Medicinal Mushrooms and Fungi


Mushrooms, fermentation molds, mycelia, and lichens, have a history of medicinal use spanning millennia. The mushroom with the longest record of medicinal use in China, Ganoderma lucidum, is known in Chinese as ling zhi ( “spirit plant “), and in Japanese as mannentake ( “10,000 year mushroom “). In ancient Japan, Grifola frondosa was worth its weight in silver. Inonotus obliquus was used in Russia as early as the 16th century, and its medicinal properties were described by Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Ancient Egyptians considered mushrooms food for royalty. The Hadith states, “Truffles (Terfeziaceae) are manna which Allah sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eyes. “


Traditionally, our ancestors boiled mushrooms in water to make a soothing tea. Boiling served several purposes: killing contaminants, softening the flesh, and extracting the rich soluble polysaccharides. The mushrooms — called fruiting bodies by mycologists — are made of densely-compacted cobwebby cells called mycelium. With modern laboratory methods of cell tissue culture, the large-scale production of mycelium brought to light a whole new array of medicinal preparations. In this article, the history of a few of the best known medicinal mushrooms/fungi will be mentioned.


Shiitake mushrooms


The Shitake (Lentinula edodes) Black Forest Tree Mushroom or Xiang Gu (Fragrant Mushroom) is a tender and tasty mushroom found in many Asian cuisines. (see first photo, above) It is considered both a delicacy and a medicinal mushroom. Shitake contains a glucan called AHCC (Active Hexose Correlated Compound) and is widely used in alternative and complementary treatment of cancer in Japan due to its immune-enhancing functions. Lentinan, a compound found in Shitake, is used as an intravenous anti-cancer drug with antitumor properties. Clinical studies have associated lentinan with a higher survival rate, higher quality of life and lower recurrence of cancer.


Otzi the Iceman


Otzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BCE, was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Otztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. On his body was found a sack containing various items, among them two tree mushroom varieties, Fomes fomentarius and Piptoporus betulinus (photos below), known to have antibacterial properties.



Fomes fomentarius


Carried by Otzi the Iceman, Fomes fomentarius extracts have immunomodulatory activity in vivo, and anticancer activity in vitro.


Piptoporus betulinus (Birch polypore)


Carried by Otzi the Iceman, a hydroquinone isolated from Piptoporus betulinus inhibits a matrix metalloproteinase (MMP).


Coriolus versicolor (Trametes versicolor) “Turkey tail Mushroon “ Yun Zhi


Coriolus versicolor is one of the most well-researched medicinal mushrooms in the world. It is a biological response modifier. Turkey tail mushrooms have been used to treat various maladies for hundreds of years in Asia, Europe, and by indigenous peoples in North America. Studies show that it improves survival rates and acts an immune modulator with immune stimulating and anti-tumor properties. Some studies show that it can enhance the effects of chemotherapy cancer treatment and reduce the side effects of radiation therapy.


Records of turkey tail brewed as medicinal tea date from the early 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty in China. Our ancestors certainly encountered them and most likely explored their uses long before written history. Since the late 1960s, researchers in Japan have focused on how turkey tail benefits human health and how extracts of turkey tail can boost the immune system. In many Asian cultures, turkey tails’ incurving cloud forms symbolize longevity and health, spiritual attunement and infinity.


Grifola frondosa (Maitake)


Grifola frondosa studies indicate potential anticancer and antihyperglycemic activities. D-fraction, MD-fraction, SX-fraction, and grifolan, are isolates of Grifola frondosa. Maitake Grifola frondosa (Cloud Mushroom Hui Shu Hua) is used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine to enhance the immune system. It is one of the major mushrooms in Japanese cooking. Studies have shown that it can enhance both the innate immune response to fight infections as well as adaptive immune response conferring long-term immune enhancement. Maitake also protects cells with its antioxidant properties and decreases the inflammatory factor COX2 enzyme so common in cancer physiology. Studies have also shown that Maitake has potential anti-metastatic properties inhibiting the proliferation and spread of cancer.


Inonotus obliquus

Inonotus obliquus is the medicinal mushroom promoted by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and used in Russia from as far back as the 16th Century to present.


Chaga Inonotus obliquus (Black Tree Fungus) has been recorded as a folk medicine and the botanical medicine of the Eastern European countries as a remedy for cancer, gastritis,ulcers, and tuberculosis of the bones. As early as in the 16th century, chaga was used as an effective folk medicine in Russia and Northern Europe to treat several human malicious tumors and other diseases in the absence of any unacceptable toxic side effects.


Chaga has been studied as a potential anti-cancer agent, which contains betulin, a precursor to betulinic acid, which has been shown to inhibit the cancer-promoting enzyme topoisomerase. Betulinic acid has been found to be active against skin, brain, ovarian and head and neck cancers by promoting apoptosis, or the natural progression of programmed cell death. Cancer cells do not go through this natural life cycle and become immortalized and do not die. Today, there are ongoing clinical trials in Eastern Europe to determine the uses for the chaga mushroom.




The Hadith states, “Truffles (Terfeziaceae) are manna which Allah sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eyes. “ Interestingly, “hadith “ is an Arabic noun which means an interesting piece of information conveyed either in a small quantity or large.


Ganoderma lucidum (Ling zhi, mannentake, reishi)


Ganoderma lucidum is the mushroom with the longest record of medicinal use. Ganoderma lucidum is thought to be useful against a variety of ailments. Over 100 lanostane-type triterpenoids, including ganoderic acids, have been isolated from Ganoderma lucidum. Ganoderma Reishi Mushroom Ling Zhi, Mannentake, “The Mushroom of Immortality “ is one of the great longevity tonics of Chinese Medicine used in cancer treatment in Traditional and Modern Chinese Medicine to improve vitality, strength and stamina and to prolong life. Reishi enhances immune response, alleviates chemotherapy side effects such as nausea and kidney damage and protects cellular DNA by raising antioxidant capacity.


Ophiocordyceps sinensis (left) growing out of the head of a dead caterpillar


Cordyceps sinensis Chinese Caterpillar Fungus Dong Chong Xia Cao


Cordyceps acts an immune stimulator by raising cancer- and virus-fighting T Cells and Natural Killer Cells and prolongs the life of white blood cells, improving resolution of infections. It has demonstrated anti-tumor properties and also protects the kidneys from chemotherapy side effects. It is one of the most widely used tonics in anti-cancer formulas in Chinese Medicine. Ophiocordyceps sinensis is a fungus that parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body valued as an herbal remedy. The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then the stalk-like fruiting body emerges from the corpse. It is known in English colloquially as caterpillar fungus, or by its more prominent foreign names: yartsa gunbu or yatsa gunbu (Tibetan), or Dong chong xia cao (literally “winter worm, summer grass “). O. sinensis is known in the West as a medicinal mushroom, and its use has a long history in Traditional Chinese medicine as well as Traditional Tibetan medicine. The hand-collected fungus-caterpillar combination is valued by herbalists and as a status symbol, it is used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for ailments such as fatigue and cancer, although such use is mainly based on traditional Chinese medicine and anecdote. Recent research however seems to indicate a variety of beneficial effects in animal testing, including increased physical endurance through heightened ATP production in rats.


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