New studies are discovering what herbalists have known for centuries: mushrooms support health in numerous ways.

The powers of medicinal mushrooms aren’t a mystery to consumers anymore as more research proclaims the many health benefits of those miracle fungi. New studies are discovering what Chinese and Japanese herbalists have known for centuries: certain types of mushrooms can energize the body and may benefit those with certain illnesses. However, there are hundreds of different species of mushrooms and each has its special benefits. Consumers may be confused as to which type of mushroom supplement will fit their needs the best. To help you help them, this article will unlock the secrets of those powerful remedies.

How They’re Made
The process by which a supplement from a mushroom extract is made is essential to its potency, and there is a debate as to which method of extraction is the most effective. The part of the mushroom that is used in supplements is the fruiting body that grows above ground, which contains beta-glucans in the cell wall and is composed of chitin (1). Beta-glucans are polysaccharides that are responsible for a strong immune system and many supplements include them for improve eye health (2).

In the Chinese tradition, these beta-glucans are released by hot-water extraction, and many researchers believe this is the superior method. Joyce Czop Ph.D., a researcher at Harvard University, conducted several studies in the 1980s and found that the shape of the beta-glucans is essential for their effectiveness. The other form of extraction, grinding the fruiting body into a powder, may break down this structure. Supporters of the grinding method, however, say the powder helps the digestive tract in absorbing the beta-glucans (1).

There are more than 700 species of mushrooms that can be used nutritionally, but some are more popular than others. Mark Stengler, N.D. writes about the seven most popular mushrooms in his book, The Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms, and these will be discussed here.

Immune Health
A strong immune system is necessary to fight off infections and diseases. One of the most-studied mushroom extracts in the world is Coriolus versicolor and “more than 400 studies have been published that demonstrate the significant immuno-modulating power” of this species (1). Researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that regular intake of C. versicolor capsules enhanced cell-mediated immunity without any side effects (3) and that it boosted the immune systems of women who underwent treatment for breast cancer (4).

A strong immune system is vital for a person with cancer during and after-treatment since immunity is weakened, making it easier to contract other diseases. Polysaccharide-K is extracted from C. versicolor for its immune-boosting qualities and used in Krestin, a top-selling cancer drug in Japan. Chinese researchers have developed another extract from the same species, Polysaccharide-peptide, which also is popular (1). These are prescribed for patients going through chemotherapy, radiation or surgery for esophageal, lung, stomach, colon and breast cancer. C. versicolor is available in supplement form, though one cannot claim it treats these diseases.

Shiitake, reishi and maitake mushrooms also benefit immune health. Shiitake is the second most common mushroom in the world and has two extracts of lentinan and Lentinula edodes mycelium, which are said to boost immune health (1). A 2008 study found that maitake mushrooms promoted the production of proteins that activate the immune system against infections and slow the growth of influenza (5). In another study, Chinese researches gave reishi syrup to 2,000 patients with chronic bronchitis and found that 60–90% improved within two weeks (1). Reishi is a highly regarded medicinal mushroom, used in traditional medicine to improve overall health and elongate life and by people who want to support their immune health.

Inhibiting Cells
Mushroom supplements cannot be said to treat diseases, but some interesting research shows their potential for helping cancer patents. Again, although more research on humans is needed to see how Agaricus blazei can help, the fact that it contains the highest amounts of beta-glucans may reveal the anti-tumor properties that are currently being studied (1).

Several studies have found C. versicolor inhibits cancer cell growth. A drug that included an extract from this mushroom, as well as A. blazei, Cordyceps sinensis and others suppressed the invasiveness and growth of breast cancer cells (6), while a pre-treatment with C. versicolor to a leukemia treatment found that it enhanced the treatment, arrested and killed cell growth and prolonged DNA synthesis time (7).

Maitake mushrooms have been found to alleviate the side-effects of chemotherapy and make it more effective (1). A study carried out by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York found that maitake enhanced bone marrow colony formation and decreased doxorubicin toxicity and other studies showed that it inhibited tumor metastasis in vitro, induced dendritic cell maturation, enhanced antitumor response and enhanced activity against bladder cancer cells (8).

The lentanin from shiitake mushrooms was found to improve patient outcomes after cancer treatment and boosted the effects of chemotherapy (1).

It bears reiterating that retailers should not tell shoppers that mushrooms are approved as cancer therapeutics, though consumers may want to discuss this research with their physicians.

Heart Health
Heart disease is currently the number one cause of death in America, and mushrooms can help people with the disease because they alleviate many of the risk factors that lead to it. For instance, studies indicate that reishi may benefit those with high blood pressure. In a study, 54 people who were unresponsive to hypertension medication were given reishi mushroom extract tablets for four weeks and their blood pressure dropped below 140/90 (9).

Excessive cholesterol can block the arteries and prevent blood from reaching the heart, causing heart disease. By inhibiting the enzyme that produces cholesterol as well as its absorption from food sources, the reishi mushroom helps to regulate the amount of this waxy substance in the body (1). A study done on mice found that Cordyceps also lowers cholesterol. One group of mice was fed a cholesterol-free diet with 150 mg a day of hot-water extracted Cordyceps, while another was fed a cholesterol-enriched diet along with 300 mg of the extract. The latter group’s cholesterol level decreased more than the control group’s (10).

Aside from being a life-threatening disease, diabetes can also lead to heart disease and several species of mushrooms can help in the process of insulin production. The reishi mushroom elevates insulin levels, enhances tissue utilization of glucose, and enhances the liver’s metabolism of glucose (1). China Pharmaceutical University performed a study on mice with type-2 diabetes to see whether maitake mushrooms could treat the disease. Scientists observed the animals’ change in weight, level of fasting plasma glucose, a serum protein, hepatic glycogen, serum insulin, triglycerides, cholesterol, free fatty acid, liver superoxide dismutase and other factors. The alpha-glucan from the maitake extract significantly decreased most of the factors, including glucose and cholesterol, and the histopathological changes in the pancreas improved (11).

Getting Physical
Physical endurance is another benefit of using medicinal mushrooms. Cordyceps is most associated with this and became popular when Chinese sprinters used it while breaking many records in the 1990s (1). Along with reishi, it is said to increase endurance, stamina and energy levels.

In traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps has been used to address sexual dysfunction and male impotence and studies show that it can increase the libido by stimulating adrenal hormones (1).

For intellectual stimulation, Hericium erinaceus, or Lion’s Mane, can be taken. An in vitro study was conducted, which found that this mushroom stimulated the growth of myelin sheath on brain cells, which is important for the transmission of nerve messages. There haven’t been many studies done yet on this mushroom, but researchers are looking at its potential to fight Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions (1).

Although it is not a mushroom, but rather a plant growth, Chaga has many of the same benefits that its fungus cousins have. It can support the immune system because it contains beta-glucans along with sterols betulin, betulinic acid, lanosterol and inotodiol. It also stimulates endocrine glands like the thymus, thyroid and adrenal glands. Studies have demonstrated that it can inhibit tumor growth and oxidative DNA damage of lymphocytes (12). WF

1. M. Stengler, The Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms (Basic Health Publications, North Bergen, NJ, 2005).
2. Beta Glucan Research Organization, “Introduction to Beta Glucan Research,”, accessed April 1, 2011.
3. C.K. Wong, “Immunomodulatory Activities of Yun Zhi and Danshen in Post-Treatment Breast Cancer Patients,” Amer. J. Chinese Med. 33 (3), 381–395 (2005).
4. C.K. Wong, “Immunomodulatory Effects of Yun Zhi and Danshen Capsules in Health Subjects,” Int. Immunopharmacol. 4 (2), 201–211 (2004).
5. N. Obi, “Inhibitory Effect on TNF Produced by Macrophages Stimulated with Grifola frondosa Extract (ME) on the Growth of Influenz Virus in MDCK Cells,” AJCM 36 (6), 1171-1183 (2008).
6. Jiang, J. “Novel Medicinal Mushroom Blend Suppresses Growth and Invasiveness of Human Breast Cancer Cells,” Int. J. Oncol. 37 (6), 1529–1536 (2010).
7. J.M.Wan, “Polysaccharopeptides Derived from Coriolus versicolor Potentiate the S-phase Specific Cytotoxicity of CPT on Human Leukemia Cells,” Chinese Med. 5 (16) (2010).
8. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, “About Herbs,”, accessed April 1, 2011.
9. B. Goldberg, “The Definitive Guide to Alternative Medicine,” (Random House Inc., 2002).
10. K. Jong-Ho, “Hypocholesterolemic Effect of Hot-Water Extract from Mycelia of Cordyceps sinensi,” Biol. Pharm. Bull. 26, 84–87 (2003).
11. L. Hong, “Anti-Diabetic Effect of an Alpha-Glucan from Fruit Body of Maitake on KK-Ay Mice,” J. Pharm. Pharmacol. 59 (4) 575–582 (2007).
12. C. Ingram, “Power of Natural Medicine,” 2010.

Marianna Dworak is a freelance writer based in Scotch Plains, NJ.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2011