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The Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms

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Learn how mushrooms can restore a poorly functioning immune system and improve the outcome for people with cancer, hepatitis, and other illnesses.

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1. The Nature of Mushrooms

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The Nature of Mushrooms

Fungi are an essential part of a sustainable world. They are involved in the decaying and recycling of matter into the nutrients that animals and plants feed on. Medicinal mushrooms in particular help to purify the environment by decomposing dead trees and plants. For humans, there are approximately 700 species that can be eaten as a nutritious food. And, of course, medicinal mushrooms provide a wide variety of health benefits that can contribute to the prevention and treatment of disease.

What is commonly referred to as a “mushroom” is also called the fruit body. This is the part of the fungus that grows above ground, with the sole purpose of releasing spores (seeds) as part of the reproduction cycle. Some fungi do not produce mushrooms and release their spores without a fruiting body.

The spores of fungi are transported by wind and water to a favorable environment where the spores can germinate and generate a new colony. The new colony begins with the thread-like filaments called “hyphae” that emerge from the germinated spores. The original hyphae continue to grow, seeking another compatible hyphae to mate with. After mating, the hyphae branch out in all directions, colonizing the surrounding soil or decaying tree. This weblike collection of interconnected hyphae is then referred to as the “mycelium.”

 

2. Agaricus blazei

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Agaricus blazei

Unlike the other mushrooms covered in this book, A. blazei was never used in East Asian herbalism. Instead, it has an extensive history of use as a folk remedy in Brazil. Because this mushroom was heralded by villagers as a longevity tonic, researchers were spurred to take a closer look. This species contains a unique beta-glucan complex that appears to activate many components of the immune system including T lymphocytes, granulocytes, and C3 complement. Animal studies have demonstrated anticancer and antitumor properties. One study also found that A. blazei induced apoptosis (self destruction) of malignant cells.

A. blazei has also generated considerable excitement, as some scientists believe it contains the highest levels of beta-glucans among medicinal mushrooms. Although animal and in vitro studies are quite positive, there is a need for more human data.

Minimum potency to look for in Agaricus blazei.

Known active constituents: polysaccharides, ergosterols

Clinical Use: Immune modulation, especially in regards to cancer.

 

3. Cordyceps sinensis

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Cordyceps sinensis

Cordyceps sinensis is also called the “caterpillar fungus,” as it grows on and acquires nutrients from several species of caterpillars. In China, it is referred to as “winter worm, summer grass.” This fungus is found at high altitude in the mountains of China, Nepal, and Tibet.

Cordyceps attracted the attention of the general public and the health profession in 1993 when a group of Chinese runners broke nine world records in the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Germany. The coach of these Chinese athletes attributed those results to the athletes regular use of a Cordyceps-based tonic. Because Cordyceps helps increase stamina, energy levels, and endurance, it has become one of the top-selling sports supplements among the worlds’ elite competitive athletes.

In traditional Chinese medicine, C. sinensis is considered to benefit the lung and kidney channels. It is commonly used with the elderly in China as a type of “super-ginseng” for rejuvenation and stamina.

 

4. Coriolus versicolor

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Coriolus versicolor

(Trametes versicolor)

The most well-studied mushroom extract in the world is without a doubt Coriolus versicolor. One of the world’s leading anticancer drugs was derived from this mushroom.

More than 400 studies have been published that demonstrate the significant immuno-modulating properties of C. versicolor in both healthy people and those affected by chronic conditions. C. versicolor is very well known in East Asian medicine, especially in the countries of Japan and China. It has an extensive history of use in both traditional and modern conventional practice.

C. versicolor is found in the United States and throughout the temperate forests of the world. It readily grows on logs or on the injured wood of most kinds of trees. It has woody, fruiting bodies that overlap each other and are found on the sides of stumps and tree trunks. Coriolus has a unique, plush, velvety surface that is colored in varying shades of brown or gray, with a distinctive pattern of alternating bands of dark and light color. In the West Coriolus is referred to as “turkey tail,” due to its fan shaped, multicolored cap. C. versicolor is also known as Trametes versicolor. The Latin translation of Trametes is: “one who is thin” and versicolor means “variously colored.” In Japan it is called Kawaratake, “the mushroom by the river bank,” and in China it is referred to as Yun Zhi, meaning “cloud mushroom.” In Japan Coriolus has been a folk remedy for cancer and in traditional Chinese medicine it is used to dispel phlegm, and to treat pulmonary infections, hepatitis, and cancer.

 

5. Maitake

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Maitake

Maitake is one of the best studied mushroom extracts. Indigenous to Northern Japan, maitake has a long history as a valued mushroom, both as a food and as a medicine. Maitake is translated in Japanese as “dancing mushroom.” Historical accounts explain the origin of the name, as people would dance with joy when they found maitake because it was so valuable and costly or because maitake is so delicious and healthful. Another explanation is that the fruiting bodies of clustered maitake overlap one another and resemble butterflies in a wild dance.

The Japanese have long used maitake as an adaptogen, a nutrient that helps to balance the various systems and functions of the body.

Evolution of Maitake

In the early 1980s, Dr. Hiroaki Nanba, a professor of microbiology and an expert mycologist at Kobe Pharmaceutical University, was intensively studying the medicinal properties of various mushrooms. During this time, much of his attention was devoted to the popular shiitake mushroom. However, his research showed him that maitake had a unique molecular structure that exhibited greater antitumor activity than other mushroom extracts he had been working with. Maitake, he discovered, also was unique when given orally. In 1984, Dr. Nanba discovered an important maitake fraction (or specialized component) that stimulated macrophages. Through a special extraction method, these maitake fractions were isolated. It was now possible to produce a standardized form of specific beta-glucan polysaccharides—beta-1,6 glucan and beta-1,3 glucan. Later in his research, Dr. Nanba patented what is known as MaitakeGold 404®.

 

6. Reishi

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Reishi

The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is one of the most revered herbs in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, with a documented history of over 2,000 years. Known as Ling Zhi in China, there are references to its use in that country as far back as 100 B.C. where it was referred to as the “Herb of Spiritual Potency” and the “Ten-Thousand-Year Mushroom.”

Reishi is one of the most highly regarded medicinal mushrooms and is probably the best choice when looking for a general health tonic to improve overall health and increase longevity. It is considered an adaptogen.

Modern clinical research also supports many of the uses for this mushroom as described in traditional medicine. It benefits immune health, cardiovascular health, and liver function. Reishi is also frequently used by mountain climbers to combat altitude sickness and is contained in many of the performance-enhancing herbal formulas used by Chinese athletes.

The fruiting bodies of reishi range from a reddish-orange to an almost black color. The fruiting body also has a shiny look to it (lucidum translates to “shiny”). Reishi is extremely difficult to find in the wild but is successfully cultivated for commercial purposes.

 

7. Shiitake

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Shiitake

Shiitake (Lentinula Edodes) is regarded as a gourmet food in the West, while in Japan and China shiitake is known to be a valuable food and medicinal agent. Its name comes from the Japanese chestnut tree, shiia, and the Japanese word for mushroom, take. It is also referred to as the “fragrant mushroom” or the “forest mushroom.”

This mushroom is indigenous to Japan, China, and other areas of Asia. It is not found in the wild in America but is cultivated for commercial use. Shiitake is the second most common edible mushroom in the world. The fungi is found on dead and injured hardwood trees, including the chestnut tree, hence the prefix shiia. Shiitake has a medicinal history of more than 1,000 years and was revered by Japanese emperors. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat colds, flu, and cardiovascular disease.

Shiitake is used medicinally in two forms in Asia and around the world. This includes lentinan, a purified polysaccharide extracted from the cell wall of the Shiitake fruiting body. The second extract is known as Lentinula edodes mycelium extract, better known as LEM. Both extracts have been shown to enhance immune activity. Both forms have been shown to have a beneficial effect orally but the majority of published data on lentinan has been with the injectable or intravenous forms.

 

8. Hericium erinaceus

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Hericium erinaceus

The most recent mushroom extract to excite natural-health enthusiasts is Hericium erinaceus. Because it resembles white, icelike pillars, a host of names have arisen to describe it, such as Lion’s Mane, Monkey’s Head, Monkey’s Mushroom, Bear’s Head, Old Man’s Beard, White Beard, and Hedgehog Mushroom. In Japan it is referred to as Yambushitake and in China it is called Shishigashira. Lion’s Mane is found throughout North America, East Asia, and Europe. Besides being used as a medicinal mushroom, Lion’s Mane is a choice edible.

Traditional Chinese and Native American Uses

Hericium erinaceus is used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of digestive tract ailments. H. erinaceus extract, known as Houtou, is used topically on scratches and cuts to stop bleeding by Native Americans and others.

Immune Properties

H. erinaceus has been the subject of recent studies involving the immune system. As with most of the medicinal mushrooms, unique polysaccharides present in H. erinaceus have immune-enhancing properties, and preliminary studies are demonstrating some anticancer effects.

 

9. How to Take Mushroom Supplements

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How to Take Mushroom Supplements

The first step in successfully using mushroom supplements is to understand how to read the label. In general this is best done by reviewing the Supplement Facts on the product label. The bottle should clearly state:

1. Mushroom name.

2. Type of extract (look for products that are formulated to the potencies given in the previous mushroom descriptions). This should include the guaranteed percentage and polysaccharide description, unless it is a well-researched isolate, such as MaitakeGold 404.

3. Check with the manufacturer to confirm extraction techniques (hot-water or hot-water/alcohol extracts) as well as quality assurance.

Hot-water extracted mushroom supplements are usually dehydrated and sold as capsules (except maitake fractions). Hot-water extracts also list the levels of active compounds on the label, making it easy to distinguish them from the other less potent forms of mushroom supplements. Take the recommended dosage between meals for optimal results. If you notice minor digestive upset when taking mushroom extracts on an empty stomach try taking the supplement with food.

 

Conclusion

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Conclusion

There are a variety of medicinal mushrooms that can be used to improve one’s health. They represent some of the most effective immune-supportive supplements in the natural foods industry. Historical use and published research has consistently shown that hot-water extracts are the preferred method of extraction for most medicinal mushrooms and mycelium in order to attain therapeutic levels of active constituents. It is also important to select the mushroom extract that is most highly recommended for a particular condition for optimal benefits.

SUMMARY OF MEDICINAL MUSHROOM USES

Agaricus = antitumor

Cordyceps = lung, kidneys, adrenals, energy, libido, asthma, bronchitis, and tinnitus

Coriolus = chemotherapy support; lung, colon, liver, breast, and stomach cancer; and HIV

Maitake = breast and prostate cancer, and HIV

Reishi = liver, cholesterol, and daily immune tonic; hepatitis; HIV; anti-inflammatory; antiviral

Shiitake = antimicrobial, cholesterol, immune support

Hericium = stomach and cognitive enhancement

 

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