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April 15, 2014 at 9:20 PMComments: 0 Faves: 4

Mushrooms In Medicine

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Tonight I had a delicious salad with greens, vinaigrette and mushrooms. After polishing off a fair share I fascinated in these fungi, marveling at the diversity. As a delicacy, they are highly sought after. Prices for morel mushrooms are through the roof and mushroom hunters are just gearing up this spring to scour the forest floors for these prizes. On the other hand, mushrooms can be dangerous. Ignorance to the subtleties in appearance between edible and poisonous varieties can be deadly.

These fungi have been the crux of assassination plots and accidental deaths over the years adding to their allure and mystery. Beyond this, the "magic" of mushrooms has been exploited as hallucinogenic drugs as well from Native American rituals to the hippie revolution. Suffice it to say that the role of mushrooms has been diverse in our society!  Lesser known, but equally important though, is their use as medicine.

The Basics

In their scientific classification, mushrooms exist in the fungi kingdom and narrow together within the same phylum, class, family and genus. Within this singular genus, there are over 14,000 species of mushrooms. Mushrooms are characterized as the fruiting body of certain fungi that grow above ground with a stem, a cap and gills under the cap that release spores.  The use of mushrooms in medicine is known to have occurred as early as the 29th century B.C. noted in Chinese documents, but in present times, isolation of several compounds from mushroom species have yielded helpful medications.

As fungi, mushrooms by their nature are organisms that thrive in harsh conditions and environments with rapid decomposition. These properties and the substances that support this talent are drawing attention from scientists studying cancer and ways to combat this huge health problem.

Cancer Therapy

For cancer to be successful, it needs to get around the body's immune system. But with a couple mushroom species, scientists have found an enhancement of the body's immune system. Another ability in these extracts - actually mimicking the cancer's genetic material and prevent reproduction of the cells! And another trial with another species of mushroom showed improvements in the ability of immune cells called "natural killer cells."

In patients also on chemotherapy, expected side effects of the chemo agents were actually reduced in those taking the mushroom supplement. One further study of yet another mushroom species showed reduction in damage to cells from oxidation and preservation of normal DNA in the duplication and turn-over of cells.

Medicinal Mushrooms

You don't need to have cancer to benefit though. Mushroom-derived extracts have also been suggested to improve blood sugar controls in diabetes, promote weight loss, enhance the immune system, and boost metabolism.

However, though plenty is observed in scientific data on potential medicinal properties of mushrooms, these findings are quite early in the game for becoming FDA-approved medications. Such products have not undergone the scrutiny of randomized placebo-controlled testing.

If you would like to explore this further, I recommend leaving the main stream at this point and pursuing things from an alternative perspective. Chinese herbalists may have more availability and knowledge in the use of these potentially beneficial mushroom products. This is one of those cases where modern medicine may be centuries behind traditional medication!

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