Our bodies are put through battle everyday—we are exposed to toxins, bacteria, viruses, environmental substances and, especially, our everyday stresses. Among the battalions of foreign body invaders, the goal of our immune system is to restore and maintain homeostasis (balance) in the body. We are all relatively aware that maintaining our immune systems is crucial to preventing colds and keeping our energy up so we can make it through our busy days. However, rarely do we pause and think about how our immune systems play a vital role in determining our overall health and longevity. When our immune systems become compromised, our bodies become more vulnerable to various illnesses.
“The immune system’s activity intimately affects each organ and system at a fundamental level” (1), so we must ask ourselves: While our immune system works to maintain our health everyday, what are we doing to maintain our immune system? To ensure our immune systems are performing at optimal levels against daily assailants and chronic aggressors, we might look to an unlikely place for an ally: the dark, damp and hidden places of the forest—home to mushrooms.
Trends in Mushroom Research
In addition to the long history of anecdotal evidence for mushrooms contributing to optimal health and daily immune support, recent research shows how mushrooms have the potential to be beneficial to several health conditions. Mushrooms function in numerous ways to provide boosts to our immune systems and help fight off infection and disease. Most medicinal mushrooms function through the use of their beta-glucans, a specific type of complex polysaccharide that have been shown to stimulate white blood (macrophages, natural killer cells, neutrophils, killer T cells) and cytokines (chemical messengers between cells) (1, 2).
Here is a brief review of some mushroom research on some of the most common and most troublesome conditions people face today.
HIV/AIDS. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), leads to extreme suppression of immune functions and has become a worldwide social and medical problem (3). Many antiretroviral therapies improve the survival and quality of life for HIV patients, but the emergence of drug-resistant strains of HIV has put the long-term effectiveness of these drugs into question, prompting researchers to look for new therapies. According to a study referenced by Gao, “In vitro studies indicate that various triterpenoids from Ganoderma lucidum [Reishi mushrooms] exhibit potent inhibitory activity against HIV growth by targeting DNA polymerases, protease, and reverse transcriptase” and that the “studies suggest a role of Ganoderma in the management of AIDS” (3).
AIDS, identified as the first disease of immunity specifically, has caused researchers to look at other conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and so on, as diseases of immunity that might be treated by the healing powers of medicinal mushrooms. This is a serious turn-around, for if we begin to view these conditions as immune disorders, mushrooms could be an immune-boosting way to not only address the symptoms of many conditions, but their underlying causes as well.
Heart disease. In addition to their potent anti-viral properties, Reishi mushrooms may help improve cardiovascular conditions such as hypercholestoremia and hypertension (2). Ganoderic acids in Reishi are said by researchers to lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol levels and can reduce the “stickiness” of blood platelets—all of which help lower the risk of coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis (4).
Shiitake mushrooms have also been suggested for those with high cholesterol. Studies have shown that a high consumption of fresh or dried shiitake resulted in cholesterol decreases ranging from 7 to 14% (2).
Mushrooms can do so much more than help people—they can help save the planet. Many areas, especially those that are heavily industrialized, have contaminated soils from a wide variety of pollutants. A number of fungi can be used to detoxify contaminated environments through a process called “bioremediation.” Current and future uses include the detoxification of PCB, PCP, oil, petroleum products and herbicide/pesticide residue (10).
This is a welcome solution to pollutant cleanup, as opposed to burning soil, which can release toxic gases, moving and burying soil or even ignoring the problem. Soils can be treated on site, rather than having to be hauled, treated and stored at great expense.
Recently, a community in Mendocino County, California was faced with this exact problem. The town of Fort Bragg had been home to a 420-acre lumber mill until it closed in 2002, leaving behind areas of soil with high levels of dioxin, threatening to cost the town a $4.2 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy for a coastal trail. Instead of choosing to take up space in a landfill, the town agreed to pilot a study to determine the effectiveness of bioremediation on dioxin on a large scale (11). At least two dioxin-degrading species of mushrooms could be used for the detox: turkey tail and oyster mushrooms. Although the use of mushrooms is seen as a novel and certainly green way to detoxify polluted areas, the amount of time (around 10 years or more) to clear large plots of land with this method leaves some people feeling quite skeptical. The Fort Bragg community, however, is optimistic and thankful for being “provided a mushroom that eats the worst possible toxin that man can create” (11).
In addition, Cordyceps sinensis, also known as the “caterpillar fungus,” have been shown in studies to have positive effects on arrythmias, ischemic heart disease and chronic heart failure. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study over the course of two months showed decreases greater than 10% in total cholesterol for over half of the patients, as well as a 20% drop in triglycerides. The study also showed 76% of patients to have greater than a 10% increase in HDL cholesterol (2).
These are some numbers we should all take to heart.
Cancer. Mushrooms have been widely researched in cancer patients because they are thought to improve specific immune markers and patient outcomes (2). The anti-viral and anti-microbial properties of many mushrooms may also have a bearing on anti-cancer strategies, as many forms of cancer (such as cervical, liver and some gastrointestinal cancers) may be caused by viruses or stimulated by microbes (5).
Based on studies referenced by Paul Stamets, a leading expert in mycology, here is a listing of some mushrooms with some interesting findings in cancer research:
* Grifola frondosa (Maitake). An in vitro study by Lovy et al. states: “Several edible Hymenomycete mushroom species [including Maitake] have been screened as possible inhibitors of human T4 leukemic cancer cells, HeLa cervical cancer cells, Plasmodium falciparum (a pyrimethamine resistant malarial parasite), and six pathogenic microorganisms” (6).
* Trametes/Coriolus versicolor (turkey tail). A leading anticancer drug in Japan, Krestin, was derived from this mushroom. PSK (Polysaccharide-K) and PSP (Polysaccharide Peptide) from C. trametes are routinely prescribed in Japan and China are said to stimulate immune function for people who have surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation for the treatment of esophageal, lung, stomach, colon and breast cancer (2).
* Agaricus blazei. New research is being focused on this mushroom because it contains the highest levels of beta-glucans of all medicinal mushrooms. Animal studies have indicated anticancer and antitumor properties, inducing apoptsis (self destruction) of malignant cells. It may also activate components of the immune system including T lymphocytes, granulocytes and C3 complement (2).
* Cordyceps sinensis, Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi or “Ling Zhi”) and Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) have also been studied in a variety of applications.
In addition, Maitake mushrooms have been studied for their potential abilities to reduce chemotherapy and radiation side effects such as hair loss, pain and nausea, as well as making the chemotherapy more effective (2). Although exciting research continues to be performed, as yet, mushroom therapies have not been found to be cure or prevent cancer, and patients should, of course, follow their prescribed treatments.
Diabetes. Over 60 million Americans are coming face to face with a new foe—Syndrome X. This increasingly prevalent, pre-diabetic state is a cluster of risk factors for heart disease associated with insulin resistance including high blood lipid levels, low HDL-cholesterol, high blood insulin, hyperglycemia and hypertension. Patients might be able to reverse some of the damage to their bodies through mushroom supplementation. Mushrooms have gained increasing attention for their help with blood sugar control.
* Reishi mushrooms help control blood sugar due to polysaccharides known as Ganoderans A, B and C that elevate plasma insulin levels, enhance peripheral tissue utilization of glucose and enhance liver metabolism of glucose (2).
* “Evidence that whole Maitake aids the body’s glucose-insulin sensitivity dates back to at least 1994.” Five human studies showed each diabetic patient to have a 30–60% decline in fasting blood glucose levels under a Maitake regimen for two to four weeks (7).
* A 2007 study states that a “supplement of ABM (Agaricus Blazei Mushroom) extract improves insulin resistance among subjects with type 2 diabetes. The increase in adiponectin concentration after taking AMB extract for 12 weeks might be the mechanism that brings the beneficial effect” (8).
Other conditions. Mushrooms have other potential uses, too:
* Cordyceps sinensis has been known to increase stamina, energy levels and endurance, making it a top-selling sports supplement. It also benefits respiratory health for those with asthma and bronchitis. Cordyceps also supports kidney health, adrenal gland function, hormonal balance and sexual performance.
* Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) have also been used by mountain climbers to combat altitude sickness. Reishi mushrooms also contain triterpenes that have adaptogenic, antihypertensive and anti-allergy effects. Helps with chronic bronchitis.
* Coriolus versicolor has been used in Chinese medicine to dispel phlegm, help with pulmonary infections and hepatitis.
* Wu Ling is a type of mushroom promoting healthy sleep patterns that has been used in China for centuries and is just starting to become available in America.
AHCC: A Secret Superfood
AHCC (active hexose correlated compound), considered a superfood, is a mildly sweet tasting monosaccharide produced from the mycelium of a shiitake hybrid grown in rice bran extract (1). While most medicinal mushroom extracts tend to contain mostly beta-glucans, AHCC is rich with alpha-glucans which have an even lower molecular weight, making them more easily assimilated by white blood cells for immediate use in the destruction of tumors or strengthening the body’s defenses. AHCC has been studied in cancer, heart disease, hepatitis and AIDS patients. It is said to address the entire immune system, not just various parts of the body deemed to be the causes of various diseases (1).
Over 700 hospitals and medical clinics throughout Asia prescribe AHCC as part of an immune-enhancement regimen, as well as hundreds of other doctors throughout the world who prescribe it as an additional therapy for cancer, hepatitis C, hypertension and other chronic conditions. AHCC stimulates natural killer cells and works to secrete cytokines—proteins that catalyze the body’s immune system into action (9).
Methods for preparing plant-based supplements often do not apply to mushrooms because of their unique structure, which differs entirely from plants. Some medicinal mushroom supplements are offered in the form of ground whole dried mushrooms or mycelium in a powder that is meant to break up the indigestible mushroom cell walls (chitin) and “release” the beta-glucans contained inside, allowing them to be absorbed through the digestive process. However, merely grinding the mushrooms extracts may create a supplement contains primarily indigestible fiber. Rather, capsules made from dehydrated hot-water extracts can be up to 30 times more powerful than mycelium biomass (2).
In addition, approximately 700 mushrooms can be eaten as nutritious food. Mushrooms have traditionally been prepared for medicinal use by hot-water extraction to make tea and various decoctions. Take note that eating uncooked mushrooms will have little nutritional benefit, as they will pass undigested (2). The polysaccharides contained within the chitin cell walls are not readily digested without heat treatment. To illustrate this point, an “Ice Man” was found with a mycelium that had remained in tact for 5,300 years (5)! However, mushroom supplements that are made through the correct processes have the potential to offer amazing immune-boosting results on a day-today basis, as well as becoming a strong ally in the war against chronic conditions.
1. D. Kenner, AHCC: The Japanese Medicinal Mushroom Immune Enhancer (Pleasant Grove, UT, Woodland Publishing, 2001).
2. M. Stengler, The Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms (Laguna Beach, CA, Basic Health Publications, 2005).
3. Y. Gao, et al., “Antimicrobial Activity of the Medicinal Mushroom Ganderma,” Food Rev. Int. 21 (2), 2005.
4. R. Klatz and R. Goldman, The Anti-Aging Revolution (Laguna Beach, CA, Basic Health Publications, 2007).
5. P. Stamets, MycoMedicinals (Olympia, WA, MycoMedia Productions, 2002).
6. A. Lovy, et al., “Activity of Edible Mushrooms Against the Growth of Human T4 Leukemic Cancer Cells, HeLa Cervical Cancer Cells, and Plasmodium falciparum,” J. Herbs, Spices & Med. Plants, 6 (4), (2000).
7. H. Preuss and S. Konno, Maitake Magic (Topanga, CA, Freedom Press, 2002).
8. C-H. Hsu, et al., “The Mushroom Agaricus Blazei Murill in Combination with Metformin and Gliclazide Improves Insulin Resistance in Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized, Double-blinded, and Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial,” J. Compl. Alt. Med. 13 (1(, (2007).
9. F. Pescatore and B. Ritz. “AHCC—A Powerful Aid in Fighting Viruses and Infections.”
10. P. Stamets, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms (Berkeley, CA, Ten Speed Press, 2000).
11. A. Correal, “Saddled With Legacy of Dioxin, Town considers an Odd Ally: The Mushroom,” The New York Times, April 2008.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2008