They’ve been used for at least 2,000 years in Asia, for such varied purposes as helping Tibetan monks quiet their minds, allowing asthmatics to breathe easier, and supporting liver repair in people with hepatitis. Yet the healing properties of mushrooms have, for the most part, gone unnoticed by Western medical practitioners—until recently.
Since the 1994 publication of a groundbreaking report linking turkey tail (Trameles versicolor) mushrooms to a marked reduction in recurrence rates among stomach cancer patients, mushroom supplements have become a staple on the shelves at natural products stores, and researchers with universities, pharmaceutical companies, and even the federal government have been flocking to study them for their seemingly endless array of medicinal properties.
Some, like maitake (Grifola frondosa) and turkey tail, are best known for battling cancer. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is a legendary performance enhancer both in the bedroom and on the track. Reishi (Ganodema lucidum) is an ancient tonic that purportedly quiets the nerves and boosts longevity. With dozens of studies in the works and new products hitting the shelves regularly, many predict a new generation of mushroom medicines is just beginning.
“As we are moving on and really digging deep into the biochemistry of medicinal mushrooms, we are seeing they have a lot of interesting effects—not just immune effects,” says Leanna Standish, a naturopathic doctor and one of the lead investigators for a federally funded study of turkey tail mushrooms in cancer treatment at Bastyr University north of Seattle. “They are going to be very important medicines.”
By far the best-documented use of mushroom-based supplements is in cancer treatment. Hundreds of animal and laboratory studies using maitake, turkey tail, shitake, and cordyceps mushrooms have all shown that their high concentrations of simple sugars, called beta-glucans, can boost the body’s immune defenses and possibly slow tumor growth.
For years, Standish has given over-the-counter turkey tail supplements to breast cancer patients at her Seattle clinic for three months post-surgery. She has consistently seen an increase in the activity of her patients’ natural killer cells (which seek and destroy both cancer cells and virally infected cells), and she believes that translates to fewer side effects from treatment and to increased time in remission. Using $2 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, she and fellow researchers from the University of Minnesota are now putting that theory to the test. “When all is said and done, what we hope to find out is whether turkey tail actually can improve the disease-free survival of women with breast cancer,” says Standish.
Bettejane Tileston, a fiery 65-year-old retiree from Solana Beach, California, is also a believer. But for her, the maitake mushroom, not turkey tail, has made the difference.
Determined to protect her immune system as much as possible from the ravages of her treatment for lymphatic cancer, Tileston has taken 30 drops of a maitake tincture twice daily throughout her months of chemotherapy, radiation, and recovery. In spite of the chemotherapy and radiation, she still has plenty of energy, and unlike many immune-suppressed cancer patients, she seldom gets sick. “I’m doing great. I look really good. My oncologist says, ‘Whatever you’re doing, just keep it up.’”
Highlighting the hybrids
Well aware that different mushrooms carry different cancer-fighting properties, some companies have begun to experiment with mushroom blends manufactured in ways that are said to make them more easily absorbed by the body. One such hybrid, Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC), a patented mushroom hybrid supplement made in Japan for the past 15 years, has begun to garner attention in recent years as the body of solid research on it has grown. One Japanese study showed it to reduce hair loss, anemia, and liver damage in animals on anticancer drugs. Another showed it to decrease recurrence rates in liver cancer patients.
“I gave it to hepatitis C patients who were terminally ill and it brought their viral loads down by 85 percent. It also raised natural killer cell activity in cancer patients by up to 300 percent,” says New York physician Fred Pescatore, MD, who is coordinating several ongoing trials of AHCC. “Five years from now, I think it is going to be a staple.”
Fighting back bugs
Mushroom expert Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press, 2005) and four other books on mushroom cultivation, use, and identification, believes mushrooms, which are attacked by many of the same pathogens that make humans sick, may also hold the answer to Western medicine’s ongoing quest for novel antibiotics and antiviral medications.
Stamets, who hosts the International Conference of Medicinal Mushrooms each year, explains that mushrooms are very hardy and produce defenses against invaders that can then be extracted from the mushroom.
For example, laboratory tests have shown that different mushrooms contain distinct antimicrobial properties (some attack Staphylococcus bacteria; some attack E. coli; some attack various viruses). By tapping into these powerful defenses, and in some cases blending them, humans may be able to protect themselves from everything from the common cold to powerful biological weapons.
“Any time we feel like we are getting a cold, we use them. I swear by them,” says Norm Birchler, a Colorado resident who keeps a box of organic mushroom-blend tea in his cupboard throughout flu season. “It will cut a cold in half easily.”
To David Teitler, a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in Carbondale, Colorado, centuries of use is proof enough that mushrooms can make us feel better and promote longevity safely and effectively. According to Teitler, reishi is used for a host of applications, from improving mental clarity to enhancing immunity. It is also believed to be a potent anti-inflammatory that could someday be tapped to create safer arthritis medications.
“When someone is aging, according to Chinese medicine, it is the kidney energies that are waning,” says Teitler. “Reishi is a nice kidney booster. It helps you age with agility.”
Cordyceps is also a favorite in both the East and the West. This potent fungus grows in the bodies of caterpillars in the high mountains of Asia, sprouting from their carcasses after they have died.
As legend has it, shepherds discovered cordyceps after their yaks or goats “got all frisky” from eating it, says Teitler. Soon emperors were sending for it to boost their own libidos. Broadly used in Chinese hospitals to treat asthma, cordyceps attracted attention among athletes around the world in 1993 after nine Chinese runners who took it regularly shattered records at the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Several US clinics followed up with clinical studies and did not see similar results, but cordyceps remains a popular stamina-builder among elite athletes nonetheless.
“They are really going to be a good supplement for someone who is a wintertime athlete,” says Teitler. “I have several patients who are cross-country skiers, and on cold days, when they have a race, they tend to wheeze more. Cordyceps is perfect for something like that.”
Studies by the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defense recently discovered that extracts of the agarikon mushroom, found in the old growth forests of the Northwest, are effective in fighting the smallpox virus. As a result, Stamets is now partnering with the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi in pursuit of a smallpox treatment.
Faced with a growing array of mushroom supplements, ranging from tinctures to capsules to powders, flooding the market, it’s easy to get confused about what to buy. Teitler advises consulting with a skilled herbalist and checking the label to make sure you are getting the mushroom strain or mixture that is best suited for your needs. Also, people taking blood thinners or with autoimmune conditions should check with their healthcare providers prior to using medicinal mushrooms.
Who knew that such humble fungi had the potential to heal us from cancer, boost our immunity, and increase our libido? As science continues to reveal mushrooms’ hidden powers, look for them to continue spreading their benefit to the Western world.