Follow Maitake's Lead

The “dancing mushroom” helps boost immunity, lower glucose.

By Lisa James

From September, 2007

Imagine finding yourself deep in a hardwood forest when something at the base of a dying tree catches your eye—a basketball-sized mound of grayish-brown fronds. Congratulations! You’ve found the maitake mushroom. In Japan, it was once so valuable that feudal lords were alleged to pay the mushroom’s weight in silver, causing the lucky finder to dance with joy. The nickname “dancing mushroom” may also stem from the belief that its overlapping “fronds,” or caps, look like a swarm of dancing butterflies. In either case, maitake locations were closely guarded secrets passed down from father to son.

Maitake (my-TA-key)—known to North American healers as “hen of the woods” and to modern science as Grifola frondosa—is now grown under commercial cultivation as a gourmet delicacy. But the dancing mushroom sports a long medicinal history as well. “Traditionally, maitake was used in Japan as a tonic to boost the immune system and increase vitality,” says Dr. Georges Halpern, author of Healing Mush­rooms (SquareOne). “In recent years, this mushroom has become a popular subject of study.”

Impressive Immunity

Modern scientists have followed traditional medicine’s lead by examining maitake’s immune-boosting effects. Many of their efforts have focused on the mushroom’s D fraction, a compound that Halpern says has been found to activate various immune-system components against tumor cells. In one study, maitake extract killed prostate cancer cells; in another, “cancer regression or significant symptom improvement” was seen in more than 58% of liver tumor patients who took D fraction (Molecular Urology Spring 2000, Alternative Medicine Review 6/02). What’s more, according to Halpern, taking D fraction and chemo in combination has helped relieve “some chemotherapy side effects, such as lost appetite, vomiting, nausea, hair loss and pain.”

There’s more to healthy immunity than cancer protection, though. Maitake has also enhanced immune function in healthy mice and has even helped people with HIV infections to feel better.

Better Blood

Cancer is one of the modern world’s great killers; cardiovascular disease is the other. The heart is threatened by excesses of glucose and cholesterol in the blood and maitake has shown an ability to keep both of them from reaching extreme levels.

Diabetes often develops when insulin, the hormone that shepherds glucose out of the bloodstream and into the body’s cells, becomes ineffective. Maitake appears to renew insulin’s glucose-regulating ability; in one study on rats, D fraction improved blood test results. Other research indicates that maitake can similarly improve cholesterol numbers by lowering lipid (fat) levels in both the liver—where much of  the body’s cholesterol supplies are created—and the blood. This fascinating mushroom has also lowered blood pressure, another vital heart health factor, and is under investigation as a potential weight-loss aid.

Epicures delight in the rich, woodsy aroma and taste that maitake lends to soups and other recipes (along with the minerals potassium and selenium). But for medicinal purposes purified maitake extract is your best bet, as is discussing its usage with your healthcare practitioner.

Looking to support both your immune system and your heart? Consider maitake. You too could wind up dancing for joy.

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