Georges M. Halpern, MD, PhD, attended medical school at the University of Paris. He subsequently received a PhD from the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Paris XI-Chatenay Malabry.
1. An Introduction to Healing Mushrooms, 1
2. Mushrooms: East and West, 9
3. The Healing Power of Mushrooms, 19
4. Maitake, 35
5. Shiitake, 47
6. Reishi, 55
7. Cordyceps Sinensis, 65
8. Agaricus Blazei, 87
9. Phellinus Linteus. 95
10. Trametes Versicolor 99
11. Hericium Erinaceus 107
12. Miscellaneous Mushrooms, 113
13. Mushroom Cultivation, 121
14. A Buyer’s Guide to Mushrooms, 127
Mushroom Recipes, 149
An Introduction to Healing Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used as medicines by humans for 5,000 years or more. As you will see, many mushrooms have properties that can improve your health and well-being. This book presents the fascinating story of eight healing mushrooms: maitake, reishi, shiitake, Cordyceps sinensis, Agaricus blazei, Phellinus linteus, Trametes versicolor, and Hericium erinaceus. It explains how ancient peoples used these mushrooms and the promise they bring for healing and preventing illness in the modern world. This book presents the latest scientific and clinical research and describes the most up-to-date experiments and conjectures about mushrooms and their power to heal.
FUNGI AND MUSHROOMS IN NATURE
What we call a “mushroom” is the fruit-body of a fungus, the reproductive part of the fungus that grows above ground and releases spores, the seedlike elements from which new fungi are made. Much as fruit is the reproductive organ of a fruit tree, a mushroom is the reproductive organ of a fungus. Typically, spores sprout from the gills, the thin brown tissue found on the underside of the mushroom cap. Borne by the wind, some kinds of spores are capable of traveling great distances from the fruit-body to start their own fungus colonies. Mushrooms produce prodigious numbers of spores. A giant puffball, for example, may produce 20 trillion: it has been calculated that if every spore from the giant puffball sprouted and grew to maturity, it would form a mass three times the size of the sun! The spores are produced in such large numbers to guarantee the spread of the fungus in the environment. Mycologist Elio Schaechter has written about spores, “Lavishness is necessary; rare is the spore that germinates into successful fungal growth. Such wastefulness, however, is not unlike the production of millions of unsuccessful sperm cells by the human male.”
Not all fungi, however, produce mushrooms. Some are able to create spores and reproduce without bearing a fruit-body. Fungi that reproduce without a sexual stage are called imperfect fungi, or fungi imperfecti.
In nature, fungi are the great recyclers. To feed itself, but also to assist plants in getting the nutrients they need, a fungus breaks down organic matter into essential elements. According to recent estimates by David Hawksworth, there are over 1,500,000 species of fungi on earth. Mushrooms constitute at least 14,000, and perhaps as many as 22,000, known species, but this may be less than 10% of the total. Assuming that the proportion of useful mushrooms among the undiscovered mushrooms will be only 5%, there may be thousands of as yet undiscovered species that will be of possible benefit to humankind. Even among the known species the proportion of well-investigated mushrooms is very low. About 700 species are eaten as food, and 50 or so species are poisonous.
Fungi make up about a quarter of the biomass of the earth. They need organic matter to feed on, develop, and grow; hence, they are found almost everywhere except on inlandsis, or above 25,000 feet. Strange as it may seem, seeing as they are usually associated with rot and decay, fungi are something of a cleanser in that they transform dead organic matter into nutrients that plants and animals can feed on. Without fungi, matter would not break down and decompose, and the world would be crowded with dead animals and plants.
Every fungus begins as a tiny, seedlike spore. Spores are carried by wind and water. When a spore lands in a hospitable place--a moist place that is not too hot or cold and is near a food source--it may germinate and start a new fungus colony. At that point, the spore grows hyphae, the fine, threadlike strands from which the mycelium is made. The mycelium is the feeding body of the mushroom. Composed of a latticework of interconnected hyphae threads, it is for the most part subterranean, living in soil or decayed wood, much like the root system of a plant. It can feed on almost any organic substrate: soil, wood rot, or food left for too long in the pantry.
Mushrooms are not green like many other plants because they do not contain chlorophyll, the green pigment associated with photosynthesis. In spring and summer, the most abundant substance in leaves is chlorophyll, which gives them their green color. Chlorophyll is essential for photosynthesis, the process which converts the energy of sunlight into sugar. Sunlight is also necessary for the synthesis of chlorophyll itself. During summer when the days are long and sunlight is plentiful, chlorophyll is synthesized in a steady, abundant supply, so that throughout the season the leaves remain green.
How fast and how large the mycelium grows depends on environmental factors such as soil temperature and the accessibility of food. Researchers have reported finding a mycelium beneath the soil of Michigan that is 1,500 years old and 35 acres wide, and weighs 100 tons. This mycelium is from the fungus Armillaria bulbosa, a root pathogen of aspen. Using molecular methods, the researchers mapped the extent of the fungus genome to show that the mycelium germinated from a single spore. (In case you’re in the neighborhood, the researchers place the monster on the upper peninsula of Michigan at 45°58'28" N, 88°21'46" W.)
The mycelium insinuates itself into the substrate on which it feeds. It secretes complex enzymes that break down organic material in such a way that the fungus can absorb food from the substrate. Research has shown that these complex enzymes act as a growth stimulus to nearby plants. They degrade organic material so that important nutrients are returned to the soil where plants can feed on them. In this way, fungi provide the raw material for trees and plants.
Fungi are essential for a healthy forest. If there are no fungi in the soil, plants cannot grow because they cannot break down and absorb nutrients without the help of fungi. One group of mushrooms called the mycorrhizae attach themselves to the roots of trees. They act like a secondary root system, reaching deep into the soil to get nutrients that the tree could not otherwise get and passing these nutrients upward to the tree. In return, trees provide the mycorrhizal fungus with a set of nutrients that they need to grow. The fungus and tree work together in a symbiotic partnership, with some plant growth hormones produced by fungi. Many plants cannot survive without fungi.
In effect, fungi are molecular disassemblers: they take the complex compounds created by plants, such as cellulose, carbohydrates, and protein, and disassemble them so that plants can digest them. By contrast, plants are molecular assemblers, taking very simple compounds such as water, nitrogen, and carbon and combining them into complex forms such as protein, carbohydrates, and cellulose.
Some scientists believe that the ability of mushrooms to break down organic matter in nature is linked to their medicinal properties for humans. Fungi live in a hostile environment in the midst of decay at the harshest layer of the ecosystem. They encounter disease-causing pathogens far more frequently than other life-forms. To survive, they must have proactive, healthy immune functions. Some scientists believe that the antipathogenic properties developed by mushrooms as a survival mechanism are precisely what make them valuable to the human immune system.
Fungi, in their own small way, may exhibit a primitive intelligence. How else can one explain advanced behavior on the part of certain fungi, such as Cordyceps curculionum and the amoeba-like slime mold Physarum polycephalum?
Cordyceps refers to different varieties of fungi that grow and feed on the bodies of insects. (Chapter 7 of this book describes Cordyceps sinensis, a mushroom that grows from the bodies of caterpillars in the mountains of China and Nepal.) In the case of Cordyceps curculionum, the spore attaches itself to an ant, germinates, begins feeding, and grows into a small mushroom. The ant, meanwhile, with the mushroom riding piggyback, goes about its normal business. One day, however, the ant is seized with a sudden desire to climb a tree, and up it goes. When it reaches a height sufficient for the release of the Cordyceps curculionum spores, the ant digs its mandibles into the tree and remains there for the rest of its life. When it finally dies, the spores are released from on high and are spread far and wide on the forest floor. Cordyceps curculionum shows admirable restraint by not eating the ant right away, a display of moderation in the presence of food that seems to demonstrate a level of intelligence.
To test the intelligence of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum, Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center, in Nagoya, Japan, placed pieces of the mold in the middle of a five-square-inch maze. In the two exit points of the maze, he placed a food source, ground oat flakes. The idea was to see whether the fungus would abandon its normal method of foraging for food--by spreading outward from a central point of germination--and instead grow directly toward the food sources. To his surprise, Nakagaki discovered that the mold did indeed go straight toward the food sources. The organism stretched itself in a thin line along the contours of the maze until it reached the exit points. Similar to a laboratory rat, the slime mold was able to negotiate the maze and find the food.
MUSHROOMS AND THE CONNECTION TO THE EARTH
In the distant human past, all plants and animals were seen as repositories of secret power that could be used for good or ill. In a sense, the whole world was a pharmacopoeia. Our ancestors’ relationship to the food they ate was very different from ours. They understood nourishment in a different way than we do: food was sacred and our ancestors believed that the plants and animals they ate were gifts from the divine. Plants and animals had spirits, and when you ate a plant or animal, you partook of its spirit as well.
In our day, most people would have trouble explaining where their food was grown or how it came to the table at which they sit. Too few people appreciate the expertise and effort that goes into cultivating and growing food. We have lost the primal connection to the food we put in our bodies and with it, we have lost our connection to the earth. Most of us understand food in terms of flavor and texture, but we don’t understand that food is our connection to the earth and its vital energy.
Mushrooms are potent medicines and contain many nutrients. Mushrooms, which grow so close to the earth, have a grounding effect. When you take a medicinal mushroom, you get back in touch with the essential forces of the earth. You tap into the sustaining power that incites the animal to endeavor and the plant to grow no matter what the obstacle. Humankind has been nourished by medicinal mushrooms for many centuries. We look forward to new discoveries by which modern science will harness mushrooms’ medicinal power for the good of humankind in the years to come.
LOOKING AT THE EVIDENCE
Many claims are made for medicinal mushrooms. Sometimes out of sheer enthusiasm and sometimes for commercial motives, authors make exaggerated claims. A few of these claims border on the outlandish. For example, the label on a medicinal mushroom product from China claims the following: “Effective on cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, headaches, colds, and impotence.” Claims like these raise false hopes. Worse, they cause people to be cynical about medicinal mushrooms and herbal remedies in general.
For this book, I was careful to examine sources of information to make sure that they were reliable. Except for historical purposes, I have endeavored to cite only studies and experiments that were undertaken in the past five or six years in order to present the most current information about medicinal mushrooms.
Throughout this book, I present scientific studies on medicinal mushrooms, their immune-modulating capabilities, and their curative properties. Most of these studies were done in the East--in China, Korea, and Japan. Western science has been slow to catch up to the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Many of the studies that are now being conducted in the West were inspired by studies made in the East.
I believe that the referenced studies conducted in China, Korea, and Japan are valid, following the highest standards of scientific protocol. The methods used in the East may vary from those in the West, but the scientists uphold rigorous standards and undertake their studies in the spirit of honest inquiry. The studies I present in this book have been subjected to peer-review by panels of international scientists. Some in the West have been quick to criticize scientific data from the East, but I believe that this criticism is unwarranted.
No medicinal mushroom is a cure-all and no mushroom can make the body unassailable to disease. What mushrooms can do is stimulate the immune response, giving a powerful boost to the functions of the body that are already in place for preventing and fighting disease. Only a balanced view can convince the doubters and promote medicinal mushrooms as a means of healing the body and preventing disease.
A WORD ABOUT TAKING MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
Finding and working with a health-care professional who understands alternative medicines may be essential if you intend to use unfamiliar treatments. Be sure to let your physician know if you are using an alternative medicine. Your physician can advise you according to your needs and also help monitor the effects of the medicine on your health. Moreover, keeping informed about the latest findings in the health field is essential for your good health.
Scientific research into medicinal mushrooms is still in its infancy. From a medical standpoint, we have only now begun to understand all the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. As more research is conducted, the studies recounted in this book will fade into footnotes. Advances in medical technology will permit research into medicinal mushrooms to go much deeper than it has now.
WHY NOT GET MUSHROOMS IN THE SUPERMARKET?
Some of the mushrooms described in this book can be purchased in gourmet markets and supermarkets. That begs the question, “Can culinary mushrooms provide the same health benefits as medicinal mushroom products?”
Culinary mushrooms are an aid to health. They appear to be a good source of B vitamins, iron, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, and ascorbic acid. By proportion to weight, mushrooms are high in polyunsaturated fats. Cultivated varieties contain large amounts of carbohydrates and fiber. On a dry-weight basis, a mushroom is high in protein, and mushroom proteins contain essential amino acids.
The relationship between good health and a diet rich in mushrooms came to the attention of modern science when health researchers noticed that people who eat mushrooms seem to be healthier than other people. In Japan, for example, scientists discovered fewer incidences of cancer in shiitake-growing regions (shiitake is described in chapter 5). Assuming that people who lived in these regions ate the shiitake mushroom often, scientists wanted to see whether shiitake had anticancer properties. They ran many tests on shiitake and discovered lentinan, the third most widely prescribed anticancer drug in the world.
Some mushrooms are better than others. Shiitake, for example, stimulates the immune system about a hundred times more than the common white button mushroom. Maitake (described in chapter 4) does much more to aid the immune system than do morels, portobellos, chanterelles, or any other culinary mushroom. Still, all mushrooms are excellent for your health. The difference between culinary mushrooms and medicinal mushrooms is that medicinal mushrooms are a class above their culinary cousins.
Taking a mushroom product in capsule or powder form has distinct advantages because most mushroom products are made from the mycelium, the feeding body of the mushroom that grows underground. Mycelium is a potent substance, nature’s way of concentrating the beneficial compounds of mushrooms. When you buy a culinary mushroom, however, you buy the fruit-body. Fruit-bodies do not always contain the potent concentrations of polysaccharides that are found in mycelium. (Mycologists are currently perfecting cultivation techniques whereby the fruit-body of mushrooms can contain potent concentrations of polysaccharides.)
What’s more, medicinal mushroom products are more hygienic. The organically grown mycelium powder is sterilized before it is pressed into pills or poured into capsules. Because nonorganic, store-bought mushrooms are often sprayed with pesticides, eating them regularly may actually be harmful. For that reason, I recommend buying culinary mushrooms at special food stores and other places where organic products are sold. Taking medicinal mushrooms in pills or capsules is easier on the digestive system, too. The mycelium finds its way into the body faster than the fruit-bodies of mushrooms do.
WHAT YOU WILL FIND IN THIS BOOK
Chapter 2 looks at mushrooms in Eastern and Western cultures, how they have been both revered and reviled throughout history. Because the use of mushrooms in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is mentioned throughout this book, this chapter also takes a quick look at the concepts of TCM.
As you will discover, mushrooms can make you healthy in many different ways, but they do so chiefly by awakening the immune system and making it more alert. For that reason, chapter 3 examines the active ingredients in mushrooms and how these ingredients activate various parts of the immune system.
Following this discussion are eight chapters about healing mushrooms. Each chapter describes a mushroom’s character, the history of its use as a medicine, its healing properties, its folklore, and presents the latest scientific studies conducted on that specific medicinal mushroom. In chapter 4, you will read about maitake, a culinary mushroom that lowers cholesterol and helps against diabetes, among other things. Chapter 5 describes shiitake, the delicious culinary mushroom that many believe can help prevent AIDS. Chapter 6 is about reishi, the “mushroom of immortality,” its use by ancient Taoist priests, and its antitumor and antioxidant effects.
Chapter 7 describes Cordyceps sinensis, the anti-aging and stamina-building mushroom that generated so many headlines in 1993 when the coach of the Chinese women’s track team credited it for helping his runners break three world records in a single week. Chapter 8 concerns Agaricus blazei, the unusual mushroom from Brazil that many believe has the strongest antitumor activity. Chapter 9 looks at Phellinus linteus, a mushroom that has long been cherished in Korea as an aid against stomach ailments and arthritis. Chapter 10 examines Trametes versicolor, the mushroom from which Krestin, one of the world’s foremost anticancer drugs, is derived. Chapter 11 delves into Hericium erinaceus, a mushroom that may hold promise as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Chapter 12 deals with diverse medicinal mushrooms that have been studied only recently; some of them may well be the stars of tomorrow.
Chapter 13 takes you behind the scenes, where you discover how medicinal mushrooms are cultivated. In chapter 14, you’ll learn what to look for when shopping for healing mushroom products.