“Food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates. Well known as the father of medicine, this ancient Greek doctor gave good advice. Mushrooms have been revered as both food and medicine for thousands of years in Asian countries. As powerful modulators of the immune system, they play an important role in protecting the body against pathogenic microbes and abnormal cells.
Decades of research in China and Japan support the medicinal use of mushrooms, but scientists in the United States have only recently begun to take note. Studies in vitro and in vivo, as well as human clinical trials, have yielded positive results and scientists are seeing the great potential for mushroom medicine that traditional healers have recognized for centuries.
Shiitake mushrooms have been used traditionally in Japan and China to cure the common cold, increase energy and eliminate intestinal worms. Preliminary trials suggest that they may be useful in the treatment of hepatitis B, HIV infection and pancreatic and stomach cancers, especially when combined with chemotherapy.
One trial investigated the use of the shiitake extract lentinan in treatment of genital warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Two groups of men and women underwent laser surgery, and one group also took lentinan post-operatively for two months. The group who supplemented with the shiitake extract had fewer recurrences than the group who were treated only with surgery.
Reishi mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine as tonics for fatigue, weakness, asthma, insomnia and cough. In vitro, researchers have isolated reishi constituents that inhibit cholesterol production, tumor growth and cancer metastasis.
Preliminary human trials have suggested that the mushrooms may be useful for altitude sickness, chronic hepatitis B, Epstein-Barr infection, herpes zoster infection, diabetes mellitus, leukemia, and cancer of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
Clinical trials have also found that reishi mushrooms can lower high blood pressure significantly in comparison to both placebo and controls.
Maitake mushrooms have been used traditionally in Asia to promote vitality and wellness. Modern medicine is investigating their potential for the prevention and treatment of cancer, and treatment of HIV infection. Polysaccharides found in maitake are some of the most powerful compounds studied in medicinal mushrooms so far.
Human trials studying MD-Fraction, a maitake extract containing the polysaccharide beta-D-glucan, demonstrated cancer regression and symptom improvement in patients with cancers of the liver, breast and lung. Researchers believe that the anti-cancer effects are due to the ability of MD-Fraction to activate special immune cells, including natural killer cells, macrophages and helper T-cells.
Animal studies also suggest that maitake mushrooms may lower cholesterol.
The coriolus versicolor mushroom is widely prescribed for the prevention and treatment of infections and cancer in China and Japan. Researchers attribute its anti-cancer activity to the mushroom’s selective ability to induce cell death in cancer cells but not in normal cells.
Coriolus versicolor contains two proteoglycans that have been extensively researched: Polysaccharide K (PSK) and Polysaccharide Peptide (PSP). In vitro, in vivo and human studies have demonstrated that PSK and PSP can increase production of immune cells, ameliorate side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and make it easier for immune cells to invade tumors.
Studies in Japan have found PSK to extend five-year survival in cancers of the lung, nasopharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, as well as a specific type of breast cancer. It has also been shown to increase levels of immune cytokines such as interferon, interleukins and tumor necrosis factor. These substances act to increase activity of certain white blood cells.
Double blind clinical trials have concluded that PSP relieved pain, increased quality of life and boosted immunity in patients with cancers of the lung, esophagus, stomach, ovary and cervix.
Cordyceps mushrooms were once prized as a cultural treasure and eaten only by emperors. In ancient China they were used to strengthen the body after exhaustion or illness, and as a common treatment for backache, impotence and opium addiction.
In vitro experiments have demonstrated that cordyceps increase immune surveillance of tumor cells, stimulate activity of natural killer cells, inhibit tumor growth, induce apoptosis and prevent angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels necessary for the growth of tumors.
Animal studies have suggested that the antioxidant activity of cordyceps may be useful in protecting against memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.
Human clinical trials support the use of Cordyceps for treatment of liver, kidney and immune problems.
Use of Medicinal Mushrooms
Incorporating medicinal mushrooms into your diet can have many positive health benefits. However, allergic reactions are possible, side effects have been reported at high doses for some species and misidentifying wild mushrooms can have dangerous consequences. Talk to your doctor before consuming large amounts of medicinal mushrooms or concentrated mushroom extracts.
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