The Spore with More: The Medicinal Power of Mushrooms
By Tom Jenkins

Considering that one of Western medicine's most prized drugs, penicillin, comes from mold, it is not surprising that certain varieties of fungi—including shiitake, maitake and reishi mushrooms—also have been found to exert remarkable healing properties. In fact, Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D., of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City says, "In China more than 200 species of mushrooms are believed to have medicinal properties, and about one-fourth of them are thought to have antitumor capability."

Among those mushrooms receiving praises, reishi and shiitake are perhaps the best known—and the most extensively studied—while maitake is gaining popularity. In general, edible mushrooms are rich in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan as well as nicotinic acid, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B, C and K.

Shiitake for Circulation
The firm, golden-brown shiitake (Lentinus edodes), once reserved only for the Japanese emperor and his family, is the most popular edible mushroom in Japan. Renowned as a tonic and stimulant to increase vitality, improve circulation and prevent cerebral hemorrhagic strokes, it has been a traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Recently, studies have shown that extracts of shiitake "can lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, as well as provide anticarcinogenic, antitumor and immune-enhancing effects," says James Zhou, Ph.D., former faculty member at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Two carbohydrate compounds in the shiitake, lentinan and Lentinus edodes mycelium (LEM), have received the most attention. "Lentinan is a highly purified polysaccharide powder, which, when given by injection, exerts antitumor action by enhancing the immune system", says George W. Hudler, Ph.D., professor of plant pathology at Cornell University. "LEM, a powdered mycelium preparation of shiitake harvested before the cap and the stem grow, also has strong antitumor capacity and bolsters the immune system." Shiitake may exert a few side effects including diarrhea and skin rashes. In addition, individuals taking blood thinners should consult a health practitioner before using shiitake because it has anticlotting properties.

Reishi for Healthy Heart and Prostate
In Japan, reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) grow wild on decaying stumps and plum trees and are commercially cultivated there as well as in North America, China, and Taiwan.

Found in powder, capsule, tincture and extract forms, the reishi's medicinal constituents include polysaccharides, alkaloids and triterpenoids.

The popular reishi is gaining the attention of Western medical practitioners because it has been shown to help treat coronary heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and muscular dystrophy. Reishi is also one of eight herbs combined in a specialized formula known as PC SPES, which has shown remarkable success in suppressing the symptoms of prostate cancer.

"Reishi is used in Chinese medicine for its immunogenic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties," says James Lewis Jr., executive director of the Education Center for Prostate Cancer Patients in Jericho, N.Y. "One of the most prized Chinese herbs, this mushroom has been a powerful anticancer agent."

"Reishi can act as a metabolic regulator and demonstrate antitumor and immunomodulating activity," adds C. Jong, Ph.D., of the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Md. "It can actually increase bodily resistance against the growth of tumors, induce the production of interferon, enhance immunity function and kill tumor cells," he says.

Maitake for Immunity
The maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushroom is gaining recognition as a powerful means of strengthening the body and enhancing the immune system. Oral extracts of maitake D-fraction, as the polysaccharide is called, have exhibited the highest cancer-inhibiting quality and are considered one of the most potent means of immunological stimulation. Maitake has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, shrink brain tumors and fight prostate cancer. The D-fraction is thought to be one of the most effective extractions of beta-glucan, the polysaccharide that has recently made headlines for helping the body's own immune system fight cancer and infections (Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, 1997, vol. 12 no. 1).

Forms and Dosage
Medicinal mushrooms are now sold in most natural products stores and some mainstream supermarkets. They can be found fresh in the produce section but are also sold dried, powdered and in liquid form. In addition, some species are processed into capsules or caplets. Others are put into tea bags, often mixed with other ingredients. Maitake, for example, is sold in the form of tea bags mixed with green tea or Siberian ginseng and sometimes with other herbs.

You can make your own healing brew by placing a teaspoon of powdered or dried mushrooms in a cup of green or black tea or a cup of broth. Or try incorporating mushrooms into recipes like these.

Mushroom capsules usually contain between 350-400 mg of product, so taking two capsules per day will provide moderate immune support. To treat specific conditions, it's best to consult a health care practitioner versed in the benefits of fungi.

Tom Jenkins is a writer specializing in health, nutrition, the environment and outdoor recreation.