What You Should Know About Medicinal Mushrooms
Is there a market for medicinal mushrooms?
Over the past twenty years there has been a steady flow of articles on reishi, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms and their healing properties. This flow has increased dramatically, to the point where in 2010, articles appeared in many separate publications. Whereas there were only 2 or three mushroom products on the market twenty years ago, today there are hundreds, with more appearing each day. Considering that reishi has a history of use that spans 2 thousand years and is as highly revered in the Orient as ginseng, one could readily compare its market potential to ginseng.
What exactly is a mushroom?
Mushrooms are the fruiting body and reproductive structure of a higher order fungus organism, much like an apple is the fruit of an apple tree. The actual mushroom ‘tree’ is a fine threadlike network called mycelium. This mycelium is for the most part subterranean, living in soil, logs and other organic matter. Unlike green plants, which produce many of their own nutrients by photosynthesis, mushrooms primarily obtain nutrients from dead organic matter or soil. As one of nature’s recyclers, mushroom mycelium secretes enzymes which allow it to absorb the nutrients of the myriad waste materials produced each year by trees, plants and animals. These nutrients are amassed in the growing mycelial network until proper environmental conditions are present, at which time a mushroom springs forth. At maturity this mushroom releases spores, which spread on wind currents and germinate when a suitable medium is found, forming a new mycelial body and starting the cycle over again.
Do mushrooms have any nutritional value?
Edible mushrooms are indeed nutritious. They are a good source of B vitamins, especially niacin and riboflavin, and rank the highest among vegetables for protein content. Because they are low in calories, Western nutritionists mistakenly considered them of no food value. What is important to understand is that mushroom cell walls are made up of a high percentage of chitin, a polysaccharide difficult for humans to digest. In order to break down the chitinous cell walls and release the nutrients, mushrooms should be cooked or processed in some way.
How are medicinal mushrooms used?
The reishi mushroom is classified botanically as a polypore, a group of hard, woody, bracket-like mushrooms that decompose wood. Because of this hard and woody nature, reishi is not eaten, but cut into pieces and made into a tea. This traditional water decoction involves boiling reishi at low temperatures for 2-6 hours. The water soluble compounds are left in the decoction and the mushroom pieces are discarded. A water decoction will contain most of the polysaccharides and some, but not all of the triterpenes.
Actually eating reishi, besides being relatively unpalatable, would produce few if any of its medicinal effects. As was discussed earlier, the chitinous cell walls of most mushrooms make them harder to digest. Commercial grinders can mill reishi mushrooms fine enough for humans to digest them. The reishi mushroom, therefore, should be looked upon as a product for use in an herbal tea, or as raw material for further processing. Other mushrooms can be eaten for their nutrients, but a water extract is the best way to get a truly medicinal quantity.
Other than a mushroom tea, is there another way to take Reishi?
In the Orient today, a large percentage of the reishi mushrooms are processed into water extracts or water/alcohol extract powders. Alcohol extracts have a distinct advantage in that they remove the water insoluble components from the mushroom. This gives alcohol extracts higher levels of triterpenoids than a water extract. Alcohol extracts will contain all of the important active compounds. Unlike many herbal extracts, the actual reishi mushroom is discarded after extraction, leaving only the pure extract powder.
How do I know whether a reishi mushroom or extract contains the medicinal compounds?
Reishi mushrooms and extracts in particular are generally analyzed for specific triterpenoids called Ganoderic acids. These compounds are an important indicator of potency and have become the Japanese standard. Triterpenoids give reishi its characteristic bitter taste, although this taste cannot be relied upon as a true indicator of triterpene quantity.
So triterpenoids allow reishi mushrooms and extracts to be analyzed and standardized?
Yes, and this is important when any company tries to sort through the suppliers. Nammex was the first company to supply a triterpenoid analysis of its reishi mushrooms and extract. In fact, our standard has now become the industry standard. Ask your supplier if they have an analysis of their product.
Is the mushroom mycelium used medicinally?
Mycelium is another active form of medicinal mushrooms. Propagation of mycelium presents an effective method of producing these organisms in a totally controlled, standardized and hygienic manner. In this regard it is a process very similar to the pharmaceutical production of antibiotics. Pioneered in China and Japan, large scale propagation of mycelia in high capacity fermentation tanks is revolutionizing the production of medicinal mushrooms. The advantages of mushroom mycelium, beyond strict production control, are the lower production costs and more importantly, the ability to process and extract the soft mycelium, thereby breaking down the chitinous cell walls and making it fully digestible. Reishi mycelium also contains higher levels of polysaccharides than the mushrooms, but fewer triterpenoids. Mycelia extracts such as PSK and PSP are significant advances in mycelial production.
What about mycelia grown on grain?
Mycelia grown on grain has fewer medicinal activities than pure mycelia or mushroom powder. The amount of mycelia in a grain based product will by the nature of the production process be diluted by the grain substrate. The result is that it takes a lot of product to get any medicinal value. Because of the lack of potency, grain based mycelia may be the most expensive product, gram for gram, on the market. We advise our customers to stay clear of these products.
I’ve heard of a shiitake product called LEM. What is it?
LEM stands for Lentinus edodes mycelia. The production process involves the propagation of mycelia on a lignin/cellulose substrate material which is then extracted in fermentation tanks under sterile conditions. A natural enzymatic breakdown of the mycelial cell walls releases the bound-up polysaccharides. A highly active lignin compound is also produced. This compound has demonstrated antiviral and immunopotentiating properties. The LEM extract liquid is filtered, concentrated and dried to a powder. A similar extract from reishi mycelia is REM. These are examples of high quality products manufactured from mycelia.
How is LEM different from KS-2?
KS-2 is a protein-bound polysaccharide produced by extracting pure shiitake mycelia. Whereas mycelia are grown on a solid medium of ligno-cellulosic material to produce LEM, mycelia are propagated in a liquid medium to produce KS-2. Tests have shown KS-2 and LEM to be orally active at relatively low doses.
Why are protein-bound polysaccharides important?
Scientific research on medicinal mushrooms has primarily been concerned with finding biologically active compounds. This type of pharmacological research follows fairly standard guidelines. Screen the mushroom for specific categories of compounds, purify the compounds and submit them to specialized activity tests. Those pure compounds with activity are subjected to further research and can also provide useful markers for quality control. An example of this is lentinan, a pure polysaccharide from shiitake. Further research with lentinan resulted in the development of an injectable drug. Similar research with maitake demonstrated that purified polysaccharides are more active by injection than orally. Because of this work and other work with compounds from Coriolus mushrooms, namely PSK and PSP, it is now apparent that protein-bound polysaccharides have increased oral activity. One such compound from maitake is MT-1, (also called D-fraction). Until recently most researchers have ignored these compounds because the focus of most research is the discovery of new drugs, which must be pure compounds. It can now be assumed that the oral activity of medicinal mushrooms in general is influenced by this protein linkage.
What is the difference between reishi, shiitake, and maitake?
All of these mushrooms contain active polysaccharides, which have been the focus of research regarding their effects on cancer and immune system dysfunction. Polysaccharides can have different linkages, and these linkages have an effect on activity. Because of this, certain mushrooms are more active against specific tumors than other mushrooms. Research continues and will uncover more of these specific activities in the future.
Some mushrooms contain important compounds not found in other mushrooms. Two important medicinal mushrooms that contain triterpenes are reishi and chaga. Because of this, these mushrooms are in some ways special.
What about blending many mushrooms together?
There are some claims that putting many mushroom species together into one product creates a synergy and is therefore highly advantageous. There is simply not enough research to make such a claim. In fact, Traditional Chinese Medicine does not support this approach, although they do in fact formulate many products. But they would never just blend multiple species of similar plants together. It is actually a shotgun approach that ultimately gives such small amounts of each mushroom as to be less effective. Worse yet, many of these 7-15 mushroom blends are not even mushrooms, but just mycelia grown on a grain substrate.