Part 2. Medicinal Mushrooms
Although we are better informed about the plant kingdom than we are about the world of mushrooms or fungi, from an evolutionary point of view, fungi are closer relatives to humans than plants. This is, according to Paul Stamets, because we share more common genes with fungi than with plants, the theory suggests that fungi may provide greater health benefits to our body systems.
The intriguing thing is that humans suffer from many of the diseases that affect fungi, but are generally not susceptible to those that infect plants. Science is beginning to realise that this relationship is because we are more closely related to fungi than to any other kingdom, sharing a common ancestor more than 460 million years ago, and thus developing defences against mutual microbial enemies."
Paul Stamets, author of the book MycoMedicinals: An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms, explains in his book,
"Because fungi and animals share a more recent common ancestry than plants, protozoa and bacteria, fungal medicines are active against many diseases that afflict humans."
Meet the Mushrooms that Specialise in Cognitive Health
Nutraceuticals world magazine tells us that there is a folkloric tradition that has passed down the knowledge of mushrooms through the ages, especially in Japan and China, where mushrooms are backed by decades of scientific research and are ingrained in the cultural consciousness. It is only in recent years that attention has begun to be paid to the particular properties and benefits of mushrooms, which in turn have come with novel concepts such as nutraceuticals and/or adaptogens.
In terms of trends, Maitake and shiitake may be the best known and most researched medicinal mushrooms, but other mushrooms such as cordyceps, agaricus, oyster mushrooms and AHCC (Active Hexose Correlated Compound, which is a liquid culture of mycelia from the shiitake mushroom) have received a lot of attention in recent years.
The reishi mushroom (you may have heard of Ganoderma coffee) has been around for thousands of years and has long been revered in Asian cultures.
According to Mr. Jeff Chilton president of NAMMEX, Gibsons in British Columbia, Canada, reishi is the most important of the medicinal mushrooms. "Reishi has compounds that most other mushrooms do not have, including triterpenes, which are found in many longevity herbs". Western scientists are finally getting funding to do the research they need to see exactly what its benefits are.
Kristin Schierenbeck, a certified nutritionist at Quality of Life Labs in New York, USA, describes the background to AHCC.
"AHCC is a medicinal mushroom extract product containing a highly bioactive hexose molecule derived from a combination of basidiomycete fungi. This patented mushroom complex is primarily used in patients suffering from immunosuppressive diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and hepatitis."
"According to research, AHCC boosts normal immunity by improving the function of immune system cells. For this reason, AHCC is used not only by patients with chronic diseases, but also by anyone interested in optimal health and boosting their immune system."
In an upcoming study, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, MD, has provided funding to Fungi Perfecti to conduct a small clinical study using oyster mushrooms to mitigate the negative effects of protease inhibitors, which are antiviral agents used to treat AIDS patients. According to Mr Stamets, this is the first NIH-approved clinical study of medicinal mushrooms.
"The problem with protease inhibitor drugs is that they interfere with lipid metabolism in the liver, causing hyperaccumulation of LDL," he said. "Oyster mushrooms contain a natural isomer of Lovastatin, which is an FDA-approved cholesterol-lowering drug. Oyster mushrooms also contain antiviral agents and glycoproteins, which are anti-HIV agents."
In addition to the oyster mushroom study, Mr Stamets has noted that the NIH has also provided funding for a much larger breast cancer study with a few hundred people using turkey tail mushrooms.
Why can Fungi Improve Brain Health?
Between 12% and 18% of people aged 60 and older have been found to have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that is sometimes a precursor to Alzheimer's and affects memory, thinking ability and judgement, according to the Alzheimer's Association. A healthy diet is important for an ageing brain, and mushrooms can be part of a preventive diet.
In a study of 663 adults aged 60 and older in Singapore, those who reported eating more than two servings of mushrooms a week were 57 per cent less likely to develop MCI than those who ate them less frequently than once a week, according to a March 2019 study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. (The study used golden, oyster, shiitake, white button, dried and canned mushrooms.)
The possible reason for their cognitive protective properties is ergothioneine, which is not only an antioxidant, but also has anti-inflammatory properties, and together with glutathione (the master antioxidant), also present in some varieties, may protect against neuronal damage.
In a press release following the publication of an article in Food Chemistry, Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of Penn State's Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health, said that
"...under the theory that humans oxidise food to produce energy, a number of free radicals are produced that are by-products of that action.
The body has mechanisms to control most of them, such as ergothionein and glutathione, but over time enough accumulate to cause damage, which has been associated with many of the diseases of ageing, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's."(source)
Healthy Soil - Healthy Food - Healthy Humankind
A study published on 27 January 2022 of 8 comparative paired cropping studies (one conventional and one specialised in regenerative agriculture) conducted in 8 states in the United States showed that crops from regenerative crops were much healthier, with a higher content of certain minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals.
The curious thing is that, although not everyone eats mushrooms, everyone has ergothioneine in their bodies, given that mushrooms are the main food source.
Professor Beelman and his colleagues therefore suspected that the ergothioneine in mushrooms was being absorbed by the crops through underground association with mycelium (fungal threads that exist below the soil surface) and that when humans and animals eat ergothioneine-rich plants, it enters their bodies.
What's more, according to a study conducted in collaboration with the Rodale Institute, they found that oats grown on conventionally tilled land had a third less ergothioneine than oats grown on non-tilled land.
Beelman believes this demonstrates a clear link between soil, cultivation and human health. "When you till the soil, you reduce the amount of ergothioneine that gets into the crop".
In terms of nutraceuticals, the mushroom category has been based on a small group of fungi commonly found in dietary supplements, such as reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Chaga, cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus).
Some promising mushrooms that have received much attention in the research community are agaricus (Agaricus brasiliensis), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and AHCC (Active Hexose Correlated Compound).
Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
They are known as the mushrooms that boost brain function. Research indicates that supplementing with Lion's Mane helps repair the myelin sheath found in the nerves of the brain and spinal cord.
The erinacin and hericenones compounds present in this mushroom help promote nerve growth factor within the brain, the absence of which could lead to Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
It is also useful for people recovering from brain or spinal cord damage.
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)
Image by Ian Lindsay on Pxby
It is a small mushroom that grows wild in the eastern forests of North America and is often regarded as a weed.
It is a polyporous mushroom where spores are released and has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries. Today it is one of the most researched and studied mushrooms. Most studies focus on the various ways in which the turkey tail mushroom can treat cancer. It has also been shown to have antimicrobial properties, diabetes counteracting effects and improved intestinal health. In addition, it has been shown to support immune system health.
In Japan it is used within the protocol to treat cancer with the credit that it has almost no side effects, which is very positive as the drugs that are generally used have various side effects and adverse reactions.
Cordyceps (cordyceps sinesis)
Img. from www.hawlik.ch
Cordyceps arises when ants pass over a mould called cordyceps that will pierce the ant's armour to spread through muscles, nerves and brain and take control of the ant's movements so that it can no longer return home. That mould secretes a toxin that kills the ant and a small structure also called cordyceps emerges from the back of its brain.
Perhaps because of the way cordyceps is produced, being a genus of fungus that infects insects, it is the most expensive fungus in the world. Cordyceps sinesis grows from the heads of caterpillars in Nepal, China and Tibet.
In North America and elsewhere, a more affordable and beneficial type of cordyceps militarus has been produced.
Humans have used it to improve physical performance, the health of the immune system and the cardiovascular system, particularly in sports, on a cyclical basis.
Img. by GeorgeB2 on Pixabay
Chaga is the only mushroom that grows inside birch trees and, in fact, the benefits of this mushroom are the direct consequence of its relationship with this tree.
Chaga is a hardened mass of the mycelium of this mushroom and birch wood. The substances it produces and grows on the tree is Betulin. It is not enough to cultivate the chaga in isolation or the mycelium in a seed, as it would not contain Betulin.
Chaga has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants in the world of natural products. It is used for digestive health, skin health and immune support.
If you are going to consume Chaga, make sure you get a product that has been harvested wild and in the right way.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Img. of thanlophan on Pixaby
It is known as the king of medicinal mushrooms and is widely used for its sedative properties.
These mushrooms are also considered adaptogens: something like your body will use them for whatever it needs them for. For example, these mushrooms share immune-regulatory properties that will strengthen your immune cells when fighting an infection and at the same time, if you start to have an adverse immune reaction, they will balance it out. In other words, they will adapt to your needs.