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There’s more to mushrooms than meets the eye. Besides being a popular and versatile ingredient in the kitchen, several species possess potent healing properties. Martin Hum Ph.D DHD investigates.


Ancient peoples recognised that food could function as medicine and for four thousand years mushrooms have been valued in both roles. Until recently, modern Western societies have considered only a few varieties as food and have viewed the remainder with suspicion, due to their associations with poison. However, a recent surge of interest in medicinal mushrooms shows that this attitude is changing.

Mushrooms provide a wealth of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fibre, but many also contain compounds that have astonishing healing properties. Research on mushroom extracts is being carried out around the world, but mainly in Japan and the USA. Medicinal mushrooms have been shown to lower the risk of cancer, promote immune function, ward off infections, reduce inflammation, combat allergies, boost heart health, balance blood sugar and support detoxification processes.

This article examines six of the most promising species of medicinal mushrooms: reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa), kawaratake (Coriolus versicolor), tochukas (Cordyceps sinensis) and kombucha.

REISHI (Ganoderma lucidum)

Known as the “plant of immortality” or “spirit plant”, reishi, (or Ling Zhi in Chinese medicine), has long been used as a medicine for liver disorders, hypertension and arthritis. Modern pharmacological research is confirming its broad range of activity and has found that reishi has anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties, protects and detoxifies the liver and tonifies the heart. In vitro experiments also indicate that reishi may help fight tumours.(1)

Harriet Beinfield, acupuncturist and co-author of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine (Ballantine), points out that reishi is particularly beneficial for asthma and other respiratory complaints. She says that it has “a healing effect on the lungs” and “is good for respiratory strength and coughing”. Christopher Hobbs, author of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing and Culture (Botanica Press), reports that when more than 2000 patients with chronic bronchitis were given reishi syrup in tablet form, 60% to 90% showed a marked improvement in health, including increased appetite, within two weeks.(2)

Reishi’s anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties mark it out from other medicinal mushrooms and it has been found to be particularly effective in relieving allergic asthma. Trials in animals have shown it to inhibit the release of histamine, thus preventing or alleviating allergic sensitivity reactions. Reishi has also been observed clinically to stabilise immunoglobulin levels, inhibit inflammatory mediator release and at high concentrations, suppress mediator activity.(3)

Prolonged use of reishi (three to six months) has been associated in rare cases with digestive upsets, dry mucous membranes, dizziness and impaired blood clotting. Its safety during pregnancy and lactation has not been established.

SHIITAKE (Lentinula edodes)

Ancient oriental cultures believed that Ashiitake (or Xiang Gu) dispelled hunger, relieved colds, nourished the blood system and activated the “chi” or life force. Once reserved for the emperor of Japan and his family, shiitake are now among the most cultivated edible mushrooms and have been the subject of intensive research.

In the 1970s, the amino acid eritadenine identified in shiitake, was found to enhance the processing of cholesterol in the liver. When 40 elderly people and 420 young women took 9 grams of dried shiitake (equivalent to 90 grams of fresh mushrooms) each day for just one week, their cholesterol levels fell by 7% to 15% in the older group and 6% to 12% in the young women.(4) Shiitake also appears to be a formidable cancer fighter. In 1969, scientists at Tokyo’s National Cancer Research Institute isolated a polysaccharide from shiitake that they called lentinan, which was subsequently found to cause tumours in mice to regress or vanish in 80% to 100% of cases. Lentinan appears to stimulate the immune system’s white blood cells to attack tumour cells.(5) The compound has now been licensed as an anti-cancer drug by Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

What is more, shiitake appears to be effective against the viruses that cause hepatitis B and AIDS. In a trial in the 1980s, involving 16 clinics in Japan, “Lentinula edodes mycelium” (LEM) was found to stimulate the production of antibodies against hepatitis B. Forty chronic sufferers, who took 6 grams of LEM daily for four months, all experienced relief of their Shitake symptoms and in 15 patients the virus was inactivated.6 In vitro studies in Japan suggest that LEM is more lethal to HIV-infected cells than the drug AZT and that it can block the reproduction of infected cells and can protect the immune system’s T-cells.(4) LEM’s antiviral effects may be due to its ability to promote the production of interferon, which makes cells immune to viral infections. Shiitake may also be active against other viruses, including Herpes simplex.

Shiitake is very safe and non-poisonous. However, it may cause skin rashes in particularly sensitive people and digestive upsets have been reported when it is taken at high doses. Shiitake is also reported to hinder blood coagulation, so should not be used by haemophiliacs or people taking anti-coagulant medication, except on medical advice.

MAITAKE (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, but whether this is because people who found it would dance with joy, or because of the fruiting body’s resemblance to a collection of dancing butterflies, is uncertain. In China, it is used as a medicine called “Keisho”. Originally native to Japan, maitake has been prized for its
strengthening properties for hundreds of years, and recent research indicates that it is the most potent immuno-stimulant of all the medicinal mushrooms. Maitake’s immune-boosting properties are due to polysaccharides such as grifolan and “D-fraction”, which can stimulate the immune system to attack cancers. Grifolan has been shown to activate the macrophages, described as the “heavy artillery” of the immune system.(7) In two studies, D-fraction completely inhibited tumour growth in mice when given orally and was considered to activate macrophages and natural killer cells, as well as potentiating the activity of anti-tumour lymphokines and interleukins.(8,9) In a clinical study in Japan, 165 patients with advanced cancers were given maitake D-fraction, either alone, or in conjunction with chemotherapy. Maitake was found to be effective against leukaemia, stomach and bone cancers and, in those patients receiving chemotherapy, relieved its side effects of appetite loss, nausea and hair loss.(10)

People with non-insulin dependent diabetes may also benefit from maitake. Another of its constituent polysaccharides, called “X-fraction”, reduced blood sugar, triglyceride and insulin levels in mice.(11) The researchers suggested that maitake can reduce insulin resistance, thereby increasing insulin sensitivity. This may hold the key to maitake’s apparent weight reducing properties. When thirty patients were given powdered maitake in addition to their usual diet for two months, all successfully lost weight, with an average loss of 5 to 6 kg per person.(12)

There is little information on the toxicity of maitake, although there have been a few reports of allergic reactions. No side effects have been reported at doses of three to seven grams a day.

KAWARATAKE (Coriolus versicolor)

Kawaratake is usually referred to by its Kscientific name of Coriolus versicolor in the West. It is also known as Yun Zhi in Chinese medicine, where it is valued for relieving tiredness, lung disorders and chronic diseases. Over 400 clinical studies published in Japan since the 1970s have shown that a purified extract of Coriolus versicolor , known as “polysaccharide K”, or PSK, has strong benefits for the immune system, when given alone or with conventional chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
The most impressive clinical demonstration of PSK's anti-tumour function comes from a long-term placebocontrolled trial, in which 56 patients took PSK daily following surgery for cancer of the colon or rectum. Six hospitals were involved in evaluating the patients' progress at three monthly intervals for the next thirteen years. The survival rate of the patients taking PSK was significantly higher than that of the control group and the activity of their leukocytes showed “remarkable enhancement”.(13) PSK appears to act as an immune regulator, restoring immune potential to normal levels after it has been depressed by cancer or chemotherapy. PSK taken by mouth promotes the production and activity of T-lymphocytes and the cytokines produced by monocytes and macrophages. When injected directly into tumours, PSK has been shown to kill the tumour cells.(14)

In pioneering work carried out at the Breakspear Hospital, Hemel Hempstead, UK, by Dr Jean Monro, supplementation with Coriolus versicolor increased the numbers and activity of natural killer cells in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and reduced the severity of a wide range of symptoms. Changes in natural killer cell levels have been found to accurately reflect the progress of chronic fatigue syndrome and its remission.(15) Coriolus supplementation has also resulted in increased energy and reduced susceptibility to viral infections in HIV patients.(16)

TOCHUKAS (Cordyceps sinensis)

Tochukas is another mushroom that is name, better known in the West by its scientific TCordyceps sinensis. It is a fungus with a bizarre life cycle, which is summed up in its Chinese name, Dong Chong Xia Cao, which translates as “winter worm, summer grass”. The fungal mycelium invades and parasitises the buried caterpillar of a species of moth. After the caterpillar dies, the fungus produces fruiting bodies from the head of the caterpillar that look like black blades of grass. Cordyceps has been prized in China for its medicinal properties since the Tang dynasty. Because of its rarity, it was traded for its weight in silver. Luckily, a way has been found to grow the fungus commercially on a sterile medium of soya beans or grains, so increasing its availability and popularity. Cordyceps remained virtually unknown outside China until 1993, when Chinese athletes who had been taking it broke world records in swimming and running, prompting world interest. In the last 20 years, the therapeutic value of Cordyceps has been demonstrated in many clinical trials. Cordyceps has been credited with increasing energy levels and libido, reducing fatigue and enhancing cellular use of oxygen.

In a three-month placebo-controlled trial involving elderly patients with fatigue and other symptoms, a 92% improvement in energy levels was seen, compared with 14% in the control group.(17) Like Coriolus versicolor, Cordyceps acts as an immune regulator, stimulating immune activity when it is too low and damping it down if too high. This means that Cordyceps could be useful in the treatment of both immune deficiency and auto-immune conditions.
Other studies have found Cordyceps to be effective in reducing the size of tumours in lung cancer patients,(18) as an anti-asthmatic and cough suppressant,(19) and in improving blood circulation, lowering cholesterol levels and reducing blood viscosity.(20) Researchers in China have found Cordyceps to be of value in treating kidney disease (chronic renal failure) and in controlling the common complications of this condition.

The dietary supplements of Cordyceps sinensis that has been tested so far have not been associated with any side effects.


Kombucha is not, strictly speaking, a mushroom, but a health-promoting drink, created by a symbiotic culture of a yeast (a single-celled fungus) and other micro-organisms. Looking rather like a rubbery, white pancake, the kombucha culture is traditionally grown in sweetened black or green tea, which it transforms into a refreshing brew, containing glucuronic acid, lactic acid, vitamins, amino acids and antibiotic substances. Kombucha has been used for at least 2000 years and possibly much longer. Gunther Frank, author of Kombucha: Healthy Beverage and Natural Remedy from the Far East (Ennsthaler), reports eighty-four different names for the drink. The name kombucha is apparently from a Dr Kombu from Korea, who is credited with introducing the drink to Japan in 414 BC. Kombucha has enjoyed wide use as a general tonic and remedy for digestive problems, constipation, headaches, gout, rheumatism and many other afflictions.

The therapeutic benefits of kombucha do not appear to have been the subject of as much recent scientific investigation as those of some other mushrooms. However, the drink has been variously reported to “invigorate the entire glandular system” and to be of benefit in cases of tonsillitis, intestinal inflammation, low stomach acid production, arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure.(21,22) Kombucha is also frequently claimed to prevent cancer and one of its main constituents, glucuronic acid, has been found to increase interferon production in cancer patients.(23)



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Hobbs C, Medicinal Mushrooms, Botanica Press, 1995.
Jones K, Shiitake: The Healing Mushroom, Healing Arts Press, 1995.
Frank G W, Kombucha: Healthy Beverage and Natural Remedy from the Far East, Ennsthaler, 1995.
Halpern G, Cordyceps, China’s Healing Mushroom, Avery 1999.

Martin Hum is a registered nutritional therapist who regularly writes for nutritional magazines and is a member of the Optimum Nutrition Advisory Board.


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