Do mushrooms really have healing properties?
They certainly do. Eastern medicine has been using mushrooms medicinally for thousands of years. The ones that have the most research behind them are maitake, shiitake and reishi; all powerful stimulators of the immune system.
Maitake mushrooms contain a compound known as beta 1,6 glucan. One particular combination of glucans from maitake mushrooms known as D-fraction has been found to have antitumoral effects on breast cancer, one reason why Maitake D-Fraction is such a popular supplement in the integrative treatment of cancer. Mushrooms such as maitake, with their immune-enhancing compounds, are frequently used as an adjunct to traditional cancer treatments because they help the body fight off the side effects of chemo and radiation.
Reishi mushrooms were discovered in the third century BC, when they were referred to as the “Elixir of Immortality.” They were best known as a “tonic” and considered essential for a lengthy and vital life. To this day, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) prizes the reishi mushroom and considers it among the most potent of tonics.
The traditional reputation of reishi as a kind of super-tonic is turning out to be based on something that science can actually confirm.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center lists reishi on its website, noting the mushroom’s ability to stimulate immunity. Compounds in reishi such as ganodermic acids are beneficial for many things from liver detoxification to blood pressure to adrenal function. There is some research suggesting that reishi helps with the side effects of chemotherapy, improving quality of life for cancer patients on conventional treatment protocols.
Shiitake mushrooms contain a particularly interesting chemical component called lentinan, which has been the subject of a fair amount of research. It’s usually used as an adjunct to conventional therapy, and some research suggests it may prolong survival of cancer patients (are you beginning to detect a theme here?). And, like all medicinal mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms stimulate the immune system, thus making them beneficial for everybody. Lentinan is a powerful immunomodulator (meaning it turns immune cells on) as well as an anti-inflammatory. Lentinan is actually a particular form of beta 1,3 glucan, a close relative of the glucan found in maitake, beta 1,6 glucan. The takeaway here is that when beta-glucans bind to immune cells, the activity of these cells in increased.
Although maitake, reishi and shiitake mushrooms are the most famous of the medicinal mushrooms, they’re not the only ones with health-giving properties. In 2011, researchers reviewed the effects of dietary supplementation with Agaricales mushrooms – a large order of fungi in the Agaricomycetes class that includes 33 families and thousands of species, many of them familiar to all of us. The study found that adding Agaricales mushrooms to cancer therapy was associated with improvement in immunological parameters of breast cancer as well as overall quality of life.
And while these superstar mushrooms get the lion’s share of attention, let’s not neglect the common white button mushroom we’re so familiar with from omelettes and pizza. Five ounces of cremini mushrooms provides 50% of your daily value (DV) of selenium and 30% DV of vitamin B3 plus a smattering of zinc, manganese and vitamin B1. Not bad for a pizza garnish!
JONNY BOWDEN, PhD, CNS Board-certified nutrition specialist, motivational speaker, author and expert in the areas of weight loss and health.