Mushrooms: Medicine or Super Foods?

As a Herbalist I find it part of the job description to find foods that can also work as medicines. No category fits better into this area than mushroom or the Fungi Kingdom. This is an area I have spent a lot of time researching, both academically and in the clinic, with tens of thousands of people over the last 20 years or so. They still hold great fascination to me. Over the next several weeks I will be going through some of my favorite fungi, looking at the research and my clinical experience with them.

The first question is when do we us these as medicine or foods. I like to consider them Super Foods. In our home we use them both ways. When I am in a hurry (way too often) I take them encapsulated. At other times, I put them in my blender drink, sauces, soups and even this morning pancakes (a rare treat at out house). Is the format we take them in, make them a food or medicine? Or is it the reason we take them? Our government, or the NHPD thinks so. You decide! It is the age old question, are garlic and cayenne pepper foods or medicines? Again I weigh in with Super Foods.

Mushrooms have always held a great fascination for man, from the vision-producing mushrooms the shamans used in their initiation rites to the mushroom hunters of northern Europe. Many fairy tales include members of the Fungi Kingdom as part of the backdrop. Yes, mushrooms are members of the Fungi Kingdom. People often shudder when they hear the word ‘fungi’. It conjures up images of some life form taking over a university student’s refrigerator, or dirty showers, or maybe even a yeast infection. There are more than 140,000 different species of fungi, some are beneficial to man, some not. Some are edible, some poisonous, some produce visions, and some have strong medicinal properties. In Asia the recorded use of medicinal mushrooms stretches back more than 3,000 years, during which time mushrooms continuously maintained a prominent spot in their medical systems. In western society medicinal mushrooms have played varying roles.  We do find references dating back as far as Hippocrates (455 B.C.). Fungi are also mentioned in the works of Pliny ( 23-78 AD), Dioscorides (55 AD) and Galen (130 – 200 AD), proving that the ancients were quite familiar with their uses. Between then and the discovery of penicillin (another fungus) in 1928, we find scarce evidence of medicinal use. Today, however, medicinal mushrooms play a more prominent role, making up a whole class of antibiotic medicines.

Medicinal Mushrooms have a very long history of use in Asia, Europe and Russia, but have only become an important category of Natural Medicine in North America over the last decade or so. Worldwide we can see that this area is one of the fastest growing categories, with 1.2 million tons of medicinal mushrooms produced in 1981, 7 million tons in 1999 and 9.9 million tons in 2004. However the U.S. market is only a small fraction of this volume. There have been several journals, books and reviews written over the last decade in the N.A.

What are “Mushrooms”?

‘Mushroom’ is not a taxonomical category, but a commonly used name.  The definition of mushroom is: ‘a macrofungus with a distinctive fruiting body, which can be either hypogeous (below ground) or epigeous (above ground), large enough to be seen with the naked eye and to be picked by hand.’ Taxonomically mushrooms are mainly basidiomycetes with several species of ascomycetes. Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals, but are in a separate Fungi Kingdom. There are 14 – 22,000 known species of mushrooms, with an estimated 140,000 occurring species worldwide. This shows that there is potentially a very large untapped resource, with an estimated 7,000 species that have benefit to mankind. Even among the known species there are a very small number of thoroughly investigated mushrooms. The fact that there is a large amount of documented enthomedicinal uses and strong bioactivity of researched species, gives us the impression that we should expect many more natural medicinal substances from this area in the future.

It shouldn’t be surprising that some mushrooms have strong medicinal properties, when you consider their basic role as that of transmuting waste material into good, nutritious material. They are considered panacea, making them seem somewhat magical. Claims that medicinal mushrooms are tonic and energy enhancing, with beneficial effects on the immune, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, nervous, digestive and skeletal/muscular systems makes one wonder if their uses are a little overstated. The fact that they are used to reduce tumors, blood cholesterol, blood pressure, bronchial inflammation, nervous tension, viral infection, insomnia, duodenal ulcers, allergies, diabetes, hepatitis, progressive muscular dystrophy and high-altitude sickness makes one wonder how they work. They are also being used to reduce symptoms of AIDS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy. At the same time these wondrous medicinal mushrooms are used to enhance overall energy, athletic feats, intellectual challenges, environmental stresses and are considered to be longevity herbs.

What makes them tick? Is there any truth to their almost mythical power to transmute toxic waste material and negative emotions into positive and clean ones? We can gain some insight by looking at the mushrooms’ biochemistry.

Major mechanisms of Medicinal Mushrooms

There are several constituents of interest in medicinal mushrooms, with approximately 400 substance isolated from Ganoderma (Reishi) alone.  The most studied constituents are polysaccharides, triterpenoids, nucleosides, egosterol, fatty acids, protein/peptides and trace elements. And of these the most studied are various branched polysaccharides and triterpenoids.  Most likely because of the large array of activity found from a variety of constituents, many health care practitioners consider medicinal mushroom, multiple-medicinal supplements, akin to multiple vitamins and minerals.

Polysaccharides (in particular b-D-glucans) and polysaccharide-protein-complexes have immunomodulating effects on the body. Not new to the realms of natural healing, polysaccharides have been shown to stimulate non-specific immune system function as well as exert antitumor activity through the stimulation of the host’s defense mechanism.These beta-glucans have been termed “biological response modifiers”, due to the large array of functions attributed to them.  Even though the mechanism behind the various polysaccharides is only partially worked out, there have been many theories with no complete consensus.

Both clinical and animal studies have shown that the beta-glucans can activate certain aspects of the immune system. Research has shown that the beta-glucans found in medicinal mushrooms have the ability to stimulate macrophages, NK cells, T cells, and the production of immune system cytokines. In addition, studies suggest that mushroom polysaccharides may also be able to increase dendritic cell function. There is evidence that beta-glucans function by binding to membrane complement receptor type 3 (CR3, alpha Mb2 integrin or CD11b/CD18) on immune effector cells. The intercellular events that occur after glucan-receptor binds, has not been fully worked out. The shape, size, degree of branching and association with protein or peptide groups significantly affect the biological activity observed. Much of the theoretical research is done in vitro, with no clear understanding of how these extremely large molecules absorb into the bloodstream and arrive at the receptor sites. The concept of pinocytosis, or ‘cell-drinking’ has been suggested as a mechanism of absorption that leaves whole or partial molecules intact.

Some subscribe to an alternative theory of signals being generated by the various polysaccharides and protein complexes from their location in the intestinal tract. It is thought that these signals are what really activate the receptor sites in the immune system. This signal could be similar to a radio wave, but is mostly likely photon based, as it appears to stimulate general coherences in the immune system, rather than stimulating or sedating it.

Triterpenoids contain a lanostane skeleton often with steroidal-like shapes. The smaller molecular weights have shown biological activity such as: antitumor, immunomodulating, hepatoprotective, antiviral and antioxidant effects. There are many varieties of triterpenoids, with Reishi having over 120 in it alone.

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