Mushrooms belong to their own biological classification, the kingdom of Fungi, and possess truly unique characteristics. If we think about the word mushroom, it is likely that images manifesting in our mind’s eye portray a common brown chestnut mushroom or a more funky looking fly agaric with cream-coloured stem and red cap with white spots. These curiously looking creatures are defined as fruiting bodies, which are merely the reproductive organ of a far larger being. The soil beneath the fruiting body is indeed home to a barely visible and astonishingly complex network of tiny threads called mycelium. When the mycelium colonises the proper substrate and the weather conditions are just right, the biological alarm clock rings the time for reproduction and the fruiting body quickly appears.
Through the centuries, some of these fruiting bodies have earned a special place in the medicine cabinet of many Eastern cultures and have been used as part of healing protocols for a plethora of ailments.
Scientific research is now proving us how the biochemical interaction between medicinal mushrooms and the human body could have a significant impact on our wellbeing, providing the human race with another extremely powerful therapeutic tool.
Five mushrooms in particular have caught the attention of researchers for their exceptional healing properties and will be described in the following section.
GANODERMA LUCIDUS (Reishi mushroom)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) reishi is considered the mushroom of immortality for its remarkable anti-aging and antioxidant properties (1). Reishi uniqueness lies in its ability to regulate human immunity, meaning that it improves the functioning of the immune system whether its activity is excessive or deficient (1); additionally, reishi has shown to exert a sedative effect on the central nervous system, to improve blood quality and to protect the brain and liver from the damage of free radicals (2). These wonderful medicinal properties of reishi are the result of the bioactivity of two families of compounds present in reishi called triterpenes and polysaccharides (2): Reishi’s triterpenes, also called ganoderic acids, have shown to have antihistamine, antitumor, antihypercholesterolemic, vasorelaxing and pain lowering effects (3); its polysaccharides, named beta-glucans, are deemed responsible for the immunoregulatory properties. Reishi is commonly prescribed by naturopaths and herbalists in therapeutic protocols for autoimmune diseases, liver pathologies, premature aging, chronic anxiety and hypertension (2)
Because reishi is reasonably easy to grow in large batches it is a rather popular supplement and could be easily purchased at your local health food store.
CORDYCEPS SINENSIS (Cordyceps)
Cordyceps is a rather bizarre fungus: native to the Himalayas, it grows above 3000m of altitude and its substrate of choice are insects, especially ghost moth’s larvae (4). Once the larva is dead, the spores take over the insects and the fruiting body quickly appears.
Cordyceps has gained popularity for its impressive enhancing effects on athletic performance, sexual function, fertility and immunity (2).
Traditionally prized as a lung tonic, cordyceps has proven itself to be effective at increasing oxygen capacity during high-intensity aerobic physical activity, delaying athlete’s exhaustion threshold by delivering more oxygen-rich blood to skeletal muscles (5).
In regards to libido and sexual well-being, cordyceps exerts a remarkable tonic action on both male and female reproductive systems boosting the production of testosterone and oestrogens; this results in the enhancement of sexual desire, improvement of the quality and quantity of sperm and promotion of female fertility (2)
Ultimately, cordyceps also containing immuno-regulating polysaccharides and a marvellous nuclotide called cordycepin, a substance capable of inhibiting RNA/DNA replication in virus-infected and cancer cells (2). Cordyceps is a great supplement for any individual suffering from chronic fatigue, low libido, experiencing fertility issues or fighting off a virus and nowadays has become more affordable as it is grown in large batches on grain-based substrates.
INONOTUS OBLIQUUS (Chaga)
A resident from Eastern European forests, chaga grows on birch trees where it appears as a conk on the trunk of the tree (2). Chaga owes its popularity to its content of betulin and betulinic acid, triterpenoids that the mushroom primarily extracts from the bark of the host white birch tree (2). These two compounds have been object of several studies which have shown an outstanding ability to trigger apoptosis (programmed suicide) in cancer cells (6). For this reason, chaga has been used in Poland and Russia as a folk cancer treatment and it is attracting the attention of many researchers involved in the development of novel antineoplastic drugs (2,6). Moreover, a Russian study showed remarkable results using chaga as a treatment for psoriasis (7) while another study proved chaga effective to prevent the spread of virus such a herpes simplex (8). Chaga texture is fibrous and woody and therefore the preferred methods of consumption are capsules or decocted tinctures (water and alcohol based preparations)
GRIFOLA FRONDOSA (Maitake)
Maitake is a large mushroom native to the islands of Japan and can weigh up to 20kg. Its other common name is Hen-of-the-woods, as its appearance resembles a chicken with its feather all fluffed up and the fruiting bodies are also poetically described as an overlap of butterflies in a wild dance (9). Maitake is high in immunomodulating polysaccharides and similarly to chaga is famous for its anti-cancer properties (2). Studies on the interaction between maitake and the human immune system have been predominantly done using its standardised polysaccharides extract named MD fraction, which has shown to promote the regression of cancers of the liver, breast and lung tissues (10). Furthermore, maitake’s extract taken alongside chemotherapy showed an enhancement of immune-competent cell activities of 1.2-1.4 times (10). Human trials indicate that in order to observe noticeable changes in human immunity the effective oral dose of MD fraction is 35-150mg/day alongside 4-6g/day of dried maitake fruiting body (2). Maitake supplements are advised to anyone receiving chemotherapy in order to optimise its outcome. Always talk with your physician before taking the decision of supplementing with this mushroom.
HERICIUM ERINACEUS (Lion’s mane)
Last but not least, lion's mane concludes the saga of the five medicinal mushrooms revolution. Lion’s mane has been defined as ‘Nature’s Nutrient for Neurons’ as it has the unique ability to stimulate a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF) (2). Curiously, lion’s mane fruiting body is composed of hundreds of tiny white filaments which to a colorfully imaginative eye could resemble a cluster of nerve cells, as this mushroom wanted to communicate to us its ability to support the restoration of the nervous system. Lion’s mane properties are attributed to two groups of compounds called erinacines and hericenones, molecules small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the production of endogenous NGF (2). For this reason, it is used to treat neurological conditions such as dementia, MS, nerve damage (2) and even depression and anxiety (11). Clinical trials support the use of lion’s mane dried fruiting body at a dose of 3000-5000mg a day to increase NGF (2). Lion’s mane can be easily grown on grain substrate and it is reasonably easy to source.
This article explored the potential of five medicinal mushrooms for the enhancement of human helth in regards to immunity, energy and psychological well-being. In specific, it appears that most of these medicines improve the function of the immune system as no other remedy yet discovered and could provide an effective solution for resolving fatigue and attenuating anxiety. Could they be the key to unlock the door of radiant health for chronically ill individuals?
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