Health Column: The miracle of medicinal mushrooms
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Free Press Health Columnist
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The humble fungi with its visible fruit called the mushroom holds some of nature’s most potent weapons. Used by the plant to protect it from invaders these natural compounds have been used for thousands of years to help fight cancer, boost the immune system, support kidney and liver function, and lower blood pressure. Recent research is uncovering the specific properties that make the mushroom such a medical miracle.
In the 1980s scientists at Harvard University made the discovery that compounds within mushrooms were able to stimulate cells in the immune system. Since then there have been many studies uncovering more details of how mushroom supplements work and how effective they are in treating various illnesses. Different mushrooms from around the world seem to have slightly different benefits and here are some of the most well known.
The Maitake or “dancing” mushroom from northern Japan is used to help fight cancer. It increases the activity of our own immune’s system cancer killing “natural killer” cells. Studies show it not only increases tolerance of conventional cancer treatment, but it significantly improves remission rates. It has been most effective against breast, prostate and liver cancers.
Known as the “herb of spiritual potency,” the Reishi mushroom is regarded as one of the best for all-around general health support. Used for thousands of years in China and Japan, research is showing it enhances the immune system, improves blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Athletes and mountain climbers use it for general support.
The gourmet Shiitake mushroom gets its name from the Japanese chestnut tree or “shiia.” Growing wild in Asia and commercially grown here in the U.S., the shiitake is one of the most popular mushrooms for eating and for medicinal uses. Used historically for fighting infections it is well known to stimulate portions of the immune system that do indeed fight everything from bacteria to parasites to viruses. An injectable extract of shiitake has shown positive results in cancer treatment.
Coriolus versicolor is the most widely studied mushroom with hundreds of research trials demonstrating its profound benefits, particularly in fighting cancer. Common to other mushrooms is its ability to stimulate certain parts of the immune system. Drug companies from Japan and China have utilized extracts of coriolus to formulate cancer-fighting drugs. It not only fights cancer directly, but also when used with chemotherapy and radiation it helps patients tolerate the conventional therapies.
Codyceps sinensis is found in the high mountains of China, Nepal and Tibet. Called the “caterpillar fungus” because it gets some of its nutrients from caterpillars, the fungus is grown commercially here in the U.S. where specific strains are being studied and used in supplements. Cordyceps is famous for promoting energy and stamina, perhaps through its ability to increase the production of beneficial adrenal hormones. It is well known to help improve sex drive. It has long been used and numerous studies demonstrate benefit when treating respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, chronic kidney diseases, and even heart diseases such as heart failure and arrhythmias.
A Japanese mushroom extract called active hexose correlated compound (AHCC) has just recently been shown to eradicate the human papilloma virus (HPV) that is associated with 99 percent of cervical cancer cases. The results were presented at the 11th International Conference of the Society for Integrative Oncology by principal investigator Judith A. Smith, PharmD, from the University of Texas Health Science Center.
AHCC is a nutritional supplement that works to improve the innate immune system by increasing the number and/or activity of various immune system cells, which can help the body fight off infections and block tumor growth. As HPV is also involved in most other cancers of the anal, vaginal, and oropharyngeal regions, and there is no conventional cure, Dr. Smith’s research results on AHCC is extremely encouraging.
These are just a few examples of some of the better-known mushrooms. The beneficial compounds in mushrooms are called “beta-glucans,” which are very long chemical chains with unique structural shapes that stimulate the cells of the immune system, much like a specific key for a lock. The delicate beta-glucans must be removed from the protective outer shell of the fungus cell, called “chitin,” before they can be absorbed.
When considering a mushroom supplement for health benefits there are several important things to consider. First and foremost is to be sure the product is manufactured using a special hot-water extraction process. This is called a tea or decoction. Grinding or chemical preparation of the extract does not preserve the precious shape of the beta-glucans and is not a recommended technique, plus most all the published research is based on hot-water extraction products.
The second thing to consider when supplementing mushrooms is which particular mushrooms have the best data to support use for a particular medical condition. I make recommendations for patients but if pursuing this on your own I suggest doing your research and seeking a knowledgeable practitioner. Many acupuncturists and natural medicine doctors are also certified herbal medicine experts and can give good advice on mushroom supplements.
Mushroom extracts are generally regarded as extremely safe and non-toxic, but they should be used with caution or avoided in transplant patients taking immunosuppressive drugs. Dosing is dependent on the type of mushroom and formulation, but in general look for 10-20 percent concentrations of the beta-glucan portion, and they are usually dosed twice daily on an empty stomach.
Backed by a few thousand years of experience in the clinics of Asian health practitioners, modern science is now recognizing the amazing health benefits of medicinal mushrooms. In your quest for good health consider integrating the powerful mushroom into your healthcare regimen.
Free Press health columnist Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.
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