What are vital mushrooms (or also called "medicinal mushrooms") actually?
Vital mushrooms are those types of mushrooms that are assumed to have a healing effect and that have been scientifically well studied. Of the approximately 1.5 million species of fungi known to us, there are about a dozen fungi that fall into this category as of today.
Vital mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 5000 years. But even in conventional medicine in Japan and China, some medicinal mushrooms have been an integral part for almost 40 years, especially in the context of cancer therapy.
What substances are contained in medicinal mushrooms?
All medicinal mushrooms contain numerous trace elements, minerals (e.g. potassium, which lowers blood pressure) and dietary fiber (especially beta-glucans).
Beta-glucans are responsible for the positive effect on the immune system (see the following section), but they also have an antibacterial effect, have an antioxidant effect on many parts of the body and can close holes like "paste", which is the case, for example, in the context of leaky gut or other diseases in the gastrointestinal tract is relevant, and which will be discussed in detail below.
The triterpenes, the essential oils of medicinal mushrooms, are also of great importance. Reishi probably contains the highest proportion of triterpenes, although they are found in all medicinal mushrooms. These are messenger substances and defense substances in the fungi that have an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effect in the human organism.
Other ingredients include statins, which inhibit excessive cholesterol formation, and glycoproteins and lectins, which are among the most powerful naturally occurring immune modulators.
Vital mushrooms as immune-modulating adaptogens
Fungi have always had the same enemies as humans.
What we know as a fungus is the so-called fruiting body. The actual tree is underground – the so-called mycelium. The mycelium has a huge surface area, is only one cell layer thick in some cases and therefore has a very large target area for pathogens to attack. Therefore, fungi have developed powerful defense mechanisms over the course of evolution. When we eat mushrooms, these substances can have the same effect in the body as in the mushroom.
Mushrooms can bring our immune system back to the biological optimum, restore balance and thus have an immune-modulating effect. Medicinal mushrooms are therefore also referred to as adaptogens: i.e. they do exactly what the body lacks: restore basic immunity when the immune system is weakened. In the case of allergic reactions, autoimmune diseases etc., on the other hand, they shut down the immune reaction.
How can this adaptogenic effect of medicinal mushrooms be explained biochemically?
All mushrooms contain branched fibers called beta-glucans. These are high molecular weight polysaccharides that the body doesn't know for sure if it's food or a pathogen, so our bodies put the immune system on "ready" and make it competent. This means that medicinal mushrooms train the immune system: not too weak, but not so strong that it overreacts in the form of autoimmune reactions or severe inflammation. This small stress stimulus, which leads to the body being stronger than before, is called "hormesis" and means nothing other than the hypothesis already formulated by Paracelsus that small doses of pathogenic substances can have a positive effect on our body.
The positive effect of beta-glucans on the immune system has now been proven by numerous studies. See also https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33322069/ "β-glucans also have immune-modulating effects, leading to their investigation as adjuvant agents for cancers (solid and haematological malignancies), for immune-mediated conditions (eg., allergic rhinitis, respiratory infections), and to enhance wound healing. The therapeutic potential of β-glucans is evidenced by the fact that two glucan isolates were licensed as drugs in Japan as immune-adjuvant therapy for cancer in 1980.”
Furthermore, this study from 2017, for example, shows the positive influence of beta-glucans on upper respiratory diseases in older people: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28606567/
Specifically, the immune system is stimulated via so-called "Toll-like receptors" (TLR), in which TLR-2 is particularly relevant for the beta-glucans from fungi. TLRs are part of our innate immune system and serve to recognize pathogen structures (structures found on or in pathogens) so that the body can distinguish between endogenous and foreign substances. If such structures are recognized, the TLRs control the activation and modulation of the antigen-specific (so-called “acquired”) immune system.
This function of medicinal mushrooms has also been proven by scientific studies. For example, people who regularly take medicinal mushrooms have a higher number of leukocytes and these are also highly differentiated (see e.g. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25866155/). After taking a handful of shiitake mushrooms daily for four weeks, for example, a doubling of NK cells (natural killer cells) or 60% more T cells could be detected.
There are also promising studies on myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which includes a number of bone marrow diseases in which too few functional blood cells are produced - including on the immune-modulating effect of maitake: https://pubmed .ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25351719/ "Maitake was well tolerated. Enhanced in vitro neutrophil and monocyte function following treatment demonstrate that Maitake has beneficial immunomodulatory potential in MDS."
There are also numerous studies on the immune-modulating properties of Agaricus blazei. For example, a very recent in vivo human study suggests an improvement in liver function in hepatitis B patients: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18370584/ “The mushroom Agaricus blazei Murill extract normalizes liver function in patients with chronic hepatitis B.”
There are also numerous studies on beta-glucans from yeast, especially for fighting off viruses: thanks to the beta-glucans, the mucous membranes and the immune system around the mucous membranes are particularly active and can fight off viruses well.
Vital mushrooms for gastrointestinal diseases
In order to understand the effect of medicinal mushrooms on the gastrointestinal tract, let's take a closer look at it:
Toxins and pathogens always first come into contact with the epithelium, i.e. the top layer of mucosal tissue. The epithelium in the gastrointestinal tract is very thin, especially in the small intestine. It has to keep pathogens out, but at the same time absorb micronutrients and is therefore a very sensitive system that can easily become unbalanced.
The epithelium in the gastrointestinal tract is covered with a layer of mucus, the so-called mucus layer, which on the one hand represents a mechanical barrier, but also contains certain substances (antibodies, defensins, immune proteins) that prevent infection of the epithelium to avoid.
Let's start our journey through the gastrointestinal tract at the top of the esophagus. Inflammation of the esophagus affecting the epithelium usually comes from the stomach.It should be noted that heartburn can come from an over-acidified as well as an under-acidified stomach: In the case of over-acidification, the stomach wants to get rid of the excess acid Stomach acid protects us from pathogens. Due to a lack of stomach acid, there are about 1000 times as many bacteria in the stomach, which ferment food components, among other things, which produces gases that rise from the gastric juice into the lower esophagus, burst and thus trigger heartburn.
If we travel further from the esophagus through the gastrointestinal tract into the stomach, we have to talk about a small bacterium that about every second person has in them (as a small child you often stretch out with your parents or often also a cat): the Helicobacter pylori. If the immune system is intact, this bacterium usually does not cause any major problems. But with a weakened immune system or if the stomach is over- or under-acidified, it nests in the mucous membrane of the stomach and irritates it (gastritis = inflammation of the gastric mucosa). It drills through our mucus layer into the stomach lining like a corkscrew and leads to holes in the stomach wall. It encapsulates itself in a shell of urea and thus protects itself from stomach acid, but also from the immune system and antibiotics.
If stomach acid drips through these holes onto the underlying tissue layer, severe ulcers, including gastric cancer, can develop. After all, stomach acid is about as acidic as a car battery!
Which medicinal mushrooms should be used for diseases of the stomach and esophagus?
Reishi and Hericium in combination are the first choice for diseases of the stomach and esophagus:
Reishi increases the production of antibacterial substances in the mucus layer in the esophagus and stomach, especially soluble IgA (immunoglobulin, which is present in mucous membranes and protects the epithelium from pathogens) and defensins. See also: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16798741/ "Reishi polysaccharides induce immunoglobulin production through the TLR4/TLR2-mediated induction of transcription factor Blimp-1"
Hericium has a number of specific triterpenes that can thicken the mucus layer again by increasing the production of mucins (the structural, protective component of mucus) and carbohydrate structures and thus stimulating the intestinal epithelium to grow (therefore also important in leaky gut ) = "mend the hole". See also: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29455967/ "Gastroprotective activity of polysaccharide from Hericium erinaceus against ethanol-induced gastric mucosal lesion and pylorus ligation-induced gastric ulcer, and its antioxidant activities”
Hericium can also selectively kill the Helicobacter bacterium without affecting other "good" bacteria. In addition, Hericum inhibits the attachment of Helicobacter to the stomach wall. See also: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30806251/ "In Vitro and In Vivo Inhibition of Helicobacter pylori by Ethanolic Extracts of Lion's Mane Medicinal Mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Agaricomycetes) “
The small intestine follows the stomach. It is 6-7 meters long, very thin (thinner than a human hair) and unfolded the size of half a soccer field. This large surface is necessary to absorb nutrients, but it represents a large target for pathogens, precisely because it is so thin.
A typical disease of the small intestine that medicinal mushrooms can help with is the so-called "leaky gut". These are microscopic holes in the intestine.Small intestine cells only have an average lifespan of about five days, as they are always exposed to toxins, pathogens, etc., so they have to regenerate quite frequently. Some substances even reduce the lifespan to only about two days. If, for example, the micronutrients required for the regeneration of the small intestine cells are missing and substances such as gluten loosen the connection between the cells, then undigested food proteins or toxins can get into the body through these microscopic holes, which promotes various chronic diseases such as Autoimmune diseases, diabetes, allergic diseases, high blood pressure. Autoimmune diseases in particular are very often associated with leaky gut.
Analogous to the process of the gastric mucosa already described, Hericium can also accelerate the regeneration processes in leaky gut by stimulating the growth of the intestinal epithelium. However, with leaky gut, it takes about 6-8 months much longer than in the stomach for the mucous membrane to be "patched up" and regenerated.
It is always important not just to rely on the fungi, but always to keep an eye on all the micronutrients: If, for example, the intestinal cells lack building substances and growth factors due to a vitamin D deficiency, the diet or lifestyle should be changed or in this case vitamin D supplemented and e.g. gluten removed from the diet.
Another typical small intestine disease is fungal infestation by Candida albicans, which can cause flatulence, abdominal pain or diarrhea. Colonization of the small intestine by bacteria or candida is usually associated with colon dysbiosis, i.e. an imbalance in the intestinal flora, or with hypoacidity in the stomach, so that pathogens can get into the small intestine via the stomach.
In these cases, the shiitake is the first choice because it is a natural antibiotic and can thus effectively remove pathogens from the small intestine. Incidentally, many people show a detoxification reaction when taking shiitake in larger quantities or concentrated as an extract, which is often misinterpreted as intolerance.
See also https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15773410/ on the antimicrobial effect of shiitake "The juice of this mushroom at a concentration of 5% from the volume of the nutrient medium was found to produce a pronounced antimicrobial effect with respect to C. albicans, S. aureus, E. faecalis, E. coli O-114 and to stimulate the growth of E. coli M-17. Bifidobacteria and lactobacteria exhibited resistance to the action of L. edodes juice."
Let's come to the end of the gastrointestinal tract, the large intestine. This is not as long as the small intestine, but very wide. There are a few trillion microorganisms in the intestinal flora that live in harmony with each other. When the immune system no longer properly monitors what is happening in the colon (impaired communication with the intestinal flora), or when one type of microorganism becomes dominant and suppresses others, an imbalance occurs.
The intestinal flora can then be brought back into balance with medicinal mushroom extracts. Hericium and Reishi are also the first choice in the large intestine, because the mucus layer and the epithelium have to be constantly regenerated there and the immune system has to undergo the right training. However, it is also known that the polysaccharides of the fungi can bring the intestinal flora back into balance - see e.g.:
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32693144/ "Moreover, mushroom polysaccharides also act as prebiotics and modulate the composition of gut microflora; and thus, can reduce insulin resistance. The present review discusses the pathophysiology of diabetes and, elaborates some potential mushroom species that are known to have antihyperglycemic activities.Different mushroom polysaccharides modulating the composition of gut microflora in diabetic animal models have also been discussed”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33322069/ “β-glucans have metabolic and gastrointestinal effects, modulating the gut microbiome, altering lipid and glucose metabolism, reducing cholesterol , leading to their investigation as potential therapies for metabolic syndrome, obesity and diet regulation, gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel, and to reduce cardiovascular and diabetes risk.”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28885559/ “Mushrooms act as a prebiotics to stimulate the growth of gut microbiota, conferring health benefits to the host. In the present review, we have summarized the beneficial activities of various mushrooms on gut microbiota via the inhibition of exogenous pathogens and, thus, improving the host health.”
There are also specific studies on Reishi and Maitake that show that they were able to regenerate the intestinal flora (e.g. in type 2 diabetes) in animal models:
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26102296/ “Our results indicate that G. lucidum and its high molecular weight polysaccharides may be used as prebiotic agents to prevent gut dysbiosis and obesity-related metabolic disorders in obese individuals.”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31712153/ "Intake of Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides reverses the disturbed gut microbiota and metabolism in type 2 diabetic rats"
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30826407/ “Hypoglycemic activity and gut microbiota regulation of a novel polysaccharide from Grifola frondosa in type 2 diabetic mice”
If the intestinal flora then works with us again and not against us, it also produces substances that are needed elsewhere in the body. For example, almost all happiness hormones are located in the intestine (99.9% of our total serotonin content), and the large intestine is connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. Vitamins and short-chain fatty acids are also synthesized in the gut.
This connection could also explain the positive influence of the Hericium on depressive moods or sleep quality:
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20834180/ “we investigated the clinical effects of H. erinaceus on menopause, depression, sleep quality and indefinite complaints, using the Kupperman Menopausal Index (KMI), the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), and the Indefinite Complaints Index (ICI). Thirty females were randomly assigned to either the H. erinaceus (HE) group or the placebo group and took HE cookies or placebo cookies for 4 weeks. Each of the CES-D and the ICI score after the HE intake was significantly lower than that before. In two terms of the ICI, "insentive" and "palpitatio", each of the mean score of the HE group was significantly lower than the placebo group. "Concentration", "irritating" and "anxious" tended to be lower than the placebo group.”
First studies, such as https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31413233/ "In this Study, we tested a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group comparative study to evaluate the improvement of the cognitive functions by taking supplements containing fruiting body of H. erinaceus for 12 weeks. […] showed that oral intake of H. erinaceus significantly improved cognitive functions and prevented from the deterioration.”
Vital mushrooms in the accompanying cancer therapy
Only about 5% of all cancers clearly have genetic causes (source: https://www.aerzteblatt.de/archiv/61809/Erbliche-Krebsdiagnose ).The rest is due to lifestyle such as stress, a lack of micronutrients, environmental toxins such as heavy metals or electromagnetic radiation, obesity, chronic infections such as the Ebstein-Barr virus or Lyme disease, alcohol etc
This is also proven by migration studies, e.g. residents of a small town in Nigeria, where around 70% fewer cancer cases occur than in our western, "modern" societies. It should be noted that the medical care in this small town is so good that it can be ruled out that these are simply undiscovered diseases. Do these Nigerians then migrate to the US; suddenly have the same cancer risk as the American average. There are comparable studies with the same result, for example, for Japanese who migrate to Hawaii (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1287741/ ).
How does a healthy cell become a cancer cell?
In order to turn a healthy cell into a cancer cell, various stages have to be gone through - and medicinal mushrooms can intervene effectively at each of these stages:
DNA damage, e.g. caused by infections, inflammation, toxins, radiation, etc., must first trigger certain mutations that prevent the cell from activating the suicide program, known as apoptosis. In the further course, the metabolism of the cell is then changed and goes into the anaerobic lactic acid metabolism. The cancer cell begins to grow uncontrollably. Normally the body has built in "brakes" for this uncontrolled growth, but even these brakes are bypassed. At this point there is a small, degenerated tumor cell, about 1 mm in size. From a certain age, almost everyone has these so-called microtumors. And the point at which this microtumor becomes a malignant cancer is a process called angiogenesis: the tumor sends out chemical messengers and encourages the body to form blood vessels from pre-existing blood vessels to supply it with oxygen and nutrients. Then the tumor can continue to grow and form metastases via the blood in the body.
Every day, around 20 tumor cells develop in the body, but these are usually recognized and eliminated by our immune system. An intact, strong immune system is therefore a crucial factor in cancer prevention.
How can medicinal mushrooms help in prevention and therapy?
Fungi actively protect cells from environmental toxins, viruses, radiation, etc., but also ensure that the immune system recognizes and eliminates a degenerated cell more quickly. In addition, they also have an influence on the power plants of our cells, the so-called mitochondria, and can help to ensure that the metabolism does not go into the anaerobic state, where it only ferments and no longer generates energy properly.
The decisive factor is the effect of medicinal mushrooms in the context of angiogenesis, in that they prevent blood vessels from being recruited and the tumor can grow as a result of the formation of certain messenger substances. Here, for example, the shiitake with its specific beta-glucan "Lentinan" plays a relevant role: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30373628/ "Lentinan inhibits tumor angiogenesis via interferon γ and in a T cell independent manner“
See also https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15234192/ "Fungal polysaccharopeptide inhibits tumor angiogenesis and tumor growth in mice"
A study from 2009 in a rural region in China on the risk of breast cancer showed, for example, that women who drank an average of one cup of green tea per day and ate 4 g of dried mushrooms or 40 g of fresh mushrooms per day, around 60% lower risk of breast cancer than the comparison group. See: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19048616/ “Dietary intakes of mushrooms and green tea combine to reduce the risk of breast cancer in Chinese women”
In China and Japan, some mushrooms are already approved in conventional cancer therapy, e.g. maitake and shiitake extracts as an infusion.
In the West, the following medicinal mushrooms are also used in complementary cancer therapy and have also been researched the best: Reishi, almond mushroom, maitake, coriolus and shiitake (especially for breast and colon cancer).
Reishi, for example, can increase the response rate to chemotherapy by about 40% according to a scientific study. See also:
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29141563/ : “Evidence from in vitro and in vivo studies has demonstrated that GLP possesses potential anticancer activity through immunomodulatory, anti-proliferative, pro-apoptotic, anti-metastatic and anti-angiogenic effects.”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27045603/ “G. lucidum could be administered as an alternative adjunct to conventional treatment in consideration of its potential of enhancing tumor response and stimulating host immunity. G. lucidum was generally well tolerated by most participants with only a scattered number of minor adverse events. No major toxicity was observed across the studies.”
Thanks to their (pentacyclic) triterpenes, all of the above-mentioned mushrooms also have antitumor and chemoprotective effects and strengthen the immune system.
There are numerous studies on shiitake and maitake in particular on strengthening the basal immune competence during chemotherapy, i.e. the basic immune activity can be maintained with the administration of the medicinal mushrooms mentioned. Example: Maitake: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14977447/ “Maitake D-Fraction prevented metastatic progress, lessened the expression of tumor markers, and increased NK cell activity in all patients examined. Thus maitake D-Fraction appears to repress cancer progression and primarily exerts its effect through stimulation of NK activity."
For almond mushroom (Agaricus blazei) and maitake, there are also reviews showing that side effects caused by chemotherapy could be reduced by 70-80%, so that the quality of life was maintained to some extent.
The butterfly tramet (Coriolus) contains two glycoproteins (proteins with sugar content), namely PSP and PSK. Studies have shown that the survival rate increases significantly (up to 40%) when this fungus is given in parallel with chemotherapy (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32466253/ ).
A very recent review from 2020 with a focus on Reishi and Coriolus also shows their positive effects in the context of concomitant cancer therapy: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33685191/
In conclusion, it should be noted that scientific studies in the western world have already been able to confirm many of the positive effects said to be of medicinal mushrooms - some on humans, many only on animals to date. Due to these promising results, the number of studies has been increasing dramatically for almost 3 years, so it can be assumed that the importance and use of medicinal mushrooms will also increase significantly in the West in a few years.
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