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A Fungus Among Us
The Medicinal Power of Mushrooms
By: Kim Schoenhals
The rich, earthy flavor of mushrooms was once reserved only for royalty. In fact, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt prohibited commoners from even touching them. Today, commercial cultivation enables fungi fans across the globe to enjoy numerous edible varieties year-round. But far from being simple delicacies, certain mushroom varieties also possess powerful medicinal properties including immune system stimulation, reproductive benefits an energy enhancement.
Shiitake mushrooms are a common ingredient in Pacific Rim cuisine because they ad a distinct flavor to noodle and tofu dishes. In terms of health benefits, Lentinus edodes supplements may offer hope in the fight against cancer.
Like maitake mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms contain a powerful compound that has been studied for its health applications. Lentinan, a polysaccharide extract from shiitake, may act as a cancer preventative, according to research reported in the October 2002 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. On the other hand, a human trial published the same month in Urology indicated that stand-alone treatment with shiitake extract was ineffective against prostate cancer.
Interestingly, Japanese researchers writing in a 2002 issue of the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis stated that shiitake has been proven to lower cholesterol and inhibit tumor growth in animals. With these results in hand, the researchers went on to demonstrate that shiitake may also prevent atherosclerosis.
Maitake, the "dancing mushroom," is believed to bolster immune function and to have therapeutic value against cancer and type 2 diabetes. The giant mushroom's beta-glucan, or polysaccharide, constituent is frequently credited for its immunostimulant properties.
Researchers reporting in the Summer 2004 issues of the Journal of Medicinal Food noted a polysaccharide extract of maitake (as Maitake D-Fraction, supplied by Paramus, New Jersey-based Maitake Products Inc.) increased both innate and adaptive immune responses in mice.
Previous research appearing in the Winter 2003 issue of the same journal indicated that maitake's immune-enhancing effects may play a role in cancer prevention choices that nature provides for us. Sometimes, we forget that nature is where real food comes from. Researchers showed that Maitake D-Fraction increased natural killer (NK) cell function, thereby slowing cancer progression in animals.
Additional research on Maitake suggests certain extracts from the mushroom may reduce the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Maitake SX-Fraction was shown to reduce fasting blood glucose and insulin resistance in an animal model of type 2 diabetes, according to 2002 research published in Research Communications in Molecular Pathology and Pharmacology. Maitake SX-Fraction also lowered systolic blood pressure in subjects during the study period.
Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Popularity used in sexual performance nutrition, Cordyceps may also have anticancer and antihyperglycemic properties.
TCM has long accepted Cordyceps as a sexual aid, and contemporary research supports this role. Studies appearing in the September 2003 and July 2004 issues of Life Sciences showed that Cordyceps supplementation may be therapeutic in male reproductive health by stimulating testosterone production.
In sports medicine, Cordyceps is believed to increase endurance and energy- however, research has not proven the efficiency of this anecdotal use of the mushroom. While a May 2003 animal study published in Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin indicated that Cordyceps supplementation reduced fatigue during exercise, two subsequently published human trials (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, March 2004; International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, April 2004) failed to demonstrate any benefits on endurance or energy in male cyclists.
Similar to many mushrooms, Canoderma Lucidum grows in wet climes, commonly on decaying plant matter. Called ling zhi in TCM, reishi is purported to promote health and longevity, lower the risk of cancer and heat disease, and strengthen immunity, according to a study in the February 2004 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition.
In vitro results published in May 2004 in the International Journal of Oncology showed that reishi could arrest cell proliferation and induce apoptosis (cell death) in human prostate cancer cells. And, a polysaccharide extract of the mushroom was declared an anti-tumor and ant-angiogenic agent in a June 2004 issue of Acta Pharmacologica Sinica.
Research along a different vein showed that reishi polysaccharide are anti-hypoglycemic too. Animals given reishi extract exhibited lower serum glucose and higher circulating insulin than control animals.
Active Hexose Correlated Compound, or AHCC (manufactured by Amino Up Chemical in Japan and available in the united States as ImmPower from Blauvelt, New York-based American BioSciences), is a hybridization of several mushrooms that has proven to be a potent immune system stimulant. AHCC's effectiveness was shown in an animal study published in the June 11, 2004 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology. Researchers saw an increased resistance to infection in mice fed AHCC. AHCC supplementation also improved the prognosis of patients who underwent surgery for liver cancer, as noted in the July 2002 Journal of Hepatology.
Important Education
While there are several therapeutic benefits that can be gained from mushroom supplements, knowledge is key in choosing the right product, according to David Wales, president of American BioSciences. "We want people to become informed about all of their therapy options…whatever your health challenge is, the more you know, the better choices you make."