A History of Medicinal Mushrooms


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Clockwise from top left: Trametes veriscolor, Ganoderma lucidum, Agaricus blazei, Cordyceps sinensis, Shiitake, Maitake

While nearly everyone is familiar with a plant or two, and some people admit to a love affair with flowers, only a selective clan professes their passion for mushrooms. While continental Europeans are lovers of various edible fungi and likely to take to the woods for weekend recreation, other cultures who live along the North Sea are toadstool haters. A nugget of folklore says there are 13 million people living in what used to be called Czechoslovakia, and 13 million of them are mushroom lovers.

Mushrooms are most often prized for their enhancement of food but the serious study of mushrooms points up how essential mushrooms are in daily life; the world would be entirely different without them. Mushrooms serve as a primary source of unique nutrients that can protect lives and enhance health. Many natural healers regard mushrooms equally or of greater healing value than herbs.

Historically, Europeans weren’t the exclusive users of mushrooms. The medicinal uses of mushrooms goes back to Neolithic man’s history. The oldest human mummy, dating back 4,000 years ago, was found with Piptoporus betulinus in his medicine kit, a mushroom used for its antibiotic properties and as a natural parasite killer, still in use today.

Egyptian hieroglyphics show mushrooms as the plant of immortality, called the “sons of the gods” sent to Earth on lightning bolts and eaten only by nobles and pharaohs. The Aztecs also had sacred mushrooms called “the flesh of the gods,” which they consumed in holy rituals.

In ancient China special mushrooms, particularly the reishi fungi, were valued as a tonic herb and forbidden to common people. Ancient Greece and Rome had their say about mushrooms treating illness with authors such as Pliny, Seneca and Dioscorides — author of De Materia Medica — arguing both for and against mushrooms as medicine. Kykeon, an ergot-barley and mint drink was the hallucinogenic potion used by Socrates, Plato and other elite of ancient Greece during the Eleusis festival celebrating birth, regeneration and the return of spring. LSD is a modern day version of this hallucinogenic.

The Vikings are believed to have eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms before battle, which would have produced the ferocious fighting state they are noted for. Buddhists monks traveling from monastery to monastery spread information about the curative effects of fungi, which they and Taoists priests used in rituals. It’s believed that the Buddha died from eating a poisonous mushroom!

The poet Shelley reveals his prejudiced opinion of mushrooms, a prejudice quite common for his time, stemming from their use in folk medicine, which of course, was considered greatly inferior to their contemporary medicinal treatments.

“Their mass rotted off them, flake by flake,
 Til the thick stalk like a murderer’s stake
Where rags of loose flesh yet tremble on high
Infecting the winds that wander by.”
—from the poem The Sensitive Plant  

Yet from these undervalued forms of life came some valuable gifts. Penicillin, for example, is produced from the fungus Penicillium notatum. Cyclosporin comes from two fungi Trichoderms polysporum and Cylindrocarpon lucidum and is relied on to depress the immune system and prevent rejection in organ transplant medicine. Krestin, extracted from Tramates versicolor, was the top selling anti-cancer therapy before the advent of Taxol.

The Secret Life of Mushrooms

About 100,000 species of mushrooms or fungi are members of a kingdom of living organisms that grow and fruit. In that respect they mimic plants but they lack root, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. They also lack chlorophyll and cannot manufacture simple sugars from water and carbon dioxide using the energy of sunlight. In their own right, however they are complex.

Fungi are recyclers in their natural environment. To feed itself, a fungus breaks down organic matter and at the same time cleans the earth. It transforms dead organic matter; if there were no mushrooms Earth would be densely crowded with dead animals and plants. As it breaks down decay, a fungus provides complex compounds such as cellulose, carbohydrates and proteins for the nourishment of plants and trees. Fungi live in very hostile environments amongst decay in a harsh layer of the ecosystem where they encounter disease-causing pathogens far more frequently than other life forms. To live they must have very hardy immune systems, and what makes their immune system so hardy makes them valuable to the human immune system.

Lacking chlorophyll, mushrooms obtain their food by absorption from the soil and decaying wood in their environment. They develop slender filaments, which penetrate underground sucking up nutrients. These microscopic cells serve in reproduction and initiate new organisms; they are agents of dispersal, which allow the fungus to spread. These cells or spores become dormant, enabling the fungus to withstand adverse conditions such as winter.

But fungi are not just passive participants in the world of botany; indeed they exhibit intelligence. The fungus Cordyceps begins life by attaching its spore to an ant, germinates, and feeds on it and grows into a small mushroom. The ant lives its own life with the mushroom on its back until one day the ant is driven to climb a tree. The ant reaches a height sufficient for the release of the spores. It will remain there until it dies and all the spores are spread. All through this relationship the fungus could have eaten the ant but it displayed the intelligence to know that the ant was more important to its life and reproduction live than as a food source.

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum is another example of an intelligent primitive. In experiments, pieces of the mold were placed in the middle of a five-square-inch maze with food sources placed at two exit points. Would the fungus abandon its normal method of foraging for food by spreading outward from its central point or would it grow directly toward the food source? The mold went straight for the food, stretching itself in a thin line along the contours of the maze until it reached the exit.

The Mushroom Immunity Connection

Why would we be interested in fungi beyond food value? When we eat plants or take herbal medicine, we are digesting polysaccharides (poly = many and saccharide = sugar). Mushrooms are a special type of polysaccharide called beta glucan, which refers to the specific way the sugar units are attached to one another in the polysaccharide chain. Each glucose molecule has six carbons and linkage between the carbons can occur at any combination of six positions. Beta glucan is 1-3 variety; plants are 1-4 beta glucan. Mushroom beta glucan is extraordinarily complex and gigantic in size, which, on one hand, gives them their immune system benefit but on the other hand makes them hard to digest. The group known as medicinal mushrooms has been particularly valuable to humans and researched over decades.

Beta glucan in itself does not cure; its value lies in enhancing the immune system quickly and making it work better. The theory is that beta glucan molecules resemble the molecules found on bacterial cell walls. They mimic an invader. Macrophages in your cell — the first line of defense — believe they have encountered bacertium and attack. Now the whole system is on the alert, an immune cascade of cytokines and antibodies or immunoglobins is stimulated, increasing your overall immunity.

In the second half of the 1990's, 144 scientific studies of beta glucan molecules were completed demonstrating their effectiveness particularly as anti-cancer agents. The specific fungi in the studies included reishi, cordyceps, agaricus, maitake,  phellinus, trametes, hericium and shiitake. Amazingly, each mushroom works on tumors as an anti-cancer agent in its own discrete way.

Reishi or the “mushroom of immortality” is also called Ganoderma lucidum. Chinese herbal medicine has several formulas featuring this mushroom. Some herbalists call reishi “the king of herbal medicines,” ranking it above ginseng as one of the most important medicines from the Orient. It is bitter tasting because it contains terpenoids — an active ingredient with major anti-inflammatory action and a strong antioxidant effect. Resihi polysaccharides increase the production of three of the toxin-like substances that have been associated with controlling the growth and survival of malignant cancer cells: tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin 1 beta and interleukin 6. Should we ever need it we might want to keep in mind that reishi is also called the “resurrection plant.” In the Chinese legend White Snake, Lady White travels far from home to obtain the plant and revive her dead husband. Through her demonstration of love she obtains the plant and wins back her husband.

Cordyceps sinensis is recognized in China as a medicinal treasure. It commonly grows out of the mummified body of a caterpillar, but it also grows on just about every category of insect such as crickets, cockroaches, beetles and ants to name a few, in the highest altitudes in the mountain ranges of Asia. There, cordyceps is famous as yak medicine. When the snow in the mountains melt, the yaks start heading uphill. At 14,000-16,000 feet they find the mushroom and feed on it in frenzy, then rut at fever pitch. It has an anti-aging and stamina-building effect and is especially useful as a post-recovery food.

Agaricus blazei shows great promise as an immunomodulator and defense against tumors. The “mushroom of life” is a South American species favoring a hot, humid environment. This mushroom contains the highest level of beta glucan and is low in molecular weight, making it more effective to consume and be absorbed. Asian practitioners suggest it to patients who have a predisposition for developing cancer. It selectively kills tumor cells without affecting normal cells through inducing apoptosis, or cell suicide. But its effects don’t stop there. The mushroom activates a complement cascade (a series of proteins) causing holes to be punched in the membrane of targeted cells and oozing out their content to be eaten by the immune system’s macrophage cells. 

Maitake grows in clusters and because of its size is called the “king of mushrooms,” growing frequently to the size of a volleyball. This mushroom prefers moderate climates. Studies done to observe the effect of maitake on cancer cells describe its effect as inhibition of malignant cells through release of cytokines. Using the mushroom supplement in a diet also keeps macrophages hungry and active.

Phellinus linteus is a rising superstar from Korea. In Asia the mushroom is used in conjunction with chemotherapy drugs such as Adriamycin, inhibiting tumor growth and reducing the frequency of metastases. Patients on this integration of drug and fungi had a statistically higher survival rate than patients on drugs alone. This mushroom works on T lymphocyte activity and cytotoxic T cells, the white blood cells that destroy viruses. It also increases B cells and antibodies.

Trametes veriscolor, so named for its wide variety of colors, and also known as turkey tail, is one of the most common mushrooms in North American woods. It is the active extract in Krestin, whose sales topped $500 million in Japan as an anti-cancer drug. The chief ingredient of Krestin is PSK, or polysaccharide K, the anticancer agent most commonly prescribed to Japanese cancer patients who have had a tumor removed and are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy. Although not approved yet as a cancer drug in the US, turkey tail products are available as supplements.

The polysaccarides from Hericium erinaceus (lion’s mane mushroom) in combination with polysaccarides from other substances made lymphocytes proliferate at two to three times the ordinary rate and reduce tumor weights by shrinking them or stopping their growth. An interesting side to this mushroom appears to be its ability to produce a protein called nerve growth factor; (this protein develops and maintains sensory neurons). The compounds in hericium help regenerate nerve tissue in the brain and are being researched in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

The health benefits of Shiitake were discovered in Japan in the 1960's. The country undertook epidemiological studies to chart the incidences of disease and discovered two remote districts where cancer was nearly unheard of. Ultimately this was attributed to the mushrooms that the inhabitants grew and ate as a primary industry. Japan accounts for 80% of worldwide shiitake production. This flavorful mushroom delights the palate and is loaded with nutrients. In 1969, the pharmaceutical Lentinan was extracted from shiitake and is now the third most widely prescribed anticancer drug in the world.

Mushrooms are a powerful strategy in a treatment protocol. Particularly in cancer work, whether in initiation, reproduction or proliferation of malignancies, they live up to the claims made of them. At the same time they are not toxic nor have adverse effects.

With over 30 years experience, Marie Cargill, LicAc, is a Boston-based homeopath, licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and holistic health expert for people and pets. Her newest book is Cancer and Your Pet: a Guide to Alternative and Integrated Treatment. Visit www.mariecargill.com.

See also:
Shrooms: Not Just For Salad Anymore
How To Grow Oyster Mushrooms At Home (And Get Plenty Of Flavor And Protein For Free)
Fantastic Fungi: The Spirit of Good

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