Mushroom medicine


These earthy delicacies are not only delicious--they treat cancer, AIDS and more.

THE WORD FUNGUS often brings to mind such unsalutary and fearsome growths as the white fuzz on a loaf of stale bread and the mildew in a moist shower stall. Farmers know fungal parasites can devastate food crops such as corn, rice, wheat and rye. But some types of fungi are not only not harmful, they are healing--notably, certain varieties of mushrooms.

Scientists have named 100,000 different species of fungi, and there are many more that have yet to be classified. While you wouldn't want to ingest many members of the fungi kingdom, some mushrooms have been valued throughout the world--particularly Asia--as both food and medicine for centuries. The Chinese, for instance, have used and revered many fungi as tonics for the immune system for more than 3,000 years, while in Japan, pushcart vendors on the streets still sell medicinal mushrooms to average citizens, who use them to maintain health and promote longevity.

Today, medicinal mushrooms are burgeoning in popularity in the United States. This new public interest has been greatly stimulated by the large number of scientific studies that have been conducted on medicinal mushrooms, confirming many of their traditional uses and finding new applications.

One of the key conclusions that has come out of both laboratory and human clinical studies is that a number of compounds in fungi can stimulate the function of the immune system and inhibit tumor growth. In particular, compounds called polysaccharides, which are complex chain-like molecules built from many smaller units of sugar molecules, have been intensively studied since the 1950s. Their antitumor and immuno-stimulating properties have been proven repeatedly.

Medicinal mushrooms also behave as adaptogens, which means that they perform broad-based, nonspecific actions in the body, supporting the function of all of it's major systems, including the nervous, hormonal and immune systems, and bolstering the body's resistance to the onslaught of toxic environmental influences, noise, emotional stress and pathogens, like bacteria and viruses. Adaptogens are especially noted for their ability to build endurance and reduce fatigue.

MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS show promise as part of an overall treatment plan for number of ailments. While they have a long history of use in many cultures and are backed up by affair amount of scientific investigation, they are not magic bullets. If you are experiencing symptoms, contact a qualified health practitioner or physician for a diagnosis and treatment plan before taking mushrooms.

Among the best researched medicinal mushrooms are the shiitake and reishi. The maitake, while not as extensively studied, also has growing body of science to support its use as a treatment for many health conditions.

RENOWED IN JAPAN and China as a food and medicine for thousands of years, the shiitake (Lentinus edodes) is the second most commonly produced edible mushroom in the world, after the white button mushroom.

An immense amount of research has been conducted on shiitake's varied medicinal properties, most of it in Japan and China. The two most important components of shiitake are lentinan and lentinula edodes mycelium extract (LEM). Lentinan is a highly purified polysaccharide powder, and LEM is a powdered extract of shiitake that is harvested before the cap and stem grow. Both have demonstrated strong antitumor power; they work by bolstering various immune system functions--thereby enhancing the body's ability to eliminate the tumor--rather than by attacking the tumor cells themselves. One Japanese study found that chemotherapy patients who also received lentinan injections once or twice a week survived significantly longer and had reduced tumor growth compared to patients who received chemotherapy alone.

Research studies suggest that LEM may be more effective at preventing the spread of the virus in the body than the most commonly prescribed drug for the treatment of AIDS, AZT-possibly because LEM works by blocking the initial stages of HIV infection, while AZT merely slows replication of the virus and may become less effective over time. AZT also is very expensive and known to cause severe bone marrow toxicity as well as a host of other side effects. LEM is nontoxic and much less expensive, about $75 for a one-month supply of 90 grams, compared to more than $250 for a month's supply of AZT.

GANODERMA LUCIDUM--known in China as ling zhi and in Japan as reishi--is one of the most famous medicinal mushrooms. In traditional Chinese medicine, reishi is considered to be in the highest class of tonics for promoting longevity.

In the last 20 years, reishi has undergone a number of human clinical studies in Japan and China, and is thought to be beneficial for a wide variety of disorders. Of special note are reishi's effects on the function of the lungs and heart. In clinical studies conducted in China during the 1970s, more than 2,000 patients with chronic bronchitis were given a tablet form of reishi syrup. Within two weeks, 60 percent to 90 percent of the patients showed marked improvement.

In China, numerous preparations of reishi are made for daily use to promote health, induce sound sleep and increase resistance to infections and heart disease. In Japan, the government has officially listed reishi as an adjunct herb for treating cancer. Furthermore, preliminary clinical reports and practitioner experience indicate that its immuno-stimulating polysaccharides may make it useful for people who are HIV positive, as well as for those who have Epstein-Barr virus, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

MAITAKE (Grifola frondosa) is a delectable mushroom that is extremely popular in Japan. Like shiitake and reishi, maitake may have anticancer benefits. When used consistently (see "How to Use Mushrooms," p. 98), as a food or tea, maitake seems to aid in the prevention of certain cancers and stimulates the immune system of people afflicted with cancer (including those undergoing chemotherapy), as well as those infected with the AIDS virus. There have been reports from physicians that patients with Kaposi's sarcoma and other AIDS-related illnesses show improvement when administered the extract. These reports are encouraging, but they are preliminary clinical reports rather than controlled studies.

If you decide to use medicinal mushrooms, you can certainly find them in supplement form (see "How to Use Mushrooms," p. 98). Even better, though, is to make them a routine part of your diet. In fact, this is a tradition in China and Japan, where food and medicine are not so artificially separated. Try adding mushrooms to dishes such as tofu scramble, mushroom barley soup or tempeh burritos. You'll be doing a favor not only for your immune system but for your taste buds too.
How To Use Mushrooms

MEDICINAL mushrooms can be an effective part of a self-care program for chronic recurring infections, such as colds and flu, as well as general weakness and fatigue. They also can be used for more serious conditions, such as cancer and AIDS in consultation with a healthcare practitioner.

You can find mushrooms from a variety of sources. Look in Asian markets and natural food stores for fresh and dried mushrooms, as well as powdered and liquid supplements. Practitioners of Chinese medicine, including acupuncturists, also are good sources of mushrooms in supplement form.

Because the scientific literature indicates that whole mushrooms are especially active as antitumor agents and immune enhancers, I recommend taking one teaspoon daily of dried or powdered mushrooms, either in a cup of ginger tea or sprinkled into soup or on stir-fries and rice. To make a tea, place a teaspoon of dried mushrooms in a pan, add a cup of water, simmer for 40 to 60 minutes, then strain. If desired, add ginger or a little licorice to improve the taste, which can be bitter.

If you prefer capsules. an average amount of powdered mushroom per capsule is 400 milligrams (mg.). For mild to moderate immune support, I recommend two capsules, morning and evening, for a total of 1,600 mg. per day. For specific immune-suppressed conditions, including chronic fatigue, cancer and AIDS, take two to three capsules three times a day.

PHOTO (COLOR): Mushrooms as medicine


By Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac.

CHRISTOPHER HOBBS, L.Ac., is a fourth-generation herbalist and botanist who writes and lectures internationally on herbal medicine. This article is adapted, with permission, from his book MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS: AN EXPLORATION OF TRADITION, HEALING, AND CULTURE (Botanica Press, 1995).

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