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Shiitake Health Benefits

Medicine in a mushroom

| January/February 1997

  • J. S. Chilton

Mushrooms are a fascinating class of life form: vast underground mycelia that push up strange fruiting bodies when climatic conditions are right, and a vast range of forms—from common fairy rings and puffballs to strange, unearthly, pale violet discs; from tiny pinheads to hubcap-sized saucers. Of an estimated 100,000 species of mushrooms, most are edible and very nutritious, containing large amounts of protein, fiber, minerals (including calcium), B vitamins, and vitamin C.

Shiitake (shee-TAH-kee) mushrooms are a culinary rage in the United States today (you can even buy kits for growing your own), but have been important in Chinese culture for thousands of years. One of the earliest recorded uses of shiitake (Lentinula edodes) dates as far back as the fourteenth century, when the Chinese physician Wu-Rui described it as a food that accelerates vital or “spirit” energy (known as Qi in Chinese), staves off hunger, “cures cold, and penetrates into the blood circulatory system.” Today, these attributes are collectively taken to mean that shiitake makes a person more lively. Wu also stated that shiitake was “good for treatment of Heart Troubles . . . beneficial to [all forms of] Malignancy, likewise certainly [good for] Snake’s poison.” For the past thirty years, scientists have been investigating some of these uses and have amassed evidence that shiitake can help the body fight heart disease, cancer, and viral diseases. Most of the research has been carried out in Japan. Some of the studies are discussed below.

Heart Disease

The body could not function without cholesterol, which helps the body break down fats, or lipids, in the small intestine so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. In the liver, ­cholesterol combines with lipids and proteins in the blood to form various complexes called lipoproteins. A large proportion of low-density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) in the blood has been linked to clogged artery walls, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. High-density lipoproteins (HDL or “good” cholesterol), on the other hand, have been shown to scavenge excess LDL from the bloodstream and carry it to the liver for excretion or processing into good cholesterol.

According to studies performed in Japan during the 1970s, shiitake contains an amino acid called eritadenine that accelerates cholesterol’s processing in the liver. In addition, shiitake’s high dietary fiber helps the body process cholesterol.

In a 1974 study, 40 elderly people and 420 young women ate 9 g of dried shiitake or the equivalent amount of fresh shiitake (90 g) daily. After seven days, total cholesterol level (the types of cholesterol affected were not distinguished) had decreased 7 to 15 percent in the elderly and 6 to 12 percent in the young women.

Another 1974 study involved thirty young women. Ten added 90 g of fresh shiitake and 60 g of butter to their daily diet, ten added only the butter, and ten added only the shiitake. After seven days, the total cholesterol level of the shiitake and butter group decreased an average of 4 percent, while that of the butter group increased an average of 14 percent and that of the shiitake group declined an average of 12 percent. The research­ers concluded that shiitake had “completely nullified” the effect of the butter on the cholesterol level of the first group of participants.

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