Medicinal Mushroom Magic

Some fungi pack an immune-protective punch.


October 2012

by Corinne Garcia

The world of mushrooms goes far beyond the white buttons and portobellos at the local grocery store. Not to say that they aren’t healthful; in addition to their culinary virtue of absorbing flavors, many common mushrooms provide protein, antioxidants, fiber and vitamins B6, B12 and D. But what you are enjoying in your stir-fry is actually the fruiting body of the fungi, which acts as a shield for the most medicinally beneficial part—the thread-like mycelium.

The mycelium is where the mushroom magic lies (and what you’ll find much more concentrated and potent in extract or supplement form). And it just might be your immune system’s knight in shining armor this cold and flu season.

Mushrooms as Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine has used fungi to support health for thousands of years, discovering along the way that different mushrooms have different medicinal values. Some widely used drugs in Western medicine come from fungi, penicillin being the most famous example. And today, Western science is taking a renewed interest in possible fungi health benefits.

Paul Stamets, DSc, one of the world’s leading mycologists and author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press), estimates that 150,000 species of mushrooms exist. He says about 5% have “interesting nutritional or medicinal properties” and many more have yet to be studied.

Some mushrooms are believed to have antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, and may be potentially useful in treating and preventing a number of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. These mushrooms may also support healthy immune systems in both the healthy and the ailing.

Mushrooms and Immunity

“We are all under immune assault from bad food, air pollution, stress, obesity and even the fact that we live longer,” Stamets notes. He believes, along with other leading mycologists and backed by a growing number of studies, that medicinal mushrooms may play a key role in bolstering immunity.

The first Chinese pharmacopeia, written more than 5,000 years ago, discusses the healing properties of mushrooms, explains Andrew Miller, co-author (with Georges Halpern)
of Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies for Modern Ailments (M. Evans and Company) and director of the mushroom-growing facility Functional Fungi. But how do they affect the immune system in particular?

“They activate different aspects of the immune system and trigger immune responses,” Miller says. “Everything lights up like a Christmas tree, and the immune system becomes more alert.” He explains that medicinal mushrooms have high levels of polysaccharides, branchlike chains of sugar molecules shown to have immune-activating and tumor-fighting properties. What’s more, different types of mushrooms potentially carry different types of polysaccharides, each working on different aspects of immunity.

“Some activate T cells, some activate natural killer (NK) cells,” Miller says, referring to types of white blood cells that play a central role in immune response. “It’s all about priming the immune system for optimal behavior.” This gives medicinal mushrooms the potential to act as a barrier to common cold-weather respiratory infections as well as helping people who are already sick.

Anti-Cancer Potential

The ability of mushrooms to boost the immune response also gives them a potential role in battling cancer. According to Stamets, who was involved in the study “Phase 1 Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer” (ISRN Oncology Journal 2/16/12) and is on the advisory committee of the trial’s second phase, the power of medicinal mushrooms runs deep. In this study, T. versicolor (also known as turkey tail because of its appearance) improved the immune system in immunocompromised breast cancer patients.

Stamets has also witnessed the power of mushrooms first-hand when his mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and given three months to live. He says she took turkey tail and that now, more than three years after her diagnosis, she continues to have no detectable tumors.

“Immune function is where mushrooms have a sweet spot,” Stamets says. “They can increase
the ability of the immune system to prepare and react to invasive disease, especially those that are microbial or lead to cancer.”

Miller explains that diseases such as cancer impair the body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients, which can weaken the immune system. Some mushrooms can help by kicking immunity back into gear.

Fungi Theories

Exactly how mushrooms work, the subject of much current research, is still somewhat unknown. But Stamets says there are a few possible explanations for their immune-enhancing actions.

One theory is that our bodies recognize the fungus as an invasive organism, which alerts our immune system. “When we ingest these mushrooms, it’s something that needs to be identified, and the immune system goes on high alert,” he says. This may result in the production of more illness-fighting white blood cells.

Another theory is that because the immune system is alerted, NK cells are not only increased but also educated to identify, bind and attack cancer cells via receptor sites on the cells’ membranes.

The mycelium is in constant contact with pathogens because it serves as the mushroom’s immune system; Stamets says this may allow medicinal mushrooms to serve the same role within the human body.

In addition, Stamets says medicinal mushrooms serve as antioxidants. This allows them to quench free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage cells and lead to the kind of chronic inflammation that has been linked to a number of different ailments.

Eugenia Bone, author of Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (Rodale) and president of the New York Mycological Society, explains that mushrooms are closer in makeup to humans than they are to plants, and that could have something to do with their effectiveness.

“Fundamental fungi are closer to animals than plants on the tree of life,” she says. “The chemicals that a fungus produces to ward off predators have worked on us too, which is the case of penicillin.”

Miller concurs, citing the Chinese medicine belief that anything that comes from an animal is always 10 times more potent than that which comes from a plant.

According to Stamets, the science surrounding mushrooms is underfunded and underappreciated. “It’s ironic, because there are hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed literature about how and why mushrooms have very strong properties which oncologists and other researchers are finding very exciting, and how they can be used as adjunct therapy with medicine,” he says. “Pharmaceuticals as target-specific drugs are effective, but mushrooms have anti-inflammatory properties, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-cancer and antiviral—no drugs out there have all that.” He explains that the lack of research makes it difficult to pass through the FDA application process because even though these beneficial properties have been identified, no one has put a finger on exactly why mushrooms work so well.

But Stamets believes things are shifting, that we are in the midst of a “mycological revolution,” in which more scientists are showing more interest in the world of fungi, and these pathways are still being discovered. “It’s where Eastern and Western medicine converge,” Stamets says.

Mushroom Tips

And as far as preparing yourself for the upcoming cold and flu season? “As a general rule, the immune system is more stressed in winter than summer,” Stamets says. “These mushrooms empower your baseline immunity and support your immune system at very basic levels.”

What should you look for? “You want to make sure the product you buy has at least 10% to 12% polysaccharides,” Miller explains. He also recommends going only with those producers that are certified organic.

In addition to turkey tail, Miller says reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), maitake (Grifola frondosa) and shiitake (Lentinula edodes), some of the most widely researched mushrooms, are all good immune-boosting choices. Other helpful species include cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) and two species of jelly fungi, wood ear (Auricularia auricula) and white wood ear (Tremella fuciformis). Instead of limiting yourself to just one type of mushroom, you can look for blended products, those using a variety of medicinal mushrooms in supplement or extract form.

Miller recommends taking a natural vitamin C supplement along with mushrooms to improve absorption. And Stamets personally uses pulse therapy to reset his immune system: He takes mushroom supplements for a month, stops for a few days, then begins again.

This fall could be a good time to consider turning to medicinal mushrooms for protection from cold-weather illnesses.

Shiitake Scallopine

1 lb angel hair pasta
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bulbs shallots, minced
1 lb shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 cup white wine
4 (6 oz) cans marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1/4 cup small capers

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook 8-10 minutes or until al dente; drain.

2. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over low heat. Sweat garlic and shallots until they start to become aromatic. Increase heat to medium and add mushrooms and thyme; sauté until mushrooms begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Deglaze pan with wine and simmer 2 minutes. Stir in artichoke hearts and capers and simmer 2-3 minutes more.

3. Place pasta into central serving dish or individual bowls, and top with mushroom mixture.

Serves 8. Source: ALLRECIPES (www.allrecipes.com), recipe credited to POPINKI

 

Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

5 dried wood ear mushrooms
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
8 dried tiger lily buds
4 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup diced bamboo shoots
1/3 cup shredded pork
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp water
8 oz firm tofu, cubed
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp thinly sliced scallion

1. Soak the mushrooms and lily buds in warm water for 20 minutes; drain. Trim off tough stems on mushrooms and slice. Shred buds with fingers.

2. Place mushrooms, buds, stock, bamboo shoots and shredded pork in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

3. Stir in soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper and vinegar. Combine cornstarch with water in a small bowl and add some of the soup; return to saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring; add tofu and cook 1-2 minutes.

4. Remove from heat and gradually stir in egg. Mix in sesame oil. Pour into bowls and sprinkle each serving with scallion.

Serves 6. Source: ALLRECIPES (www.allrecipes.com), recipe credited to MARBALET

 

Grilled Oyster Mushrooms

16 oz oyster mushroom caps
1/8 lb grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat grill to medium. Oil grate.

2. Place caps on grill—they cook quickly and can become dried out, so keep moving them. As the edges begin to turn color (you can blacken them a little for extra flavor), add a sprinkle of cheese to each cap and let it melt. Serve immediately.

Serves 4. Source: ALLRECIPES (www.allrecipes.com), recipe credited to Anonymous

 

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