When most people think of mushrooms, they either think of the everyday varieties that are found at the local grocery stores (button, cremini, portobello, etc.) or the OTHER magic mushrooms that bring with them some far-out mind tripping experiences. What they don't think of are the botanical mushrooms which have been around for thousands of years and carry with them a magic like no other herbal remedy. Whether you love mushrooms or hate mushrooms, there are some forms of fungi that we all cold use a little more of in our lives.
There are over 38,000 different species of mushrooms and many have been used for centuries for their medicinal properties. The ancient Chinese, Mayans, Egyptians and other traditional cultures have used mushrooms as medicine throughout history. Chinese literature shows that mushrooms were used medicinally as early as 100 BC. The oldest human mummy, an Icelandic man who was called Otzi dating back 5,000 years, was found with medicinal mushrooms in his medicine kit. Asian medicinal mushrooms are noted in some of the early botanical medicine texts written thousands of years ago, and many varieties of mushrooms have been used throughout history in other parts of the world including South and North America. Fast forward to the present day, and there is a wealth of new scientific research which confirms that certain varieties of mushrooms can not only stimulate the immune system, but also have the ability to inhibit tumor growth. So as unattractive and, depending on the person, as unpleasant tasting as mushrooms may be, they are worth taking a closer look at.
What's so special about medicinal mushrooms?
All mushrooms contain a special type of polysaccharide (poly means "many" and saccharide means "sugar") known as 1-3 beta glucan which studies show provide powerful immune system benefits. 1-3 beta glucan is not a cure to disease. Rather, its value lies in its ability to enhance the immune system rapidly, making it work a whole lot better for us. The molecules of 1-3 beta glucan bind to receptors on the outer membranes of various white blood cells, including macrophages and natural killer cells, as well as cytotoxic t-cells. When this happens, the immune system is tricked into thinking it is under attack by bacterial invaders and a cascade of events occurs which super charges the immune system, increasing its ability to defend against pathogens and cancer, as well as stimulating the production of white blood cell production, a critical factor in the strength of the immune system.
For the past 25 years hundreds of studies have been conducted on medicinal mushrooms and 1-3 beta glucan which have confirmed their effectiveness, particularly when it comes to their protection against cancers. Based on the research, the most powerful and protective mushrooms are Maitake, Reishi, Shiitake and Chaga.
Maitake - "The King of Mushrooms"
Maitake mushrooms are a staple in Japanese cooking to help promote wellness and vitality. However, modern research on maitake started in the 1970's by a Japanese doctor, Dr. Hiroaki Nanba, who concluded that extracts from this variety demonstrated more pronounced anti-tumor activity on animal tests than any other variety of mushroom. He also found that maitake extracts were quite effective when taken orally, as opposed to other varieties which showed better effectiveness when taken intravenously. Over the years, researchers have identified four primary mechanisms by which maitake fights cancer:
In addition to protecting us against cancer, maitake is also beneficial for those undergoing conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Studies show that maitake it helps to reduce the unpleasant side-effects such as nausea, weight loss, fatigue and immune suppression, while at the same time enhancing their effectiveness.
Reishi - The Longevity Mushroom
Reishi is a beloved longevity herb in classical Chinese medicine and is the the medicinal mushroom/herb most often used as a general health tonic. Both the body (above ground) and mycelium (below ground) parts are used for their medicinal properties. Preliminary research shows reishi to be helpful in boosting the immune system and in the treatment of viral infections including hepatitis B and the flu. In addition, reishi is also used for lung conditions, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, liver disease and HIV/AIDS. There are over 200 studies on various forms of cancer, including breast, prostate, colon and others to investigate the anti-cancer properties of the reishi mushroom. Reishi is also a powerful adaptogen, meaning that it helps protect the body and its systems against the negative impacts of stress and fatigue.
Shiitake - The Forest Mushroom
Shiitake mushrooms are a symbol of longevity in Asia because of their health promoting properties, and have been used medicinally by the Chinese for more than 6000 years. Recent studies have linked shiitake's legendary health benefits to an active compound known as lentinan which provides a number of healing properties including the ability to boost the immune system, strengthening its ability to fight infection and disease. Lentinan also has anti-cancer properties, however, it is best taken intravenously for this purpose as it is poorly absorbed when taken orally. In addition to its immune boosting and anti-cancer properties, shiitake mushrooms are also helpful in lowering cholesterol. Shiitake mushrooms are easily found in most grocery and health food stores and make wonderful (and flavourful) additions to soups, stir-fry's, salads and more.
Chaga - The King of Herbs
While the maitake, reishi and shiitake mushrooms have a solid history of use in Asian medicine, chaga is one of the primary medicinal mushrooms in Russian and Eastern European medicine. Its use also dates back thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine. A mushroom that typically grows on birch trees in colder climates across the northern hemisphere, it packs a powerful punch when it comes to health benefits. Chaga has a solid history of use in treating digestive system diseases, improving energy and endurance and for treating cancers. Studies show that the chemical compounds in chaga have the ability to kill cancer cells selectively while, at the same time, stimulate the immune system. Chaga is also an effective treatment for normalizing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, providing protection against DNA damage (a key factor in the development of cancer), and providing powerful antimicrobial protection against viruses such as the herpes simplex virus. Chaga is best taken as a tea which, once brewed, has a wide variety of ways to drink it, from putting into smoothies, adding other superfoods to make an elixir or simply drinking it straight.
Although these mushrooms have been around for thousands of years, they are only now starting to garner the mainstream respect and admiration they deserve. Today you can visit almost any reputable health food store and find a wide variety of medicinal mushrooms in supplement form and, if you're extra lucky, in their natural state (chaga and shiitake are the most easy to find this way). When it comes to choosing a mushroom supplement or mushroom in its raw state, always look for organic so you can be assured they are of the best quality, have had no harmful chemicals applied to them and are grown and harvested ethically and responsibly.
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Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!