The Gourmet Healing Power of Medicinal Mushrooms

| November/December 2004

  • Shiitake
    Karen Shelton,
  • Maitake
  • Reishi

The shiitake mushroom proves that looks aren’t everything: What could be scruffier or more taciturn-looking as it hunkers down on your grocer’s produce shelf? Yet this mushroom with an attitude is a study in contrasts: earthy yet ethereal, unimpressive yet magnificent. It performs in a cast of potent fungi known as the medicinal mushrooms, which number more than 200 worldwide and include others of sterling repute, such as reishi and maitake. Unlike the Asians and Europeans who have cherished these mushrooms for millennia, we in North America are just beginning to discover their merits.

Medicinal mushrooms enhance the body’s general resilience and vigor, stimulate the immune system and confer antioxidant benefits. Since the 1960s, science has been catching up to tradition, and many clinical studies now demonstrate that these mushrooms do indeed shore up the body’s defenses against such afflictions as cancer, infection and heart disease.

Stupendous Shiitake

Our friend the shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is one you’ve probably sampled. This mushroom’s meaty texture and rich, woodsy flavor make it a culinary favorite in any dish calling for mushrooms, and it is especially good in meatless cuisine. Originally from China, shiitakes have been cultivated in North America since at least the 1980s.

Shiitake protects against certain cancers, tumors and infections — the latter through antiviral and antibiotic actions. How shiitake executes its anticancer campaign is not fully understood, but a constituent known as lentinan appears pivotal. Widely studied, lentinan from shiitake is an approved drug in Japan, used mainly as an adjunct to conventional cancer chemotherapy. Controlled clinical trials using injected lentinan with standard chemotherapy show it is effective against stomach, colorectal and prostate cancers. In 1999, a study published in Hepatogastroenterology found that lentinan increased one-year survival of gastric-cancer patients to 49 percent compared to no increase without lentinan. And a trial conducted at the Saitama Cancer Center in Japan reported that five-year survival of patients with metastatic prostate cancer was 43 percent with lentinan treatment versus 29 percent without it.

Shiitake is especially rich in lentinan, a complex polysaccharide of the beta-D-glucan family found in sources such as oats, barley, yeast, algae, bacteria and mushrooms. Beta-D-glucans stimulate the body’s macrophages and other immune system weaponry to arrest cancer or tumor initiation, growth and spread. They also thwart bacterial, parasitic and viral pathogens, including those of AIDS and hepatitis B.

Is eating the mushroom itself as effective as taking lentinan extract? In a therapeutic sense, likely not, since levels found in whole foods typically are lower and more variable than from controlled botanical extracts. But by eating the mushrooms as a component of a balanced diet, long-term benefits can accrue, especially considering that shiitakes (and other medicinal mushrooms) contain minerals, vitamins, proteins and other beneficial chemicals, including linoleic acid and ergosterol, which help lower cholesterol and the risk of arteriosclerosis.

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