Are Medical Mushrooms Magic?

by Terry Willard Cl.H, Ph.D
    (06/07/1999), Canada - From the vision-producing mushrooms theshamans used in their initiation rites to the mushroom hunter of northern Europe, mushrooms have always held a great fascination for man. Many a fairy tale has included members of the Fungi Kingdom as part of the backdrop. Yes, mushrooms are members of the Fungi Kingdom.

People often shudder when they hear the word `fungi`. It brings up images of some life forms taking over a university student`s refrigerator, athlete`s foot, dirty showers or maybe a yeast infection. There are more than 100,000 different species of fungi, some beneficial to man, some not. Some are edible, some poisonous, some produce visions and some have strong medicinal properties.

In the Western world, medicinal mushrooms have not played as much a central role as they have in Asian culture. We do, howerver, find references in Western culture for medicinal mushrooms as far back as 455 B.C. with Hippocrates` use of them.

Fungi are also mentioned in the works of Pliny ( 23-78 AD), Dioscorides (55 AD) and Galen (130 - 200 AD), showing that the ancients were quite familiar with their uses.{1} Even in the present day, after the discovery in 1928 of penicillin (a fungus), we find them playing a prominent role, making up a whole class of antibiotic medicines. But, for the richness of folklore on medicinal mushrooms, we have to delve into Asian culture, where there is more than 3,000 years of recorded fungi use, continuously maintaining a prominent spot in their medical systems.

It shouldn`t be surprising that some mushrooms have strong medicinal properties when you consider their basic role is that of transmuting waste material into good, nutritious material. It is surprising that they are considered panacea, making medicinal mushrooms seem somewhat magical. Claims from being tonic and energy enhancing, with beneficial effects on the immune, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, nervous, digestive and skeletal/muscular systems, make one wonder if they are a little over-stated.

The fact that they are used to reduce tumors, blood cholesterol, blood pressure, bronchial inflammation, nervous tension, viral infection, insomnia, duodenal ulcers, allergies, diabetes, hepatitis, progressive muscular dystrophy and high-altitude sickness makes us wonder how they work. They are also being used to reduce symptoms of AIDS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Cancer and the side effects of chemo-therapy. At the same time these wondrous medicinal mushrooms are being used to enhance over- all energy, athletic feats, intellectual challenges, environmental stresses and are considered longevity herbs. {2,3}

What makes them tick? Besides the myths of their transmuting our toxic waste material and negative emotions into healthy ones, we can gain some insight by looking at their biochemistry. There are three basic groups of chemicals that seem to be responsible for a large amount of the medicinal effects of these mushrooms. They are branched polysaccharide-protein complexes, triterpenes and nitrogen-containing compounds, for example adenosine.

Polysaccharides have been extensively studied in the last several years for their immune regulating abilities. Many well-known medicinal herbs such as Echinacea, and Astragalus have polysaccharides as a major part of the immune-enhancing actions. It now appears that the polysaccharide-protein complexes are even more important than the individual polysaccharides. Most of the medicinal mushrooms are very rich in these complexes, resulting in many of the immune responses credited to their action.

Triterpenes are an interesting group of compounds which have a steroidal nature, being similar to our own hormonal system. Working as hormonal communicators, these biochemicals have a profound effect on subtle actions in our bodies.

Nitrogen-containing compounds, like the amino acids, are known to be building blocks of our basic cellular material of RNA, also being very important in our energy system. Adenosine, a nucleoside, is the core of cAMP and ATP

From these fundamental biochemical roles we can understand why medicinal mushrooms can have such a wide range of therapeutic action. To demonstrate some of these actions, I am going to discuss five of my favorite medicinal mushrooms: Reishi, Maitake, Shiitake, Cordyceps and Poria cocas.{4,5}

By far my favorite of the medicinal mushrooms is Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum, and related species) because it has all of the above biochemical groups and it holds the prominent position in Asian medicinal folklore. Reishi has a large range of therapeutic uses and can be found growing around the world.

My favorite description of Reishi is the Chinese by-line, `` . . . to protect an academic from their own brain.`` Reishi will calm the nervous system, reduce insomnia, lessen paranoia and readjust what the Chinese call disturbed Shen Qi (spiritual mind). One of my patients suggested that taking Reishi, was like getting an additional half hour of meditation a day. Meditation in a bottle.

Is North America ready for that or what? Reishi is revered for its effect on the heart and respiratory tract because it relieves tightness in the chest. Reishi also affects the circulatory system by lowering blood pressure, blood cholesterol, while balancing LDL/HDL ratios and reducing other blood lipids. Reishi is also specific for asthma, allergies, bronchitis along with many other respiratory problems. This herb is considered a longevity tonic because of its antioxidant effect.{5}

Reishi`s antimicrobial action works against bacteria, fungi and viruses. Several countries use this mushroom to treat cancer, AIDS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Reishi calms the autonomic nervous system. It also reduces spasticity, ulcers, colitis and detoxifies the liver. Reishi`s anti-allergenic effect works for air bound and food bound allergens.

Instead of taking Reishi completely alone for long periods of time, take Reishi with other supplements. Vitamin C and ginger are particularly good companions for it. A useful formula for the above is: Reishi solid extract 1:15, Echinacea root, Ginger root, and Barberry root. This is one of the most prominent formulas we use in our clinics.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa), also known as the dancing mushroom, is a prized medicinal mushroom from Japan. Its strongest effects are on the immune system. Some studies suggest it has even stronger immune action than Reishi, while other studies dispute that data. It does definitely have an advantage in the fact that it is a great edible mushroom, while Reishi is not. A special component called the D-fraction is a polysaccharide-protein complex that seems to be responsible for much of its immune modulating effect. Maitake has been successfully employed in AIDS patients, reducing symptoms and slowing down its progression.

As an anti-cancer agent it has reduced tumors as well as the side effects of chemotherapy. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, help recovery from hepatitis, and reduce blood sugar in diabetics. As a weight management herb, it has slow, but consistent results to aid in weight loss. As with some of the other fungi, Maitake can aid in reducing uterine fibroids. However I have found that Cordyceps is better in my clinical experience. {6,7}

Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) is beneficial in reducing dermatitis, liver cirrhosis, vascular sclerosis, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol. It has been used for preventing toxicity from acid foods. It has antitumor activity by inhibiting growths of sarcoma 180 (97.5%) and Ehrich carcinoma (80%). Shiitake`s immune-regulating effect can been seen in many studies including being useful in treating chronic fatigue syndrome. Antimicrobial properties have been demonstrated in a large range of viruses, bacteria and fungi. LEM (Lentinis edodes mycelium) is often the form used in medicine these days. This delicious mushroom can be found as a popular addition to both Japanese and Chinese cuisine. {1}

Cordyceps sinensis (Dong chong xia cao) is also known as the Caterpillar fungus because it grows on insect caterpillars. It has received quite a lot of attention due to it ability to enhance athletic performance, being heavily consumed by Asian athletes in the last few Olympics. Besides its strong tonic effect, it can be used to increase oxygen uptake in the lungs, while reducing bronchial inflammation and working as an expectorant. It is well known to relieve exhaustion, night sweats, sexual impotency and as a sedative. It benefits the kidneys, lungs and gonadal function, increasing sperm count. It is specific for reducing uterine fibroids. Cordyceps stimulates immune function (due to CS-1) by activating T-cells and B-cells, while increasing interleukin-1 and gamma-interferon. It is still one of the most expensive of Chinese herbs. {1,3}

Poria cocas (Fu ling) is one of the most used fungi in the Orient, being incorporated into many formulas. It has been shown to have a relaxing effect on the nervous system and smooth muscles. Poria cocas will also lower blood glucose, reduce diarrhea and edema, working as a good diuretic. Its tonic effect aids in digestion and absorption of food, while having a quieting effect on the spirit, strengthening the heart and reducing insomnia and forgetfulness. {5,8}

I often combine all of the above medicinal mushrooms together in a formula to get the full effect of medicinal mushroom power. We use this formula in the clinic for a variety of things including a calming tonic that enhances the immune system, while reducing some of North America worst health issues. As you can see with the huge amount of both folklore and scientific information, these medicinal mushrooms can play an important role in almost anyone`s health program. Even though it is true that several mushrooms should not be consumed by people with Candida Yeast infections, all of these mushrooms are not only safe in these patients, they can often reduce the symptoms and underlying causes of this problem.

There are many myths around these mushrooms, but my favorite is the one I learned from one of my teachers, an Amazon Shaman. In trying to understand more about the personality of a medicinal mushroom, I asked him to explain. I wanted to know more about his use of Reishi (G.lucidum) that grew in his area. He stated that the part we use is its fruit. The actual plant lives underground, often covering several acres and even up to a couple miles under the Amazon jungle. He explained that these fungi are very old Beings, living in earth (Gaia) energy for 1,000s of years. This has created a calming, wise energy to these mushrooms -- an energy that we might consider a wise sage of possessing. By using its fruit as medicines, we take on some of the calming wise energy, helping to ground us - something many in western society could use.

1. Hobbs, C; Medicinal Mushrooms; Bontanica Press, Santa Cruz CA; 1995 p. 7-19.

2. Benjamin D; Mushrooms poisons and panaceas; W.H. Freeman & Co; New York, 1995.

3. Ying J, Mao H; Icons of Medicinal Funfi From China; Bejing; 1987.

4. Chihara G, et al Antitumor polysaccharide derives chemically from natural glucan; Nature 225;943-944 1970.

5. Willard T.; Reishi Mushroom; Herb of spiritual Potency and Medical Wonder; Sylvan Press Issaquah Was; 1990.

6. Townsend Letter for Doctors, May 1994, pp. 432-434;

7. Explore! For the Professional, Vol. 4, No. 5, 1993, pp. 17-19.

8. Willard T.; Textbook of Advance Herbology; Wild Rose College; Calgary AB Canada;