Mushrooms have long been used in medicine, the earliest records go back over 4,000 years in China. Like the Chinese, other nations from Japan to Korea and Taiwan have built the use of medicinal mushrooms into their treatment of many serious diseases and even cancer.
This trend is not confined to South East Asia. If anything it is an important part of medicine in the West that we have forgotten. In the market of Le Muy in France every Sunday sits a man selling his Girolles and twenty other varieties, and he will tell you whether they can be used for colds, flu, arthritis or diabetes. Traditionally, they helped clean the blood. His father and grandfather taught him everything as they searched through the woods.
Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer in September 2008. After urgent surgery, followed by chemotherapy treatment he is no stranger to the world of conventional and alternative treatments. He struggled with the after effects of chemotherapy until January 2010. From the research Scott had already done on the medicinal qualities of mushrooms combined with Becca’s in depth understanding on the benefits of nutrition on health, they set about comprising a diet that would hopefully overcome his low immunity.
By the April 2010 Scott showed very little signs of illness and by the summer was ‘’as healthy as I’ve ever felt”. Now (Feb 2014) he is out of remission and looking forward to the birth of his first baby boy. He says “I have no doubt in my mind that a combination of shiitake mushrooms and other raw foods had significant impact in my recovery from chemotherapy. It is important to understand that any claim that says mushrooms cure cancer is not true. Some studies show significant effect and even the retreat of tumours but there is at the moment no conclusive clinical evidence on humans. These studies need to be further researched as all of this evidence from extremely credible institutions puts forward a very compelling case”.
Medicinal mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes - Maitake mushrooms, Cordyceps, Shiitake, Reishi, Coriolus Versicolor and so on. They have a number of general benefits, and each has a number of specific ones too.
Medicinal Mushrooms contain high levels of glycoproteins and polysaccharides (Beta Glucan Polysaccharide being a particularly active health contributor). Research, including 4 Nobel Prizes, shows that glycoproteins can help cellular communications. So they help your hormones do their job better, they help receptor sites receive the messages they are supposed to receive, and they help your immune system see the rogue cells and differentiate them from the healthy cells.
Not surprisingly, they also help increase levels of the different white cells in your immune system. Cancer Watch covered a story back in 2003 where Japanese Mushroom growers were shown to have cancer rates far less than the already low rates of the Japanese!
Alternative cancer cures?
• Maitake (Hen of The Woods)
This Mushroom contains rifolan, a beta glucan polysaccharide. This activates macrophages which search and engulf foreign invaders in the body. Another ingredient, termed d-fraction, stimulates the immune system at the cellular rather than blood stream level. d-fraction can be used on its own, but seems capable of enhancing the effect of cancer drugs whilst reducing side-effects such as nausea and hair loss. Clincal trial research (Kasylor) has shown reduction of side-effects by up to 95 per cent and improved effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. Maitake has been found in the Kobe College of Pharmacy to destroy tumours and to be helpful against leukaemia, stomach and bone cancers.
Maitake are common in Chinese and Japanese cooking, and both countries use them to treat blood pressure and liver disease. Now researchers at the New York Medical Center, led by Dr Sensuke Konno, the head of Uroloogy, have shown that an extract of Maitake mushrooms can shrink tumours of bladder and prostate cancers by as much as 75 per cent. In certain cases the tumours disappeared. Researchers believed this was because the active extract stopped a cancer-driving enzyme. They also used the extract in conjunction with interferons, which can boost the immune system. (British Journal of Urology - Dec 2009)
Shiitake have been used in medicine for years as a blood balancer and particularly for lowering cholesterol levels. It stimulates the immune system and can fight cancer cells and reduce the side effects of chemotherpapy. The National Cancer Center in Tokyo isolated lentinan, one of the active ingredients, and showed that the extract could reduce tumours in mice by 80 to 100 per cent.
Reishi contains polysaccharides that are effective in suppressing cancer cells. Research by Dr Fukumi Morisga at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine took a hot water extract of Reishi (which concentrates the active ingredients much more than you will find in retail products) and showed that when used in conjunction with vitamin C (which humans, unlike animals, cannot make), macrophage activity was greatly stimulated. In his paper he showed that all manner of cancers from brain tumours to breast cancer regressed over time. Some disappeared.
The faculty of science at Mahasarakham University, Thailand now has a museum dedicated to the mushroom, with case history after case history on successful cancer treatments from colon to lung. Biochemistry Professor Tae Woong Kim of the Korean National University says that the mushroom extracts kill cancer cells with no known side-effects or toxicity.
Several other studies (e.g. Leo JLD Van Griensven and Huub Savelkoul) have shown that beta glucans from these mushrooms can alter cytokine and T- and B-cell activity, prompting the view that the mushrooms would not just be applicable to fighting solid tumour cancers, but also in fighting blood cancers where the white cells themselves were in trouble (like leukaemia).
Now researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have studied this mushroom (Phellinus Linteus). In one test they found that neither the mushroom extract nor doxorubicin (a prostate cancer drug) were effective in small doses but the doxorubicin became effective at higher levels. When the mushroom extract was added, the results were much better still, with many more cancer cells killed (British Journal of Cancer August 2006). Previous studies in 2005 (Drug Discovery Today) showed that Reishi, Ganoderma lucidium, restricted blood vessels to prostate cancer tumours and stopped cancer cell multiplying.
What Cancer research say
• Mushrooms and cancer
Many websites discuss using mushrooms to treat cancer. From time to time this also comes up in the media. There is currently no evidence that any type of mushroom or mushroom extract can prevent or cure cancer.
There are many different types of mushroom. Mushrooms are part of the fungus family. In some countries such as Japan, China and Korea particular types of mushroom form a large part of the diet. In recent years, there has been research into different types of mushroom and mushroom extracts or compounds. Studies have looked at whether mushrooms can prevent cancer, stop the growth of cancer cells, reduce cancer treatment side effects, or help people with advanced cancer to live longer.
• UK mushrooms
Button mushrooms and flat mushrooms are eaten commonly in the UK. They are very nutritious as food because they contain all the essential amino acids and are an excellent source of vitamins. But there is no evidence that they can prevent or treat cancer.
• Exotic mushrooms
Exotic mushrooms are found in areas such as Japan, Korea and China. They include varieties such as the shiitake, enoke and oyster mushroom. More than 100 species of mushroom are documented by Chinese medicine practitioners as treatments for a wide range of illnesses. There are different ways of taking these mushrooms. They can be eaten fresh or dried. Or extracts can be taken as food supplements.
In China, Japan and Korea purified compounds are used alongside chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In the UK, powdered reishi, shiitake and maitaki mushrooms are available. Elixirs of their juice are also sometimes available. These can be bought from health food shops. There is nothing in the mushrooms or compounds that would be harmful as far as we know. But we don't currently know how helpful they are in cancer care and we need more research.
In 2000, a report published by Cancer Research UK and the University of Strathclyde looked at different types of mushroom in relation to cancer. The review found some Japanese studies that used a particular type of exotic mushroom extract a week before people started cancer treatment. The extract appeared to reduce the side effects of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, including sickness and hair loss.
Some studies seemed to show that these mushrooms could stimulate the immune system to fight disease. There is some evidence from a Japanese study that people who eat a particular type of mushroom all their lives have a lower risk of getting cancer. In some people mushrooms did seem to affect their cancer. But we have to be very cautious about the results because most of these early trials were not randomised or controlled. So, there was no proper comparison made between patients having the mushrooms and similar patients not being treated with mushrooms or drugs developed from mushrooms. So the studies can't really show whether the mushrooms helped or not.
• Shiitake mushrooms and their extracts
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia but are grown worldwide for their supposed health benefits. They are valued in some cultures as an anti cancer agent. The fresh and dried forms of the mushroom are commonly used in East Asian cooking. Extracts from the mushroom, and sometimes the whole dried mushroom, are used in herbal remedies.
One shiitake extract called lentinan is a beta glucan. This is a type of complex sugar compound. Beta glucan is believed to stimulate the immune system and trigger certain cells and proteins in the body to attack cancer cells. In laboratory studies, it seems to slow the growth of cancer in some cell cultures.
In mice, lentinan has been shown to stop the growth of bowel cancer cells. In laboratory tests, the protein part of lentinan (lentin) can stop the growth of some fungal cells. It can also stop leukaemic cells dividing.
Some Japanese researchers give lentinan along with chemotherapy to treat patients with lung, nose, throat, and stomach cancers. A recent clinical trial didn't show that it helped to treat prostate cancer. Some doctors in Japan use another shiitake extract called eritadenine.
There is limited evidence that lentinan, given alongside chemotherapy, could help some patients with advanced stomach cancer. But we need larger scale studies before we will know how shiitake extracts can help people with cancer. More clinical trials are currently under way to understand which compounds in shiitake mushrooms might work as cancer treatments.
• Maitake mushrooms and maitake extracts
Maitake mushrooms and the maitake D-fraction prepared from them contain the sugar compound called beta glucan (sometimes called beta glycan).
Japanese studies using an injectable type of maitake-D have found that it boosted the immune system and slowed or stopped the spread of breast and liver cancer in animal studies. A phase 1 study is currently being carried out in the USA to see whether beta glucan can help a biological therapy called rituximab to work better. It is for young patients with lymphoma or leukemia that has come back after previous treatment. Another trial is looking at whether maitake extract has any effect on breast cancer.
A US study tested another complex sugar compound from maitake mushrooms called grifola frondosa in breast cancer patients. The study aimed to find out if the extract affected the immune system. Patients took the extract by mouth for 3 weeks. The researchers took blood tests to measure any effects. One patient stopped taking the extract because of sickness and joint swelling. Another stopped because of a rash and itching. The researchers found that the extract stimulated some immune functions but depressed others. So we don't yet know whether this compound can help the immune system to fight cancer.
• Agaricus sylvaticus mushroom
A Brazilian study gave patients agaricus sylvaticus mushrooms as part of their diet after bowel cancer surgery. It found that patients who had the mushrooms had a better quality of life compared to patients who did not have the mushrooms. The benefits included
• More ability to do physical exercise
• Less feeling sick
• Better mood
• Fewer aches and pains
• Better sleep
• Better appetite
• Less abdominal pain, especially after eating
• Fewer bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, and wind
• Phellinus linteus mushroom extracts
Used for centuries in Eastern Ancient medicine, this extract is believed to refresh bodies and extend life. Phellinus linteus is known as song gen in Chinese medicine, sang-hwang in Korean and meshimakobu in Japanese. Recent studies have shown that this type of mushroom extract slows the growth of breast cancer cells in the laboratory. It has also been shown to have anti cancer effects on skin, lung and prostate cancer cells.
One study showed that when used in combination with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, the extract increased the number of prostate cancer cells killed. We have to be cautious about such early research though. Substances that can kill cells in laboratory conditions don't necessarily turn out to be useful treatments in people.
• Safety of mushroom and mushroom extracts
There are no known side effects from eating normal amounts of mushrooms in our diet. Mushroom extracts are classed as dietary supplements. Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements.
Shiitake mushroom extracts are generally considered safe, although there are some reports of diarrhoea or bloating. With other types of mushroom there are some reports of allergic reactions affecting the skin, nose, throat, or lungs.