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Published on July 12th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


End Exhaustion with Mushroom Medicinals

Chinese medicinal practitioners have used mushrooms for over 4,000 years to treat everything from depression to high blood pressure to cancer.

Aside from being a delicious and vitamin-rich addition to your diet, mushrooms can help you fight a cold, and serve as a natural way to boost your immune system.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Mushroom Medicine 101

Mushrooms work by acting as an immunomodulators, which induce the activity of immune system components. The immune system is like a theater with several characters each having a specific role when under attack by a pathogen (infected cell, germ, or virus).

In order to understand the powerful ways in which mushrooms can help us stay healthy, we have to first understand the system they are boosting. The main cells affected by mushrooms are:

Macrophages, which are made from white blood cells called monocytes. Their primary role is to eat cellular debris and pathogens, and then stimulate lymphocytes and other immune cells to respond to the pathogen.

Lymphocytes consist of B Cells and T Cells, which are both made in bone marrow. B Cells are the immune system’s memory vehicle by which it recognizes, binds to, and kills infected cells. T Cells are geared to recognize “non-self” targets like germs or infectious agents.

Natural Killer cells (NK), which, in the presence of cytokines, are activated to contain and clear viral infections.

Cytokines, which serve as the messenger of the immune system, ready the immune cells when a pathogen is detected and aid in inflammation, the body’s natural healing process.

Three species of mushrooms in particular have demonstrated immune boosting power—the Reishi, Maitake, and Shiitake. Aside from the enhancement of macrophages, Natural Killer cells, and lymphocytes, they generally act as probiotics, which are friendly bacteria that assist the body’s naturally occurring bacteria population to re-establish itself.

Research shows that these three powerful fungi allies also:

  • Help with heart health
  • Lower the risk of cancer
  • Ward off viruses, bacteria, and fungi
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Combat allergies
  • Help balance blood sugar levels
  • Support the body’s detoxification mechanisms

Our Fungi Friends

Reishi mushrooms are known in China as the “Mushroom of Immortality”. They have been researched as an anti-tumoral and a cancer preventative, and have been shown to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and the likelihood of metastasis.

  • Reishi mushrooms activate both B-cells and T-cells while improving immune surveillance. They can be effective against food allergies and may be beneficial for reducing high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Shiitake (for centuries called “Elixir of Life”) has been licensed as an anti-cancer drug by the Japanese FDA. The active component in the Shiitake (called Lentinan) has shown some effect on bowel cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer. Lentinan stimulates the production of T cells and Natural Killer cells and can increase the effect of AZT in the anti-viral treatment of AIDs.

  • Shiitake mushrooms may also lower blood pressure in those with hypertension, lower serum cholesterol levels, increase libido, stimulate the production of cytokines. Aside from being helpful, they are very healthy, as they contain Vitamin D and several antioxidants.

Maitake mushrooms have been shown to activate macrophages, and are most helpful for stomach ailments, aiding in digestion and regulating the stomach and intestines. People with type 2 diabetes may benefit from Maitake mushrooms.

  • Though the mechanism isn’t quite understood, a compound found in the mushroom called the X–fraction appears to have anti-diabetic properties and lowers insulin resistance. In addition, many doctors in Japan use Maitake mushrooms to lower blood pressure and blood lipids, two key risk factors in cardiovascular disease.

Mushrooms are a safe, natural, and tasty way to boost your immune system, and you can easily incorporate them into many meals. Start integrating this natural medicine into soups, salads, sauces, and pasta and noodle dishes.

If your palate can’t handle the flavor though, or your grocery store is out of these three, look in health food stores and online for mushroom extracts in pill and tincture form. Eating fresh, certified organic mushrooms however, remains the best way to attain the beneficial effects of these helpful fungi. For more information, recipes, and nutrition facts, visit the Mushroom Council.

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