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Medicinal Mushrooms

Four Fantastic Fungi that Help Promote Health and Boost Immunity

When most people think of herbs and herbal medicine their thoughts inevitably focus on traditional plants, those containing leaves, roots, and bark. Very few people think of mushrooms. This is unfortunate as fungi are key components of herbalism and we would be wise not to overlook them.

There are over 38,000 species of mushrooms, many with medicinal uses. They have been used by many cultures (Chinese, Mayan, Aztec, Egyptian, etc.) throughout history. Chinese texts refer to medicinal mushrooms as early as 100 BCE. The oldest human mummy (Ötzi the Iceman), dating back 5,000 years ago, was found with medicinal mushrooms in his medicine kit.

Tradition and historical use are valuable but medicinal mushrooms also pass the test of modern scientific review. Clinical and laboratory studies confirm that a number of compounds in fungi can stimulate immune function and inhibit tumor growth. In particular, compounds called polysaccharides (poly = many and saccharide = sugar), which are large, complex branched chain-like molecules built from many smaller units of sugar molecules, have been intensively studied since the 1950s.

Mushrooms contain a special type of polysaccharide called 1-3 beta glucan, which refers to the specific way the sugar units are attached to one another in a chain. 1-3 beta glucan is a complex and large polysaccharide, which gives it immune system benefits but also makes it hard to digest.

1-3 beta glucan does not actually cure; its value lies in enhancing the immune system quickly and making it work significantly better. 1-3 beta glucan molecules resemble the molecules found on bacterial cell walls. Your immune system believes it has encountered bacterial invaders and attack. Now the whole immune system is on the alert, an immune cascade of cytokines and antibodies is stimulated, which increases your overall immunity.

Since 1990, hundreds of scientific studies have been carried out on medicinal mushrooms and 1-3 beta glucan. These studies confirmed their effectiveness, particularly as anti-cancer agents. The specific mushrooms in the studies included reishi, cordyceps, agaricus, maitake, phellinus, trametes, hericium and shiitake. Researchers discovered that each species of mushroom works on tumors as an anti-cancer agent in its own unique way.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) has a long history of use throughout Asia for promoting health and longevity. It has a strong woody and somewhat bitter taste. Both the body (part that grows above ground) and mycelium part that remains below ground and connects the group of mushrooms) are used medicinally.

Reishi has a wide range of medicinal actions. It is primarily used for boosting the immune system; preventing and combating viral infections such as the flu (influenza), swine flu, and avian flu. It is also used for lung conditions (asthma and bronchitis), heart disease (high blood pressure and high cholesterol), kidney disease, cancer, liver disease, HIV/AIDS and preventing fatigue.

Reishi is often included in combination products to treat prostate cancer. Over 200 studies on various forms of cancer including breast, ovarian, colon and others have been conducted to investigate Reishi’s anti-cancer properties.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is often referred to as a medicinal mushroom. Because of its specific shape it is technically not a mushroom, but actually an Ascomycetes fungus which is closely related to the mushrooms. Cordyceps grow naturally in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet. There it is known as “Chinese Caterpillar Fungus” because in the wild, cordyceps is actually a parasite that feeds off the larva of some insects. Commercially, cordyceps are grown without larvae on cereal grains (mainly rice, millet or rye).

Cordyceps, although being well known in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 2000 years, was only used by Chinese nobility due to its scarcity and historically high cost.  Cordyceps has been used in TCM as a venerable cure-all to heal lung, liver, heart and kidney diseases, to treat fatigue, cancer, as well as male and female sexual dysfunction, to relieve pain, to enhance overall health, and to promote longevity

Scientific study shows Cordyceps exhibit very broad biological and pharmacological actions in diseases of the liver, kidneys and cardiovascular system. It also has effects on immunological conditions, including cancer.

Athletes are particularly thankful for cordyceps. Multiple studies have shown that use of cordyceps can help maintain blood sugar levels during exercise to avoid crashing and dramatically improve endurance (as high as a 73% increase).

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is one of the key mushrooms in Japanese cooking and medicine. Historically, it was gathered from the foot of oak and elm trees. In Japanese, Maitake means “dancing mushroom” because in ancient times people who found the mushroom danced with joy because it was so valuable; it could be exchanged for its weight in silver. Cultivation techniques have been developed enabling Maitake to become widely available. The mushroom now grows throughout the Eastern United States, Europe, and Asia.

Maitake has traditionally been used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure. Rich in beta-glucan, maitake is able to stimulate various cells and factors in the immune system. Studies show that it slows the growth of tumors and lowers blood sugar levels.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is one of the primary medicinal mushrooms in Russian and Eastern European medicine. The use of Chaga dates back thousands of years in TCM. Over time its popularity spread West to the Baltic regions of Eastern Europe. Called the "Gift from God" or the "King of Herbs," the name Chaga comes from the Russian word for mushroom (czaga). Chaga grows in very cold habitats mostly on birch trees in Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, Northern United States and in Canada. It has been used for cancer, digestive system diseases, energy, endurance and cancers in Russia and other northern European countries. 

Studies show that compounds in chaga can kill cancer cells selectively and stimulate the immune system. It may also have benefits such as reducing fatigue and inflammation, as well as increased mental sharpness.

Medicinal mushrooms are a key component of herbal medicine and provide a wealth of clinically proven health benefits. To ensure you are getting only the best quality mushrooms, confirm that your products are certified organic and kosher. To be certified organic, it should have the logo of USDA Organic or NOP as well as the certifying agency right on the label. To be certified kosher, it should have the COR or OU (certifying agency) right on the label. Natural does not mean organic or kosher. Products labelled “Natural” can still contain a host of impurities and synthetic ingredients that reduce the product’s efficacy.