Fungi are more closely related to us than they are to plants. This means their physiology has distinct therapeutic potential, since many of the molecules they produce are evolutionarily compatible with our own bodies. Mushrooms, the fruiting body of fungi, have been widely popular across many traditions for thousands of years. In addition to edible mushrooms, people living in the Americas and Asia (particularly China) used dozens of mushroom species for therapeutic purposes. While largely absent from ancient Greek traditions, medicinal mushrooms are becoming more popular in Western traditions as clinical trials repeatedly demonstrate tumor suppression, chemotherapy/radiation support, and immune modulating effects.
Mushrooms are particularly powerful immune modulators. They’re composed of complex polysaccharides, long-chain sugars, called beta-glucans. These molecules are robust enough to make it through our acidic stomach and into the small intestine where they interact with the diverse landscape in the mucus membrane lining of our gut. This is the same mechanism through which Echinacea and Astragalus act to improve our immune response.
First, these complex sugars provide our microflora with a nourishing meal. In turn, our bacteria help to break down these polysaccharides into oligosaccharides, which then act as signaling molecules in our gut-associated lymph tissue. Through a variety of signaling cascades, these oligosaccharides can stimulate the production of immune cells that can migrate to other tissues, such as bone marrow where new lymph cells are created. Alternatively, some types of polysaccharides can suppress chronic inflammatory immune condition (known as “latent heat” in Traditional Chinese Medicine) or overgrowth of a variety of cancerous cell lines.
Besides the occasional allergic reaction, there are no known harmful effects of mushrooms, indicating their overall effectiveness in restoring balance to an immune disregulation. In addition to polysaccharides, medicinal mushrooms contain triterpenes (terpenes) with more specialized effects such as antiviral, antioxidant, hypotensive, hypocholesterolemic, hepatoprotectant, and antifibrotic constituents.
There are over 270 species of known therapeutic fungus, but I’ll tell you briefly about a few of my favorites that are willing to grow here in the Northwest (or are available in nearby health stores). All of the reported health benefits are supported by clinical evidence.
- Turkey tail’s (Trametes versicolor) immune modulatory effects improved a variety of cancer (stomach, colon, lung, breast, cervical/uterine), in addition to reducing the severity of HIV, herpes, chronic fatigue, and the common flu.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) reduces allergy, protects the liver, reduces hormone driven cancer (breast and prostate), reduces high blood pressure and improves anxiety and insomnia.
- Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is also known as the caterpillar fungus since it resembles the shape of its favorite host. It contains a nucleoside derivative similar to adenosine, which our bodies use in DNA replication and to build energy reserves. It improves fertility and sexual function, increases energy, supports diabetic conditions as well as the lungs, kidney and liver. It can also block DNA replication in retrovirus and certain cancer lines (not recommended in hormone dependent cancers).
- Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) contain erinacines that stimulate the nerve growth factor. For this reason, this mushroom is effective in conditions or nerve damage such as dementia, Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain injuries.
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) grown on birch trees contains betulinic acid which inhibits DNA replication in cancer (melanoma, brain tumor, ovarian, and leukaemia) and viruses (HIV). Additionally, its anti-oxidant components give it a reputation for increasing longevity in good health.
- Shitake (Lentinus edodes) increases the effectiveness of cancer treatment, such as radiation and chemotherapy, and quickens recovery. It’s also effective for reducing cholesterol levels and can be used in combination with pharmaceutical statins.
Many medicinal mushrooms are polypores or “shelf-fungus,” which are dense, woody conks that grow on dead or dying logs. Reishi, red-belted Fomitopsis, chaga, and turkey tail are all examples of shelf mushrooms. With the exception of chaga, all of these are quite common in the temperate rainforests of Cascadia. Some are perennial and will last several years (red-belted Fomitopsis) while other bloom in the fall and only last a couple months (Reishi). Before wildcrafting, be sure to invest in a good field guide such as All the Rain Promises or Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. It might be a good idea to take a hike with an experienced mycologist to get a feel for how to identify and harvest mushrooms properly, too.
Mushrooms are likened to the fruit of a tree: the “trunk” of the organisms forms dense networks of mycelium running through decaying wood or soil while the mushroom “fruit” is the reproductive structure that often emerges in flushes of multiple fruiting bodies when the time is right. Thus, it’s ecologically ethical to harvest mushrooms (especially if you put them in a basket so their spores can disperse along your path through the forest) but as always, try to minimize disturbance when wildcrafting and keep in mind the others who will also be delighted to find the mushrooms after you.
Mushrooms should be eaten or dried quickly since they have a tendency to mold readily. The robust cellular structure of the fungal body requires more intensive extraction methods than most herbs (eating raw mushrooms is dangerous for this reason, since the chitin can cause lacerations in the liver). Dry sautéing edible varieties like shitake and lion’s mane is my favorite way to get a dose of mushrooms. Alternatively drying thin slices and rehydrating them in soups or casseroles is another great option.
For polypore shelf mushrooms, cooking and chewing them is not advised since they’re so tough. Instead, slice them thinly and dry them as soon as you get them home. Shredding them in a powerful blender is recommended for better extraction. Polysaccharides and triterpenes require different methods, so knowing which compound you’re after is important. Polysaccharides are extracted in a 12-24 hour decoction and concentration but will degrade quickly in solution. The triterpenes are extractable in moderate to high levels of alcohol. A “mother extraction” combines the concentrated hot water extract and enough tincture to preserve both the polysaccharide and triterpene compounds in 25 percent alcohol. This method has reasonable longevity and is easy to do in your own kitchen. Other methods include cooking the concentrate into a rice mash (4:1 concentrate to dry rice ratio), drying it, and blending it to a fine powder for encapsulation or addition to soup stocks. Other industrial methods are used for mass production of therapeutic mushroom products. Capsules are an effective form of consuming medicinal mushrooms, but I would encourage you to educate yourself on the quality and potency before investing in the rather pricey capsules.
When buying mushrooms (or harvesting your own), be sure you trust the source since mushrooms have a tendency to absorb heavy metals and toxins. I would recommend Aloha Medicinals encapsulated powder or a local mushroom grower at the farmers market (who might be willing to do special orders if you’re in need of large quantities of cultivated mushrooms). Doses are usually between 1-3g/day of powder or the equivalent in “mother extraction.” For cancer, usually higher doses of 20-50g/day are required to be effective. In depth research is highly recommended before attempting to treat cancer with mushrooms since the mechanisms and dosages will vary widely depending on the type of cancer.
Resources (primary literature for clinical trials are described in depth and cited in the following books):
- Hobbs, Christopher. Medicinal mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing & Culture, No. Ed. 2. Botanica Press, 1995.
- Martin Powell. Medicinal Mushrooms: A Clinical Guide. Mycology Press, 2010.
- Rogers, Robert. The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America. North Atlantic Books, 2011.