Pigs rout for them. Otzi the Iceman—the mummy found in 1991, who hailed from 3,300 BC—was found clutching two of them. The ancient Egyptians considered them the food of royalty.
In the medical world, they’ve been used to treat the eyes and have been the basis for many modern immunosuppressants, including penicillin, and even statin drugs.
In the culinary world, one type has been referred to as the “diamond of the kitchen,” with rare specimens garnering as much as $2,000 for a single pound.
We are talking about mushrooms.
What are Mushrooms?
When most people think of mushrooms, two things come to mind: truffles and culinary mushrooms. Like all mushrooms, truffles are a type of fungi. They tend to grow underground, usually near tree roots. They are rare and can be difficult to find, which is why pigs (and sometimes dogs) are often used to find them.
Culinary mushrooms are often the button, portobello and shiitake variety. They are most commonly used in soups and salads and as a staple with vegetarians in particular. Mushrooms in general tend to be rich in a variety of nutrients, including zinc, copper, selenium and B vitamins.
Mushrooms also contain beta glucan, a complex sugar that is so powerful, it has been shown to protect against radiation and anthrax (when taken with other nutrients, such as vitamin C). As such, it’s no surprise that, in medicinal circles, mushrooms have a much greater use—one that includes cancer prevention and immunity.
What are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Of these, the types of mushrooms most commonly studied include button, Cordyceps, maitake, reishi and shiitake.
Button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are the type you normally see in the grocery store or at a restaurant. But don’t let their commonness fool you. According to a study published in 2008, button mushrooms contain every bit as many antioxidants are their more exotic counterparts. And as you’ll read below, they have been shown to have some powerful cancer-fighting properties as well.
Cordyceps are a broad family of mushrooms that contain about 400 different species. They have been used medicinally in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Originally discovered in the high mountains of Tibet it was known to give energy to the animals that were herded there and was then utilized traditionally to provide energy, endurance and vitality to humans.
Research indicates that the Cordyceps family of mushrooms have a rich store of amino acids, minerals and vitamins, which explains their use for enhancing blood circulation, immune system functioning and also increasing sexual vitality. In fact, one species—Cordyceps subsessilis—has been used to make a drug known as ciclosporin, which is an organ transplant drug.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. These mushrooms were so valued that they were actually traded for silver. They most commonly grow in clusters on oak trees. Maitake mushrooms contain a vast array of nutrients, including amino acids, minerals, vitamins, plant sterols, enzymes and polysaccharides. They are also a rich store of beta 1,3 glucan, which has been studied for cancer treatment and prevention.
Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) also hail from Japan. They are thought to be one of the oldest mushrooms used for medicinal purposes. Reishi have a distinct woody and slightly bitter taste. They are also quite high in antioxidants and have been known to ease inflammation and support the immune system.
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentius edodes) are the darlings of the culinary world. With their trademark smoky flavor, they are specifically known medicinally for their rich stores of the polysaccharide lentinan—a form of beta glucan—and the glyconutrient N-acetyl glucosamine, which has been shown to help repair cartilage, lower insulin secretions and decrease inflammation.
Conditions Supported by Medicinal Mushrooms
What Does the Research Say?
Medicinal mushrooms have been shown to have anticancer properties. In a cell culture and animal study, reishi mushrooms in particular suppressed tumor growth in inflammatory breast cancer. In a number of cell culture studies, Reishi mushrooms caused breast cancer cells to die and has stopped the spread of the cancer.
Maitake is another medicinal mushroom that also goes to bat against breast cancer. In particular, maitake D fraction is known for its ability to weaken tumor cells.
In mice, maitake D-fraction has antitumor effects by enhancing the immune system through activation of macrophages, T cells and natural killer (NK) cells. In humans, maitake has similar effects. Researchers administered maitake D-fraction to cancer patients who weren’t taking anticancer drugs. The researchers also monitored NK cell activity. Maitake D-fraction hindered the spread of the cancer, lessened the expression of tumor markers and increased NK cell activity in all patients examined.
Two mushrooms stand out when it comes to heart health: shiitake and reishi.
Research shows that people who eat five to six shiitake mushrooms a day enjoyed a 12 percent reduction in cholesterol levels in just one week. Other research from as far back as 1974 found that 460 people—40 elderly and 420 young women—who consumed 9 grams of dried shiitake a day lowered their total cholesterol levels by six to 15 percent after one week. Additional studies show that shiitakes also reduce blood pressure and even inhibit platelet aggregation
Mushrooms such as Agaricus blazei, cordyceps, maitake, Coriolus versicolor, reishi and shiitake are also powerful natural immune modulators. These fungi are rich sources of immune supportive polysaccharides like beta-glucans, which studies show can influence the activity of key cytokines all of which help boost your immune system.
How to Use Medicinal Mushrooms
In addition to making mushrooms a regular part of your diet, you can also take them in supplement form. As with any supplement, dosages and frequency could vary based on the mushroom extract you choose and your particular needs.
Ideally, you’d want to use a product that contains a blend of several different types of mushrooms, including Cordyceps, maitake, reishi and shiitake. Aim for at least 1.5 grams total.