What's All the Fuss About Medicinal Mushrooms?

by Michelle McKenzie

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Medicinal mushrooms have been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years due to their ability to boost general health and wellbeing. Reported therapeutic benefits include: reducing inflammation, improving cognitive function, balancing the immune system, protecting the nervous system, aiding digestion, lowering stress levels, aiding emotional wellbeing and increasing energy levels. This is a very impressive list and with the health industry booming and the therapeutic properties of these fungi becoming more mainstream, supplements, tinctures and powders are popping up everywhere.

Fun Facts

• Mushrooms have been on the planet for 1.3million years and humans are reported to share approximately 85% of the same ribosomal RNA and 40-50% DNA.

• Mushroom extracts are used in more than 40% of pharmaceuticals including penicillin (remember Alexander Fleming?), antibiotics and immunosuppressant’s.. 

Medicinal mushrooms are mysterious and complex organisms comprising of 150 bioactive compounds that facilitate 126 medicinal functions. They are made up of alpha and beta-glucans, terpenoids, polysaccharide-protein complexes, phenols, sterols, peptides and proteins (1). Beta-glucans (a type of polysaccharide) are the most versatile of the bioactive compounds. As immunomodulators, they play a role in maximising the capabilities of the immune system, having the capacity to modify or modulate an immune response, which helps to promote immune system balance. Beta-glucans are found in all medicinal mushrooms with different mushrooms containing their own unique combination and therefore unique healing properties. Beta-glucans are biological response modifiers (BRMs) which unlike pharmaceutical drugs (which usually treat one symptom and have potential side effects) are adaptogens and are said to be able to adapt to our bodies specific needs, working synergistically on different body systems at the same time, optimising its physiological functions. This allows the therapeutic benefits to be wide reaching with the potential to help with a wide variety of conditions and help keep the body in balance.

Some of the key players in the world of mushrooms are Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Lions’ Mane (Hericium erinaceus), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), Turkey Tail (Coriolus versicolor, Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes).

The most widely studied species and my personal favourite is Ganoderma lucidum known as Reishi in Japan and Lingzhi in China. Reishi is referred to as the ‘king of mushrooms’ and the ‘mushroom of immortality” due to its proposed ability to revitalise the body both internally and externally.

Possessing a powerful combination of beta-glucans, triterpenoids, glycoproteins and amino acids, Reishi is said to promote wellness, reduce stress, balance hormones, promote better sleep, prevent ageing, and increase energy. Reishi’s antioxidant properties can protect the skin by reducing dermal oxidisation (that can cause wrinkles and other signs of aging) and by protecting cellular DNA from free radical damage.

The triterpenes specific to Reishi fruiting bodies are said to have hormone like affects that can help to balance the endocrine system. This in turn will help with relaxation, stabilise mood swings and aid a more restful sleep.

A very exciting area of research and the reason why Reishi has been extensively studied are its proposed anti-tumour effects. When studying the effects on immune response pathways in cancer patients, small clinical studies reported that as a result of the beta-glucans immunomodulating effects, Reishi did improve immune defence against tumour cells and also suppress them (2). These effects are mediated by stimulating innate immune cells and activation of dendritic cells, natural killer cells, T cells, macrophages, and production of cytokines. Therapeutic intake was also shown to reduce inflammation, improve energy levels and promote a positive emotional state and overall quality of life (3,4,5).

Busy lifestyles, eating on the run, stress and lack of sleep over a period of time can all contribute to a build up of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is an underlying driver in so many conditions including depression, cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune conditions and crohn’s. Reishi is said to be one of the top ten most powerful natural anti-inflammatory substances. A combination of its immunological and anti-inflammatory properties indicate that it could help with lots of these inflammatory conditions (6).

This is all very impressive and it seems almost too good to be true. There appears to be a medicinal mushroom that can help prevent and potentially alleviate most of the chronic diseases that inflict our society today, but is there scientific evidence to back up these claims? There have been thousands of studies carried out and lots of data confirming their numerous health benefits, however, a majority of these studies have been conducted on animals and in vitro. Initial findings from human clinical trials are really exciting and do contribute to the growing body of evidence around the many benefits of mycotherapy but these studies need to be improved. A Cochrane review analysed the use of Reishi in tumour therapy and only 5 of 257 studies fulfilled the analysis criteria. However, in total, 373 patients, mainly with lung cancer, reported an improvement in quality of life and positive effects on proliferation of lymphocytes were detected (7).

As an evidence based nutritionist, do I promote the use of medicinal mushrooms? I personally take them every day and await with baited breath for the science to catch up. This could be the beginning of something very exciting but more robust human studies are urgently needed. If you do want to try some, ensure that they are organic and that they contain sufficient quantities of beta-glucans. If you are allergic to regular mushrooms, don’t take them and while mushrooms are generally regarded as safe, if you are taking existing medication, please check with a health professional before consuming.

1. Hifas da Terra, Mycotherapy Vademecum, Technical Sheets, 2019

2. Oka S, Tanaka S, Yoshida S et al. 2004. A water soluble extract from culture medium mycelia suppresses the development of colorectal adenomas, Hiroshima J Med Sci. Mar 2010;59(1):1-6.

3. Hong Zhao, Qingyuan Zhang, Ling Zhao, Xu Huang, Jincai Wang, and Xinmei K. 2014. Kang Spore powder of ganoderma lucidum improves cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing endocrine therapy: a pilot clinical trial, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, PMID:22203880

4. Gao, Y. H., X. H. Sai, G. L. Chen, J. X. Ye, and S. F. Zhou. 2003. A randomized, placebo-controlled, multi- center study of Ganoderma lucidum (W. Curt.: Fr.) Lloyd (Aphyllophoromycetideae) polysaccharides (Ganopoly) in patients with advanced lung cancer. Int J Med Mushrooms 5:368–81.

5 Gao, Y. H., S. F. Zhou, W. Q. Jiang, M. Huang, and X. H. Sai. 2003. Effects of Ganopoly (a Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharide extract) on immune functions in advanced-stage cancer patients. Immunol Invest 32:201–15.

6. Changda Liu, PhD,1,* David Dunkin, MD,2,* Joanne Lai, MD,2 Ying Song, MD,1 Clare Ceballos, MS,2Keith Benkov, MD,2 and Xiu-Min Li, MD, MS Anti-inflammatory Effects of Ganoderma Lucidum Triterpenoid in Human Crohn’s Disease Associated with Down-Regulation of NF-κB Signaling. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 21(8):1918 - 1925

7. Jin X, Ruiz Beguerie J, Sze DM, et al. 2012 Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi mushroom) for cancer treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 6: CD007731