Tonic mushrooms are nature’s most potent immune system protectors. For over 7000 years, these natural allies have been treasured in Oriental medicine where they were historically used to support the immune system, reduce fatigue, and promote cardiovascular health.
In the West, the health benefits of mushrooms were acknowledged in the writings of Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” and famous herbalists Pliny, Dioscorides, and Galen.
Today, modern scientists are catching up with the wisdom of these ancient traditions. Volumes of scientific research on these remarkable mushrooms now confirm the potent and intriguing effects they have on many of the body’s most important systems.
The active component found in mushrooms, beta-glucan polysaccharides, wakes up the immune system and encourages it to work more efficiently and effectively.
What echinacea is to the short-term, surface immune system, mushrooms are to the long-term, deep immune system. At the same time, some of the most researched mushrooms, such as Shiitake, Coriolus, Reishi, and Maitake, have been shown to have anti-tumor and anti-cancer effects. In a study done by the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, researcher R. Chang states “…because of their potential usefulness in preventing or treating serious health conditions such as cancer, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and hypercholesterolemia, functional mushrooms deserve further serious investigation.” Nutr Rev 1996 Nov. 54(11 Pt 2): 591-3
Plant of immortality
In China, Reishi, Ganoderma lucidum, is known as the “plant of immortality” and is the key ingredient in the treasured “Elixir of Life.” It is in the highest class of tonics in Chinese tradition, and for over 4000 years has been thought to promote longevity and to nourish and tone the body. Reishi fortifies the body’s natural immunity and supports cardiovascular health.
Numerous exciting scientific studies have supported this ancient history and show it as a circulatory tonic that significantly inhibits platelet stickiness. In other studies, it has been shown to be an important adjunct to conventional oncological treatments improving response to radiation and helpful in the treatment of leukemia.
In one of the hundreds of references in the National Library of Medicine it was shown to be a crucial adjunct to an AIDS treatment protocol as it increased T-helper cells in more than half of subjects while also enhancing their cytotoxicity. This amazing fungus is also used in China, along with cordyceps, to reduce fatigue in their athletes.
Shiitake, Lentinus edodes
is one of the most popular mushrooms in Chinese cuisine, now gracing the menus of gourmet restaurants around the world. Shiitake’s profound immune-stimulating, anti-tumor properties were documented more than 25 years ago in Western medicine and are known to enhance those of reishi.
Almost two decades ago, scientists at Japan’s National Cancer Institute discovered and researched the natural polysaccharide, lentinan, present in shiitake.
An Extraordinary Fungus
These polysaccharides are orally active and exhibit anti-cancer effects against numerous tumor lines. Since that discovery, this extraordinary fungus has been the focus of intense scientific interest.
One human study with shiitake showed significant improvement in all of AIDS and “pre-diagnosed” AIDS patients as it increased the voracity of immune protective macrophages and increased interferon production—a cellular protein produced in response to infection by a virus and acting to inhibit viral growth. Steeped in an ancient tradition of use, shiitake is earning the respect of leading researchers and increasing scientific validation.
Only in the last few years have Americans had access to this next mushroom, Maitake, Grifola frondosa. In that brief time, Maitake has attracted serious attention from researchers and healthcare professionals for its ability to also support immune function and it is the most widely promoted tonic mushroom for the treatment of cancer.
Like Shiitake, Maitake’s polysaccharides are orally active and exhibit anti-cancer effects against numerous tumor lines. While not directly cytotoxic to cancer cells, it increases many parameters of immune function including macrophages, killer cells and cytotoxic T cells. If the growing body of research is any indication, maitake richly deserves its title “The King of Mushrooms.”
Chinese athletes using Cordyceps, Cordyceps saneness, as a part of their training program surprised sport authorities everywhere when they broke the 10,000-meter track record in 1993.
Cordyceps has been especially valuable in the treatment of hepatitis B, improving many parameters of liver function and is protective for the kidneys against potential toxins. One reference from the National Library of Medicine showed Cordyceps improves many aspects of immune function including natural killer cell activity and chemotaxis (the response of certain living cells and organisms to a chemical) by a factor of four, and that it helps counter the immune damaging effects of conventional oncological treatments like chemotherapy.
Coriolus, Coriolus versicolor, is the latest discovery among health-promoting fungi. Research shows Coriolus extracts produce an impressive enhancement of antioxidant activity and other protective qualities within body cells. One study proved it to be a valuable adjunct to conventional oncological treatments as it induces up to eight times control levels of interferon. In cancer patients suffering from oxidative stress, Coriolus was shown to increase levels of detoxification enzymes like SOD up to eight times, countering this damaging oxidative stress.
An important adjunct to the consideration of the uses of these mushrooms is the consideration that these tonic mushrooms must be used in a form that is bioavailable.
The ancient Chinese knew
The ancient Chinese knew it was not optimal to simply eat tonic mushrooms. There is very little benefit in taking dried, ground-up mushrooms because the covalent bonds in the polysaccharides are difficult for digestive enzymes to break. Unbroken bonds cannot release their potent properties. Moreover, the concentration of active constituents may vary significantly in dried powder.
The ancient Chinese followed lengthy and exacting processing methods, usually involving boiling the mushrooms for long periods of time. That process clearly worked to a degree, but that too can degrade some of the healing compounds. Today, it is possible to modify that extraction process so as to preserve more of the useful nutrients while eliminating the indigestible compounds. A properly extracted form of the reishi mushroom, for example, can be 12 times as potent as the mushroom from which it came.
Considering the reputable history of medicinal mushrooms, which spans thousands of years, and adding to that the advances in technology which make extraction more efficacious than ever, it seems high time to give to them the attention and respect they deserve.
Today the number of diseases related to immune system deficiency and environmental toxicity is truly demanding that we expand our resources and options for treatment. The scientific support for the use of medicinal mushrooms is strong, and it is supported by years of documented research