by Bert Hoffman
April 12, 2004
Mention mushrooms and few people
immediately recognize these humble fungi as important tools
that can be used to boost well-being. More often, folks
identify mushrooms as food with a peculiar appeal. But
mushrooms' potential impact on health far surpasses their
You don't have to stretch your imagination too far to
understand why mushrooms have been much neglected in the
modern, Western medical search for plants that can boost
Unable to make chlorophyll, often dependent on the kindness
of other nutrient-producing organisms for their survival,
these humble fungal denizens of dark, damp spaces seem to
prefer an anonymous existence that is out of sight and out
of the consciousness of the scientific mind.
However, mushrooms have now assumed a spot in the center of
the research spotlight. Because of their potent content of
natural chemicals that appear to have a strong influence on
human health and well-being, during the past decade
mushrooms have been the subjects of intensive studies on how
they can be used to reduce the risk of cancer and to treat
Appropriately, this recent round of research began in a
place that has long revered these diminutive organisms:
Japan. Japan and other Oriental countries have traditionally
recognized the immense value of mushrooms as both food and
Food and Medicine
As an ancient Chinese saying notes, "food and medicine share
a common origin." And one of the very earliest Chinese
medical books, Shen Noug's Herbal (Shen Noug Pen Ts'ao Jing),
first noted the extraordinary beneficial effects of eating
mushrooms 2,000 years ago, back in the first century.
More recently, but still well ahead of Western medical
experts, in 1575, Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu (a Chinese compendium of
medicinal therapies), written by Li Shi Zhen, outlined the
medical benefits of about 20 mushrooms.
Nowadays, modern researchers believe mushrooms' usefulness
stems from the fact they contain a wealth of antioxidants.
But these aren't just any antioxidants. Scientists think
that some of these chemicals can potentially drop your risk
of cancer, significantly lower blood pressure, help the body
fight diabetes, offer protection for the liver, alleviate
some of the ill effects of inflammation, lessen the chance
of blood clots and help the body's immune system fend off
viruses and other microbes.
Quite a collection of benefits for these lowly beings!
The 10,000-Year Mushroom
Through the ages, the reishi mushroom (also known variously
as the Mannetake, or 10,000-year mushroom, and the
Immortality Mushroom) has been the most popular mushroom in
Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures. The reishi mushroom
is frequently depicted in a wide variety of traditional
Oriental artwork and even puts in an appearance in Chinese
To some, reishi's power goes beyond the natural and include
the supernatural. Originally grown on aging plum trees,
reishi is also sufficiently well regarded to be employed by
the Japanese as a good luck charm. But you don't have to
believe in the supernatural to be superbly impressed with
reishi. The beneficial natural substances in reishi include
steroids, lactones, alkaloids, triterpenes and
Of these chemicals, polysaccharides (complex chains of
sugars) in particular have intrigued researchers looking
into the way mushrooms help health. These polysaccharide
macromolecules are very large (for molecules) and complex, a
complexity that leads researchers to believe they are
capable of conveying a huge amount of biological information
that help the immune system stop cancer in its early stages.
The differences in the benefits of various polysaccharides
stems from their intriguing geometrical shapes.
Even though two distinctive polysaccharides may contain the
same number of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, their
three-dimensional differences-the way they are structured
and branch off in different directions-can endow them with
very different health benefits.
Though they all share a basic structure (usually, these
molecules consist of a main chain of atoms with various side
chains), the slight variations of the side chains changes
By deciphering the microscopic structures of these
molecules, scientists think they are beginning to uncover
which ones are most effective against cancer. For instance,
in isolating a particularly useful polysaccharide called
beta-D-glucan from reishi, researchers have found that this
substance fights tumors in lab experiments (Chem Pharm Bull
1981; 29: 3611).
Meanwhile, beta-D-glucan and other extracts taken from the
maitake mushroom have also been shown to possess powerful
anti-cancer effects in lab experiments (Immunopharm
In one instance, researchers in the laboratory who were
trying out various substances on prostate cancer cells found
that applying extracts of maitake results in a kind of
programmed self-destruction (apoptosis) of these undesirable
cancer cells (Molec Urol; 4:7).
In addition, another substance known as maitake d-fraction
has been shown to strongly fight cancer in lab animals-in
one study, their liver cancer growths were reduced by up to
90% (Ann NY Acad of Sci; 833:204).
At the same time, research in China on people has
demonstrated that maitake may help reduce tumors and
alleviate the effects of leukemia (Alter Comp Ther 12/98;
According to A.S. Daba and O.U. Ezeronye (Afr Jrnl Bio
12/03; 672), "Mushroom polysaccharides offer a lot of hope
for cancer patients and sufferers of many devastating
" [These substances support]...a fundamental principle in
Oriental medicine...[they help] regulate homeostasis of the
whole body and... bring the diseased person [back] to his or
her normal state."
The Activity of Active Hexose Correlated Compound
Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC), an extract taken
from shiitake and other mushrooms, is a relatively new
substance that is also being researched for its anti-cancer
Studies on AHCC began in Japan in the 1990s when scientists
looked at how it could potentially help people recovering
from liver cancer. In those tests, researchers found that
giving people AHCC apparently helped them survive longer.
In the future, scientists feel certain that they will
uncover even more anticancer uses for mushrooms and the
chemicals they contain.
A key advantage to these natural substances is their lack of
side effects. For instance, in research on an anti-cancer
chemical called lentinan, taken from shiitakes,
investigators have found that less than one percent of
people experience the kind of discomfort that make them
discontinue treatment. (This chemical has been used to treat
But a long list of beneficial mushroom substances are
probably still waiting to be discovered. More evidence of
mushrooms' benefits: A study of mushroom workers in a part
of Japan called the Nagano Prefecture found that these
farmers enjoyed a significantly lower cancer rate than other
inhabitants of that part of the country.
In the rest of Japan, about one in six hundred people dies
of cancer. But that rate death rate drops to about one in a
thousand for mushroom raisers who eat a diet heavy in
John Smith, PhD, from the University of Strath-Clyde, notes
that "...increasing evidence [shows] mushrooms offer a
remarkable array of medicinally important compounds that
have yet to be evaluated by Western medical scientists."
Mushrooms offer the best of both worlds: good health that