Mushroom Extracts: Powerful Medicine from Humble Sources

Some commonly used medicinal mushrooms (top to bottom): Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Black Reishi (Ganoderma japonicum), 2 varieties of Coriolus versicolor, Cordyceps sinensis, and Shitake (Lentinus edodes). Photo courtesy of JHS Natural Products.

They thrive in the dark and damp, and seem to occupy some strange biological middle-ground neither plant nor animal. They share chitin chemistry with sea sponges, and amino acid profiles more akin to meat than plant matter. They are the stuff of fantasy and fairy tale, sentry posts at the gates to other worlds.

In short, mushrooms are mysterious. And where there is mystery, there is often medicine.

The American medical community is only now discovering what Asian physicians have known for centuries: that certain species of mushrooms contain powerful immunomodulatory compounds with many therapeutic applications, including treatment of cancers and pre-malignant states. A number of high-quality myco-medicines are now available in the US, with growing research to support them.

"Cultural attitudes toward mushrooms vary widely around the world. In general, the English-speaking world, including the US, is very mycophobic. In Japan, China and much of Europe, they are highly mycophilic. People really love mushrooms," said Andrew Weil, MD, at a conference on botanical medicine sponsored by Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. "Mushroom medicines are prevalent in the pharmacopeias of mushroom-loving cultures."

But things seem to be changing here. Studies on fungally-derived medicines are literally mushrooming throughout the forest of medical literature. Key the word "mushroom" into the National Library of Medicine's PubMed search engine, and almost 3,400 citations pop up. Narrow it down to "mushrooms AND cancer," and you'll find 218 citations. There are 170 papers related to Shitake (Lentinus edodes), 168 for Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), 147 for Coriolus (Coriolus versicolor), 62 for Maitake (Grifola frondosa), and 116 on Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis). Mushrooms may be natural medicine's most well researched mystery.

Some of the key medicinal mushrooms like Reishi and Coriolus are wood-eaters and are non-edible. However, a number of edible gourmet species like Maitake, Shitake, and "Oyster" mushrooms are proving rich in potentially therapeutic compounds. According to investigators at the department of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, roughly 50% of the 5 million metric tons of cultivated edible mushrooms contains important medicinal compounds (Chang R. Nutr Rev 1996; 54 (11 pt 2): S91–3).

According to Isaac Eliaz, MD, a family physician who also practices Chinese medicine in Sebastopol, CA, there are many levels to mushroom medicine. One can certainly find molecular constituents such as β-glucans and polysaccharide peptides with distinct immunomodulatory effects. But one can also look at them energetically as is done in Chinese medicine. "Mushrooms are critical in retraining the body," said Dr. Eliaz at the annual meeting of the American College for the Advancement of Medicine.

In this and upcoming issues of Holistic Primary Care, we will explore the data supporting use of mushroom-derived substances in the management of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and for overall health promotion. We will begin the series with Coriolus versicolor, a common tree fungus that produces polysaccharides that can be useful in the treatment of some forms of cancer.