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Medicinal Mushrooms: An Ancient Alternative to Synthetic Drugs

The potential for fungi, or mushrooms as we call them in the grocery store, to benefit mankind as a nutraceutical has become mind-boggling. Recent studies are forming the foundation of a new platform for fungi in the development of new medicines, medicinal foods, and food supplements.

Our relationship with mushrooms is long and fascinating. The Egyptians believed they were a gift from the god Osiris, while the ancient Romans thought they resulted from the lightning thrown to earth by Jupiter during storms--which explained their sudden appearance--as if by magic. But there are records going back to the Chinese Chow Dynasty, revealing that mushrooms were in use 3,000 years ago for food and medicine.

Mushrooms are a valuable health food--low in calories, high in vegetable proteins, chitin, iron, zinc, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They are high in B vitamins, phosphorus, and potassium. Even a handful of regular button mushrooms (Agaricus) will supply all the vitamin B-12 you need for the day. This is vital to know if you are a vegetarian or Vegan. Modern researchers are now most focused on the medicinal and healing capabilities of mushrooms.

In the United States, several major discoveries in medicine were derived from lower organisms such as molds and yeast. The antibiotics penicillin, tetracycline, and auremycin, were considered miraculous drugs for treating infections and other communicable diseases. Cyclosporin, derived from a fungus that uses insects as a host, has contributed to the rapid advancements made with organ transplants. Cyclosporin suppresses the immune system of transplant patients, which in turn lowers the rate of tissue rejection. Interestingly enough, these same lower organisms are used to produce bread, beer, wine, cheese, organic acids, and vitamins. This includes vitamin C, so the vitamin C tablet you may be taking might be a fungal by-product.

Ethnobotanic drugs are efficacious in treating a broad spectrum of ailments. It is estimated that over 25% of all prescribed medications in Britain and North America were developed from higher plants. Notable examples of drugs developed from these plants are: aspirin-for pain relief, codeine-for pain and cough, digitoxin-as a cardiotonic, quinine-for malaria, and taxol-as an anticancer drug.

According to some estimates, there may be 20,000 species of mushrooms of which 2,000 are nutritious and edible. Of these edible mushrooms, 300 are known to be medically active. Their legendary effects on promoting good health and vitality and increasing your body's adaptive abilities have been supported by numerous recent studies. These studies suggest that mushrooms are probiotic. In basic terms, they assist our body to strengthen itself and it's own immunities, and fight off illness by maintaining physiological Mycoinfoostasis. Mycoinfoostasis in the body is simply balance, with a natural resistance to diseases that we encounter daily.

The compounds that mushrooms contain have been classified as Host Defense Potentiators (HDP). These enhance the abilities of our immune system to protect itself. The compounds found in the shiitake, and reishi mushrooms are in this category. These disease inhibiting compounds include: hemicellulose (AHCC), polysaccharides, polysaccharide-peptides, nucleosides, triterpeniods, complex starches, and other metabolites. In combination they strengthen the immune system, aid in neuron transmissions, metabolism, hormonal balance, and the transport of nutrients and oxygen. Much work needs to be done to adequately characterize these molecules.

The Japanese FDA has licensed one extract (lentinan), derived from the shiitake as an anti-cancer drug. It stimulates the production of T- lymphocytes and other natural killer cells in the body. This has been effective in bowel, liver, stomach, ovarian, and lung cancers. Shiitake mushrooms may also lower blood pressure in those with hypertension, lower serum cholesterol levels, increase libido, and stimulate the productionof interferon which has vital anti-viral effects.

The reishi mushroom can increase the production of interleukin 1 & 2, resulting in inhibition of tumor growth. Studies show that reishican have a number of other positive effects on the body such as analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral (through it's interferon production), lowers blood pressure, acts as a cardiotonic (by lowering serum cholesterol), expectorant, anti-tussive, liver protecting and detoxifying, protection against ionizing radiation, antibacterial, and anti- HIV activity.

These are just two examples of mushrooms with medicinal value.It is important to emphasize that they support our systems best when we maintain a well regulated body. Vitamin and mineral supplements should be taken on a regular basis with a well balanced variety of fresh foods, good sleep, and positive daily attitudes and practices. Sometimes because of deficiencies or imbalances in these areas, it allows pathogens to attack our bodies, and we get sick. We already live in artificial environments where air is filtered and food is processed.

The good news is: if we can keep our immune system functioning efficiently, and strengthen our daily programs with natural immunity building supplements such as mushrooms, we can minimize the frequency and severity of illnesses, and recover more quickly.

*This is an informational summary of the health and medicinal benefits of mushrooms suggested by recent research; it does not constitute claims for any product. This information has not been evaluated by a Health Professional or Practitioner. A list of references can be found on: HTTP://health.pon.net/healthref.html

The information in this article was compiled by:
James Malachowski - webmaster & mycologist
David Law - pioneer in mushroom nutraceuticals
Gloria Salinas Oatman also contributed

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