Mushrooms, once thought to be the “sons of god” sent to Earth by lightning, are known today for their nutritional and medicinal value. There is increasing evidence that mushrooms exhibit antioxidant, antitumor, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. This article will highlight several recent scientific developments that shed more light on the specific benefits of these health-promoting fungi.

NeuroregenerationThe prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is increasing as average life expectancy increases. Several edible and medicinal mushrooms have shown neuroregenerative potential through the stimulation of neurite outgrowth in the brain. Select mushrooms activate neuron growth stimulators, such as nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), lithium, and thyroid hormones, to enhance neurite outgrowth (1).

Two human pilot studies in Japan, showed that tablets containing H. erinaceus, also known as Lion’s Mane, Monkey’s Head, Hedgehog mushroom, or Yamabushitake, decreased symptoms of anxiety, improved sleep, and improved cognitive impairment (1). In addition to these behavioral studies, rat studies showed that H. erinaceus extract improved myelination in the brain. In addition, the organic compound dictyophorine from D. indusiata, known as the Veiled Lady,” increases NGF growth in brain cells by 4 times compared to controls. Finally, G. frondosa, known as “Hen of the Wood,” has also been shown to stimulate neurite outgrowth in neuron-like cells (1).

Bone BuildingMushroom extracts may also decrease bone resorption and improve bone formation. Researchers found that supplementation with a combination of extracts from Hen of the Wood (G. frondosa) and Shiitake (L. edodoes) mushrooms significantly reduced bone loss in the lumbar spine (2). The extracts inhibit the activity of osteoclasts,  cells that break down bone, and promote the activity of osteoblasts, cells that build bone up, to decrease bone loss in an animal osteoporosis model. Further studies are needed to determine the effects in human cells.

Potential Tumor RepressorResearch also shows that certain mushrooms may also have anticancer properties. Recently, researchers have found polysaccharides isolated from medicinal mushrooms to have a variety of biologic uses including antitumor activity without significant side effects.

Specifically, scientists have investigated the effects of polysaccharides (PEP) from the king oyster mushroom (P. eryngii) on a human liver cancer cell line. Treatment with PEP-2 significantly activated enzymes that mediated cell death responses. In addition, PEP-2 arrested cell development, inhibiting growth of the cancer cells (3).

One 2013 study demonstrated the potential application of a Maitake mushroom extract for breast cancer chemoprevention and treatment. According to the study, data showed that the extract suppressed, “the breast tumoral phenotype through a putative molecular mechanism modifying the expression of certain genes… involved in apoptosis stimulation, inhibition of cell growth and proliferation, cell cycle arrest, blocking migration and metastasis of tumoral cells, and inducing multidrug sensitivity” (4). In other words, it was found to induce apoptosis—the programmed cell death of unnecessary or threatening cells—of MCF-7 breast cancer cells, which can potentially prevent the formation or slow the progress of  breast cancer.

Renal SupportAnother area that is being investigated is the effect of mushroom supplements on kidney function. T. camphoratus, widely used in Taiwan as a folk medicine to prevent and treat a variety of diseases including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and hypertension has been found to prevent deterioration of kidney function. Researchers used a mouse model to study the effects of T. camphoratus water solutions orally in mice with chronic kidney disease. Mice that were given the treatment had progressively increased plasma protein and inhibited serum creatinine, indicating higher kidney function (5). These results suggest that the mushroom media solution may prevent deterioration of kidney function and may have a renoprotective effect on chronic kidney disease.

Another mushroom, Poria cocos that grows on the roots of pine trees and has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the past 2,000 years supports kidney function. In research conducted by Sensuke Konno, Ph.D., Department of Urology, New York Medical College, a bioactive extract of Poria cocos was tested on epithelial cell cultures. The study’s hypothesis was that if kidney disease is triggered by oxidative stress, Poria, as an antioxidant, would protect the epithelial cells against free radicals. Results showed that cell viability was increased by 25% when cell cultures were exposed to oxidative stress and the severity of oxidative stress was even reduced by 35%. In addition, Poria partially prevented the disruption of the cell cycle which also results from oxidative stress.

Improved Physical FitnessA study of 28 individuals showed that supplementation with a Cordyceps militaris mushroom blend improved tolerance to high-intensity exercise. Subjects who took the supplements for three weeks had improved oxygen consumption, time to exhaustion, and ventilator threshold (6). There was no improvement with one week of supplementation, although there were results with three weeks of supplementation, suggesting the potential for greater benefits with long term supplementation.

In addition, a recent study focused on the effect of a mushroom supplement on a specific disease, fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by musculoskeletal pain, stiffness, and tenderness. A study of 64 women with fibromyalgia showed that women who took 6 grams of Ganoderma lucidum also known as Reishi or Linghzi, dissolved in water every day for 6 weeks had significantly improved aerobic endurance, lower body flexibility and velocity measured through walking tests and flexibility tests (7). It is still unknown how exactly the supplement improves aerobic endurance, velocity, or flexibility, but it may be due to the antioxidant effect of these mushrooms. This was the first study to investigate the effects of G. lucidum on the physical fitness of a population with a specific disease and lays the foundation for future research for the effects of mushroom supplements on the physical fitness in pathologies characterized by poor physical conditioning.

References1. Phan, C. W., David, P., & Sabaratnam, V. (2017). Edible and medicinal mushrooms: Emerging brain food for the mitigation of neurodegenerative diseases. Journal of Medicinal Food, 20(1), 1-10. doi:10.1089/jmf.2016. 3740 [doi] 2. Erjavec, I., Brkljacic, J., Vukicevic, S., Jakopovic, B., & Jakopovich, I. (2016). Mushroom extracts decrease bone resorption and improve bone formation. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 18(7), 559-569. doi:65a55c177b27d486,660cc70709268c85 [pii] 3. Ren, D., Wang, N., Guo, J., Yuan, L., & Yang, X. (2016). Chemical characterization of pleurotus eryngii polysaccharide and its tumor-inhibitory effects against human hepatoblastoma HepG-2 cells. Carbohydrate Polymers, 138, 123-133. doi:10.1016/j.carbpol. 2015.11.051 [doi] 4. Noelia Alonso, Eliana et al. “Genes Related to Suppression of Malignant Phenotype Induced by Maitake D-Fraction in Breast Cancer Cells,” J Med Food 16 (7):602–617 (2013) 5. Wang, S. C., Yang, C. H., Grumezescu, A. M., Lin, Y. M., Huang, K. S., Wang, W. T., . . . Chou, J. H. (2016). Renoprotective effects of shout camphor medicinal mushroom (taiwanofungus camphorates, basidiomycetes) mycelia on several media in mice with chronic kidney disease. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 18(12), 1105-1114. doi:10.1615/ IntJMedMushrooms.v18.i12.50 [doi] 6. Hirsch K.R., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Roelofs E. J., Trexler, E. T., Mock, M. G. (2016). Cordyceps militaris improves tolerance to high-intensity exercise after acute and chronic supplementation. Journal of Dietary Supplements. 13:1-13. 7. Collado Mateo, D., Pazzi, F., Dominguez Munoz, F. J., Martin Martinez, J. P., Olivares, P. R., Gusi, N., & Adsuar, J. C. (2015). Ganoderma lucidum improves physical fitness in women with fibromyalgia. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 32(5), 2126-2135. doi:10.3305/nh. 2015.32.5.9601 [doi]