Medicinal Mushrooms: Nature's Original "Smart Drugs"

medicinal mushrooms
With a therapeutic legacy spanning millennia and a body of scientific research that continues to expand, medicinal mushrooms have earned a rightful place within integrative medicine as broad-spectrum adjuncts. Think of them as nature’s original “smart drugs.”

Mushrooms are rich sources of distinct therapeutic compounds including lipids, proteoglycans, polysaccharides, alkaloids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants that demonstrate complex beneficial relationships with biological systems.

There are over 270 species of medicinal mushrooms, many of which continue to gain scientific attention for their abilities to modulate immunity, fight cancer, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, reduce oxidative stress and protect against radiation damage. They offer powerful support for immune, digestive, hepatic, renal, endocrine, neurological health and more.

Modulating Immunity

In western natural medicine, mushroom-derived compounds are best known for their abililty to support and regulate immunity.

Numerous compounds found in medicinal mushrooms have been shown to potentiate innate (non-specific) and acquired (specific) immune responses, and activate various types of immune cells and genetic components important for the maintenance of homeostasis. These include:

  • Host cells such as cytotoxic macrophages, monocytes, neutrophils, natural killer cells, and dendritic cells
  • Lymphocytes governing antibody production and cell-mediated cytotoxic T-cells
  • Cytokines such as interleukins, interferons, and colony stimulating factors
  • Genetic expression of various immunomodulatory cytokines and cytokine receptors (Smith JE, et al. May 2002).

Ganoderma lucidum, the tree fungus known in Asian medicine as Reishi or Lingzhi , has demonstrated the ability to reduce inflammation by altering CD4/CD8 ratios, as well as T lymphocytes and IgG levels. (Qi G, et al. Chin Med J (Engl) 2009; 122(5):556-560).

Ganoderma wildGanoderma lucidum (Reishi)G. tsugae, a close relative of G. lucidum, contains compounds that can inhibit autoantibodies and reduce mononuclear cell infiltration (Lai NS, et al. Lupus. 2001; 10(7):461-465).

An extract of 1, 3 β-D-glucan isolated from the Maitake or “Hen of the Woods” mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is a novel macrophage activator, increasing the production of the cytokines IL-6, Il-1 and TNF alpha by macrophages (Adachi Y, et al. Biol Pharm Bull. 1994;17(12):1554-60). In addition to its medicinal properties, Maitake is a flavorful and increasingly popular culinary mushroom.

A polysaccharide produced by the relatively rare Polyporus umbellatus (“Lumpy Bracket”) mushroom was found to improve the cellular immunity of normal mice and those with liver lesions (Zhang YH, et al. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 1991 Apr; 11(4):225-6).

Lentinula edodes , the ever-popular Shiitake mushroom has shown the ability to modulate CD4/CD8 ratios in the treatment of colitis (Shuvy M, et al. World J Gastroenterol. 2008; 14(24):3872-3878).

Cordyceps sinensis , a peculiar parasitic fungus that grows out of the bodies of ground-dwelling caterpillars, contains compounds that downregulate IL-2 (Zhou X, et al. Am J Chi Med. 2008; 36(5):967-980), as well as reduce titers of anti-double-stranded DNA antibodies in the management of lupus (Chen JL, et al. Clin Exp Med. 2009; 9(4):277-284).

Anti-Cancer Benefits

Immunotherapy is a cornerstone strategy in both mainstream and integrative cancer care. Mushrooms have been used for this purpose for thousands of years and demonstrate significant and clinically relevant activity against a number of cancers.

In one relatively recent study, investigators tested a blend of mycelia from Agaricus blazei, Cordyceps sinensis, Coriolus versicolor, Ganoderma lucidum, Grifola frondosa and Polyporus umbellatus, as well as 1,3 β-D-glucan isolated from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae in human breast cancer cell cultures. They found cytostatic effects via inhibition of cell proliferation and cell cycle arrest in highly invasive breast cancer types.

The mushroom compounds downregulated a number of cell cycle regulatory genes. Further, the metastatic behavior was suppressed by the inhibition of cell adhesion, cell migration, and cell invasion (Jiang J, Sliva D. Int J Oncol. 2010;37(6):1529-36).

Another study using an extract derived from Coriolus versicolor (“Turkey Tail”) showed an increase in sensitization of leukemia cells to apoptotic cell death induced by the drug turkey tail mushroomCamptothecan. The mushroom extract did not interfere with the drug’s anticancer effects (Wan JM, et al. Chin Med. 2010:5:16).

A review of research on ganoderic acids, extracts of G. lucidum, highlights their potential to induce apoptosis as well as immune activation and restoration. There are over 130 such compounds, and the data show anti-tumor and anti-metastatic properties in a wide range of cancer cell types. Ganoderic acids modulate signaling molecules, induce cell cycle arrest, trigger apoptosis, and block angiogenesis (Radwan FF, et al. J Clin Cell Immunol. 2011;S3:4).

Another study on ganoderic acid showed that it can inhibit cell migration in a highly invasive lung cancer cell line, inhibiting cell adherence to extracellular matrix, suppressing MMP2/9 gene expression and effectively inhibiting tumor invasion (Chen NH, et al. J Pharmacol Sci. 2008;108:212 – 216).

A systematic review of 13 clinical trials looking at the impact of Coriolus versicolor on cancer survival showed significant survival advantage in patients with breast, colorectal and gastric cancer treated with chemotherapy plus mushroom extract, compared with standard chemotherapy alone. Overall, there was a 9% absolute reduction in 5-year mortality when C. versicolor is added to the treatment regimen. This translates into one additional patient staying alive for every eleven patients treated (Eliza WL, et al. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2012 Jan;6(1):78-87).

Another study showed that water extract of the mycelia of P. umbellatus was highly effective in inhibiting bladder cancer (Zhang G , et al. Am J Chin Med. 2011;39(1):135-44).

A preliminary longitudinal study demonstrated that daily intake of a granulated powder of Agaricus blazei Murill can improve both physical and mental health among cancer patients in remission (Ohno S, et al. Complement Ther Med. 2013 Oct;21(5):460-7).

Adaptogenic and Anti-Aging Benefits

Certain medicinal mushrooms can help prevent and even reverse age-related functional declines in numerous organ systems.

One study showed increased endurance during strenuous exercise in mice administered an oral dose of G. frondosa. The treated mice showed increasing fat utilization and delayed accumulation of plasma lactate and ammonia (Jung K, et al. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004;Jul;93(1):75-81).

Studies of C. sinensis show improvement in physical performance, endurance and quality of life, enhanced ATP production, more efficient utilization of oxygen and greater tolerance to acidosis under hypoxic conditions.

Clinical trials involving elderly patients show improvements in fatigue, cold intolerance, dizziness, frequent nocturia, amnesia, tinnitus, and hyposexuality. One such study found that Cordyceps intake in older adults increased red blood cell SOD activity to levels typically seen in young adults. At the same time, the treated elders showed significant decreases of plasma malondialdehyde, a measure of lipid peroxidation.

C. sinensis can also inhibit brain MAO-B activity. MAO-B increases with age and is thought to be involved in alterations in metabolism of dopamine and other monoamine neurotransmitters involved in age-related brain disease (Smith JE, et al. May 2002).

How to Select Mushroom Medicines

When selecting medicinal mushrooms, it’s critical to pay attention to the ways in which the mushrooms are cultivated. Fungi have an innate tendency to absorb wastes. On the one hand, this is useful to help remove toxins from the body or the environment. On the other, this can be problematic in the manufacture of mushroom medicines.

How and where medicinal mushrooms are grown are critical to the quality and safety of the end products. Growth media must be free of contaminants such as toxic metals.

The innate absorptive quality of mushrooms has prompted some growers to botanically enhance their mushrooms by cultivating them in an organic medium containing a blend of immune-supporting herbs. This unique method is used to provide additional health benefits and properties.

I have been using medicinal mushrooms clinically for many years. Recently, I developed a formula for immune and cellular health support called Mushroom Immune Max™. It is a combination of six botanically enhanced mushroom varieties that demonstrate broad-spectrum health benefits. The mushrooms are cultivated on a blend of traditional Asian herbs that help bolster the formula and offer additional immune and cellular health benefits as demonstrated in clinical practice and published data.

One of the most important of these adaptogenic herbs is Astragalus root, which demonstrates remarkable benefits in protecting the body against chronic illnesses and drivers of aging. Astragalus also has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic benefits.

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Isaac Eliaz, MD, is an integrative medical doctor, licensed acupuncturist, researcher, product formulator and frequent lecturer. He has been a pioneer in holistic medicine since the early 1980s, and has published numerous peer-reviewed research papers. He is founder and medical director of the Amitabha Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa, CA, an integrative center specializing in cancer, Lyme disease, and other chronic conditions. He is also the founder & chief formulator of Clinical Synergy, a company providing targeted, research based, physician-formulated nutraceuticals.