.
2 Stamets lists 15 mushrooms documented to have anti-cancer activity. We cover seven of them.
3 You may remember adaptogens are plant substances that enhance our ability to adapt to stress. The most famous of these is Panax ginseng. Read our Nutrition News on adaptogens, “Bring Your Life Into Balance”.
4 Immune-supporting beta glucans are also extracted from baker’s yeast, seaweed, oats and the cell walls of other cereal grains.
5 For over 40 years, Terry has been studying the medicinal properties of plants. Recognized as one of North America‘s leading clinical herbalists, he is currently the Director of Wild Rose College of Natural Healing, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I quote his remarks from a botanical conference I attended.
Reishi The Meditator
Stamets classifies reishi as the most broad spectrum healer of all medicinal mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum, 21:30). In China and Japan it is known as the “mushroom of immortality”.
Reishi contains beta 1,3 glucan, but its health benefits go beyond immune enhancing, antiviral, and antitumor capacities. Stamets reports that the reishi is also antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, blood pressure regulating, cardiovascular supporting, cholesterol reducing, blood sugar moderating, a tonic to kidneys, liver, and nerves, a reliever of respiratory complaints, and stress reducing.
Reishi contains more triterpenes than any other medicinal mushroom. Triterpenes increase oxygen consumption, tone the liver, and reduce stress. This supports reishi’s use to ease nervous tension, enhance sleep, and generally calm the mind. These effects point to the possibility that it may be the triterpenes that help to ease the pain of fibromyalgia. One of Dr. Willard’s patients commented that taking reishi left her feeling as calm as meditating for half an hour every day.
Reishi also prevents allergic reactions. This protection comes from a constituent called lanostane. Lanostane is an anti-histamine which also supports adrenal function. Lastly, reishi contains a sulfur derivative which is being researched as an aid in maintaining healthy, open airways. In clinical use, it is already specific for asthma, allergies, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems.
Dr. Willard suggests taking reishi with ginger and vitamin C. (The C helps break down beta glucans.) Reishis are used strictly for their medicinal qualities. Unappealing as food, they are hard, woody, and bitter.
Cordyceps The Caterpillar
Cordyceps sinensis grows only on moth caterpillars, and thus…caterpillar fungus. Another fantastic healer, Cordyceps scores 18:30 healing categories. Used traditionally as a tonic and energizer, research suggests that this mushroom has testosterone-like effects (more triterpenes). It also enhances oxygen uptake to the heart and brain, improving resistance to hypoxia.
Sounds like a perfect sports performance enhancer, doesn’t it? According to a University of Michigan health library site, endurance athletes “notice an improvement in exercise capacity and tolerance from supplementing with cordyceps”.
Halpern and Miller (Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies for Modern Ailments, M. Evans and Company, 2002) report that cordyceps is used in China to treat liver diseases, angina pectoris, cardiac arrhythmia, and cancer. They also mention its use as a prescription for bronchial problems, anemia, tuberculosis, jaundice, emphysema, infertility, and sexual dysfunction.
Further, cordyceps enhances immunity (seemingly a marker for medicinal mushrooms), and accelerates spleen regeneration. It can increase SOD activity6, improve libido, and increase sperm count. In his practice, Dr. Willard has found cordecyps to be extremely effective in reducing uterine fibroid tumors.
Cordyceps The Caterpillar
6 SOD: Superoxide dismutase is one of the body’s three internally generated antioxidants. The other two are glutathione peroxidase and catalase.
Shiitake The Delicious
Lentinula edodes , 16:30),is the world’s most popular gourmet mushroom. This golden brown, umbrella-shaped food also has a history of use as a medicine. Scientific interest developed when studies showed that cancer was rare in several areas of Japan where people harvested shiitakes. According to the Mushroom Growers Newsletter, Japan is the largest producer of the world’s shiitake crop.Uses include helping upper respiratory distress, poor circulation, liver problems, and the relief of ordinary exhaustion and weakness. In traditional Chinese medicine, this is considered a condition of diminished life force.7 Shiitake’s capacity to increase chi is related to its reputation as an aphrodisiac. It’s no surprise that the shiitake is treasured as a longevity plant
.Lentinan, the active polysaccharide of the shiitake, is a beta 1,3 glucan. In Japan, it was approved as a cancer fighter nearly 40 years ago. Both Paul Stamets and Andrew Weil, MD, explain that shiitake has no direct effect on killing cancer cells, rather it activates “the host’s” immune response.Shiitake has been studied for many years by the Institute of Mushroom Research in Tokyo where it has been found effective for lowering high cholesterol, treating gallstones, hyperactivity, stomach ulcers, diabetes, vitamin deficiency anemia, and even the common cold. It is also credited with augmenting the antiviral activity of AZT, the HIV/AIDS drug.
Shiitake The Delicious
7 Also called chi, qi, kee, chee, or prana.
Maitake The Magnificent
Because of its positive results in the treatment of cancer, maitake (Grifola frondosa, 16:30) is the darling of the medicinal mushrooms. Until methods were developed to grow it commercially, the maitake was “worth its weight in silver”. Commercial cultivation has made it accessible as a subject for scientific investigation.
Besides research on cancer prevention and treatment, maitake has also been used successfully for other diseases related to immune dysfunction, including HIV/AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein-Barr, and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, it is successful in lowering blood pressure, treating hepatitis B, and controlling diabetes. As a general stimulant to the immune system, it protects the body against toxic insult and serves as a comprehensive health tonic with many adaptogenic effects.
The maitake contains the more complex beta 1,6 glucan which is believed to be responsible for its superior health benefits. Called D-fraction, this polysaccharide is considered by some to be the most powerful, active mushroom constituent known. Japanese research has shown that the presence of D-fraction actually inhibits the carcinogenesis and metastasis of cancer. Again, like many medicinal mushrooms, maitake doesn’t kill cancer cells directly, but is an immune stimulant, activating a variety of immune components, including macrophages and natural killer cells.
In Japan, a collaborative clinical study involving 165 cancer patients was conducted in university hospitals and clinics. Tumor regression or significant improvement in symptoms was observed in 11 of 15 patients with breast cancer, 12 of 18 with lung cancer, and 7 of 15 with liver cancer. These patients were given a combination of D-fraction and whole maitake powder.
Even better results were secured by patients whose treatment included the mushroom combination and chemotherapy. The usual side effects of chemo- (loss of appetite, nausea, low white blood cell count, etc.) were greatly lessened with the use of maitake.
It is believed that maitake, with its potent immune stimulating actions, would be an excellent therapy for most immune deficiency disorders. Indeed, the National Cancer Institute investigated the effect of D-fraction on HIV infected T-cells and found that it prevented the destruction of 97 percent of the cells. Researchers stated that the maitake substance performed as powerfully as AZT – without the toxic side effects.
Stamets recommends that whole maitake extract be used in treatment for a more synergistic effect, suggesting a combination might provide the most powerful medicine. Maitake is tasty, giving it culinary uses.
Turkey Tail The Colorful
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor, 14:30) is among the most popular immune-boosting, anticancer agents in Japan. It contains a polysaccharide with significant activity called PSK. This compound is a beta 1,4 glucan which has extensive documentation as an immune system stimulant. Krestin, the first anticancer drug derived from a mushroom, was developed from PSK.
Japanese studies show that cancer patients on conventional therapy with PSK-derived drugs have longer survival rates than those who do not receive them. Looking at HIV/AIDS, when given orally, PSK appears to have a good influence on T-cell balance, and may inhibit HIV infection.
In his index, Stamets classifies turkey tail (as well as reishi, maitake, and shiitake) as useful against Candida albicans. He notes that turkey tail grows abundantly in wooded areas all over North America. Since it has no resemblance to any toxic mushrooms, it is very safe for amateur gathering. It isn’t a culinary mushroom, however. Boil it and drink the broth.
Agaricus The Mushroom Of God
Agaricus blazei Murill is also found as Agaricus brasilliensis (8:30). This mushroom hails from Brazil where it is known as Cogmelo de Deus, mushroom of God. It can contain up to 27 percent polysaccharides.
Agaricus is extremely potent and is the only mushroom we discuss which has cytotoxic properties. Documentation in Mycelium Running shows Agaricus doesn’t just enhance immunity, it actually kills cancer cells – without affecting normal cells.
Agaricus also has antiviral properties, plus it regulates blood sugar levels and reduces cholesterol.
New Medicinal Mushrooms In The Marketplace
Recently, the popular trade magazine Vitamin Retailer announced “The Year Of The Mushroom”. An article in the same magazine featured several medicinal mushrooms that are new to the marketplace. These are chaga, lion’s mane, meshima, poria, and tremella.
• Long used as a folk remedy in Russia and Northern Europe, research studies of chaga (Inonotus obliquus) suggest its use in cancer therapy, as an antioxidant, as an anti-inflammatory, and for enhancing immunity.
• The latest research on lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) shows it may support the health and vitality of the brain. Further benefits include support for healthy nerves, quality sleep, energy, and mood.
• Meshima (Phellinus linteus) has long been used along with maitake or reishi as an adjunct to cancer treatment. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reports anticancer effects against breast, colon, liver, lung, oral, prostate, and skin cancers.
• Poria (Wolfiporia cocos), famously used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as “fu ling”, is being studied for its benefits to kidney health.
• Research on tremella (Tremella fuciformis) has revealed it as rivaling hyaluronic acid in its ability to hydrate the skin.
We, Siri Dharma and Gurumantra Khalsa of World Be Well, Inc., extend our thanks to Paul Stamets, Andrew Lenzer, and Loni Ronnebaum of Fungi.com for expediting our request to use the wonderful photo from Mycelium Running as our cover. Paul and Andrew created the photo.
Personally, my husband and I long ago became converts to the use of medicinal mushrooms to maintain our immunity. As long as we stay with a potent mushroom formulation from fall through spring, we just don’t get colds or the flu.
Here’s some nutrition news: At a recent natural products trade show, we were introduced to packets of flavored mushroom powders. Just add hot water and you have a nourishing, health-giving beverage. I quickly learned to add my packet to my morning coffee. Same brisk effects of coffee but sooo mellow. As an old friend of mine said, “Good for you and tasty too!” Yay, ‘shrooms!!!