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  Spring 2006: Vol 3, Number 2                                                       To view this magazine with full images, click here (PDF)

Make Room For 'Shrooms

No longer content to spring up on front lawns and mossy forest floors, mushrooms are popping up now in doctors' bags and home medicine cabinets

Scientists claim the largest living organism on the planet is a honey mushroom fungus with a spreading girth of 2200 acres growing underground in eastern Oregon. The second largest is a fungus covering 1500 acres in Washington. With the way exotic mushrooms have been showing up in everything from haute cuisine to skin creams, sports drinks and nutritional supplements of every sort, one could wonder if these proliferating fungi are indeed taking over the world. With research increasingly pointing to the mushroom as the veritable Renaissance man of botanical medicines, maybe its world domination wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Mushrooms aren't only nutritious, low in calories and delicious. They can be beautiful, colorful, adaptive and resilient. And research is discovering they contain remarkable health-enhancing capabilities, including cancer-fighting properties—something Bastyr University is exploring in great detail.

A mushroom is the fleshy, fruiting part of a fungus. In fact, most often, the visible mushroom is just a very small part of the whole fungus growing beneath the ground. That underground portion is referred to as the mycelium. So, while all mushrooms are fungi, all fungi don't necessarily produce mushrooms. A fungus is any parasitic spore-producing organism that lacks chlorophyll. This includes molds, rusts, mildews and yeasts.

From Folklore to Pharmacology The therapeutic value of mushrooms is old news to Chinese medicine

According to Allen Sayigh, LAc, BCNH Chinese Herb Dispensary manager, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has recognized the healing properties of mushrooms for more than 2000 years. Tradition suggests their use as medicine may go back as far as 4000 years."Most traditional Chinese medicine is
made up of formulas comprised of four to twelve ingredients. Some of these ingredients may be mushrooms or other fungi." Sayigh points out that some of the most commonly used mushrooms in TCM are those that are now the darlings of western medicine practitioners and researchers:

  • Reishi/ling zhi is believed by some to be the oldest mushroom used in Oriental medicine. In the 2200-year-old The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing herbal medicine tome, Reishi is listed at the top of the "superior medicines" category. Tradition holds that the mushroom was already in use many centuries before that by healers and monks who believed it calmed the mind and brought spiritual enlightenment as well as good fortune.

  • Shiitake/xiang gu was written about extensively by the Ming Dynasty physician Wu Ri. He believed it improved qi (life force) along with curing colds and eliminating worms.

  • Cordyceps/dong chong xia cao has enjoyed the title of aphrodisiac and "elixir of life" for more than 1000 years. Because the mushrooms were difficult to harvest and prohibitively expensive, they were affordable only to the imperial family.

Other mushrooms regularly found in TCM include: Poria/fu ling (for treating edema, strengthening digestion, calming nerves, building the immune system); Polyporus/zhu ling (for discharging excess fluid); and Armillaria/tian ma mi huan jun (to treat headaches and dizziness).

"Some of these mushrooms were very rare and difficult to find in the wild," says Sayigh. "Fortunately, many are being cultivated now and are more readily available." Thus, they're more affordable for the average consumer and membership in the imperial family is no longer required in order to reap their benefits.

Mushrooms have been used for millennia as natural medicines. Proof of this came in the form of a 5300-year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Italian Alps. The well-preserved Neolithic man was carrying birch polypore mushrooms in his medicine pouch, and anthropologists surmise he used the mushroom as a natural antibiotic and to treat his gastrointestinal tract.

Some historians believe that mushrooms have been used as a staple in Oriental medicine for 4000 years. The first-century Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides included medicinal mushrooms in his fundamental work, De Materia Medica, which stood as medical dogma for the next 16 centuries. And tribal medicine men and shamans across every culture have been using various forms of fungi to treat ailments as far back as their ancestors can remember.

While Western medicine once suspected claims of mushroom magic were based more on folklore than pharmacology, that view has been changing, and rapidly so. Led in great part by the pioneering work of Japanese and Chinese scientists during the last 30 years, research is demonstrating that mushrooms are veritable powerhouses of pharmaceutical compounds that boost the human immune system and assist nearly every bodily function.

According to Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), assistant professor in botanical medicine at Bastyr, mushrooms have nutraceutical and cosmeceutical applications. One of the reasons they're favored by those practicing natural medicine is that—depending on the mushroom—they provide support to nearly all the body's systems and regulatory functions, assist the body in adapting to internal and external stress, and indications are they harm nothing in the process. They've been shown to positively affect the body's cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels. And, because of their ability to reduce inflammation of the skin, they're finding their way into face and body creams.

"Mushrooms are unlike anything in pharmaceutical medicine," says Dr. Yarnell. "They balance immune function, increasing or decreasing various cytokines that are out of balance. This has enormous benefits for cancer patients in particular, as proven by large, rigorous and amazing clinical trials."

Modern research has focused on the fact that mushrooms contain an array of polysaccharides (complex sugars) that have shown remarkable anticancer, immuno-enhancing and overall healing properties. Yarnell points out that other mushroom components deserve special note as well. "Alkaloids, such as those found in reishi mushrooms, and proteins are also showing interesting therapeutic benefits."

Yarnell, who prescribes mushroom supplements for all his cancer patients, says he primarily relies on reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor or yun zhi), based on their long use and strong research supports. "There are so many thousands of species of medicinal mushrooms, and we are just starting to understand them. I'm convinced the best is yet to come."

Kathie Sue Golden, ND, LM, the product review coordinator for Bastyr Center for Natural Health (BCNH), is seeing an increasing number of mushroom products crossing her desk. "Because more research is finally being done in the U.S. on what many had considered folk medicine, more of the science is finding its way into peer-reviewed journals," she says. The result is a burgeoning number of mushroom-spiked products.

Dr. Golden points out that, since a plant can't be patented, some of the larger nutraceutical companies are hesitant to sell a product which they can't patent under their name. "Formulas, however, can be patented," says Golden, "so various mushrooms are showing up in unique formulations now." Since Golden is approached by numerous companies wishing to distribute their products through the BCNH Dispensary, she has to stay on top of the most recent research. "In fact, we just started carrying a new mushroom product here in the dispensary because of recent research findings," she says. "It comes to us from a local mycologist."

Stars of the Medicinal Mushroom World
Mushroom Medicinal properties Improves and/or supports
CORDYCEPS Overall energy tonic, hypolipidemic, anti-athero-sclerotic, stimulates macrophage activity, increases blood flow. Cardiovascular system, oxygenation of tissues, immune system, upper-respiratory conditions, blood sugar, kidney and liver function, athletic performance, libido and sexual stamina. [For more on cordyceps, see Fall 2005 Bastyr Magazine article on Tibet.]
(Cordyceps sinensis)
LION'S MANE Nerve and digestive tonic, anti-tumor, anti-aging. Nerve growth, nervous system, digestion, cardio-vascular system, brain function.
(Hericium erinaceus)
MAITAKE Anti-cancer and anti-tumor growth, anti-aging, boosts metabolism, fights fatigue, anti-diabetes, increases fat utilization and delays accumulation of lactic acid during exercise. Normal cell growth, immune system and resistance to infections, blood pressure and cardiovascular system, blood-sugar levels, cholesterol levels, gastrointestinal system.
(Grifola frondosa)
REISHI Strong preventive medicine, powerful antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-tumor growth, antiviral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetes, analgesic, mood-elevating, builds respiratory strength, expectorant, anticoagulant. Immune system, respiratory system, antihistamine action, blood-sugar balance, oxygen absorption, blood pressure, circulatory system, liver function, energy levels, overall strength, prevention of disease and degeneration.
(Ganoderma lucidum)
SHIITAKE Strongly anti-cancer and antiviral, immune-response stimulator, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, high in protein/amino acids, fat-absorbing, restores system homeostasis. Immune function, weight loss, liver function, lipid levels. [Note: some people may have an allergic reaction to raw shiitake mushrooms.]
(Lentinus edodes)
TURKEY TAIL Strong immune-response stimulator, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant. Cardiovascular system, skeletal system, liver and kidney. [See next article for more on this mushroom.]
(Trametes versicolor)

Consumers don't need to rely on professional supplements, however, to reap the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Healing may be as close as the grocery store. Golden, a graduate of Bastyr's School of Naturopathic Medicine, says, "I give an anti-viral mushroom-chicken soup recipe to my patients suffering from colds and flus. It's a great source of fluids, electrolytes and nutritional support for their immune systems."

"Mushrooms are a good source of potassium, B-vitamins like niacin and riboflavin, and fiber," says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, assistant professor in Bastyr's School of Nutrition and Exercise Science. "They also include some trace minerals like selenium and zinc, and they have a little protein as well." Another bonus: they're essentially fat free.

Morrow recommends shiitake, enoki, portobello and other mushrooms to clients who are seeking diets that support the body's immune system. "But considering that mushrooms have anti-infammatory, anti-microbial, anti-therogenic [protective against arterial plaque] and hepatoprotective [supportive of liver function], antiviral, and anti-tumor effects, most people could benefit from eating them, " she says. "Most of all, I recommend mushrooms because of the flavor and richness they add to foods."

In shopping for mushrooms, Morrow says to look for those that have good texture and color. "The gills should be intact, and the top should feel firm and spring back when poked. If the mushroom is turning black or appears mushy or slimy, then it's going bad." (Tip: Clean mushrooms right before using them. Don't wash them before refrigerating; they'll get slimy.)

While fresh mushrooms will have the best nutrient profile, Morrow says that dried mushrooms sold in bags still retain their beneficial polysaccharides. She reassures mushroom fans
that the nutrients supplying the immune-supporting effects are relatively stable to cooking as well.

According to Morrow, it's not known whether the benefits of eating mushrooms raw outweigh eating them cooked, even though some nutrients may be destroyed during the cooking. "Actually, one advantage of eating them cooked is that they shrink down in size and you can eat a larger quantity, so you get more of their health-enhancing benefits." Morrow reports that she loves grilled portobello mushrooms with olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. Another favorite is shiitake mushrooms sautéed with onions until caramelized, then drizzled with tamari.

As for those expensive "wild" mushrooms sold in gourmet food stores, are they any better than the good old domestic mushroom? "Plants grown under natural circumstance often have a better nutritional profile and taste than those that are cultivated," Morrow says. "There is a certain wisdom in nature that humans cannot always reproduce."

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