Many think mushrooms are nutritional nothings, but science is finding them to be full of medicinal magic.
Unique chemicals in raw, cooked and dried mushrooms may help boost immunity, fend off infections and fight cancer — as well as counter high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inflammation and blood clots. In ancient Egypt and Asia, mushrooms were a sacred longevity tonic; in Europe, the mummified 5,000-year-old “Ice Man” was found with a medicine kit of dried mushrooms.
Here’s the 21st-century view:
Builds immune system; fights cancer
Eating common white supermarket mushrooms — from baby buttons to large stuffers — may help ward off breast cancer, suggests new research at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope in Duarte, Calif. Extracts of white mushrooms slashed estrogen production up to 50%; that’s important because estrogen can spur growth of breast cancer. Shiitake, portobello and crimini mushrooms had similar actions.
A major new worldwide review of mushroom studies by Cancer Research UK reports that many mushrooms can stimulate immune functions. Of those, the most popular is the shiitake mushroom. Its active chemical, lentinan, increases natural killer cells and lymphocytes to help fight infections and cancer, and it also has direct antiviral activity. In Japan, where many studies show that mushrooms have anti-cancer properties, lentinan is approved in cancer treatment. A recent study in Japan found that farmers who regularly ate mushrooms, primarily enoki, had a 40% lower death rate from cancer than those who ate few mushrooms.
The “king of medicinal mushrooms,” now being researched extensively, is the maitake, a large fan-shaped tree fungus. It is said to convey super immunity. “Maitake is one of nature’s richest sources of beta-glucans … which are among, or even may be, the most potent natural immune forces ever discovered,” Harry Preuss, M.D., a physiology professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, writes in his book Maitake Magic (Freedom Press; $15.95).
He says that by stimulating immune responses, the maitake may help combat cancer. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved testing a compound called maitake D-fraction in treating advanced breast and prostate cancers. It has promise against lung, liver and brain cancers, too, Preuss says.
Edible maitake mushrooms are sold at some gourmet stores. Maitake capsules, pills, liquids, powders and teas are found in health food stores.
Other benefits of mushrooms
Scientists say compounds in maitake and shiitake mushrooms may help lower blood pressure. A black, rubbery Chinese mushroom called moer, or tree ear, is a potent blood thinner and possibly lowers cholesterol. Tests at George Washington University identified the mushroom’s blood-thinning chemical as adenosine, described as “similar to aspirin.” Adenosine also accounts for blood-thinning properties of onions and garlic, researchers said.
How to handle the fungus among us: Refrigerate mushrooms in loosely closed paper bags — not airtight plastic bags (moisture condensation hastens spoilage).
Properly stored mushrooms last five days or more. Wipe mushrooms with a damp cloth or paper towel to remove bits of peat moss. Don’t soak mushrooms in water.
SCIENTIFIC SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
Mushrooms and breast cancer
Grube, Balba J, et al. J Nutr 131:3288-3293, 2001
Shiitake mushrooms lower cholesterol and blood pressure
Kabir and Kumura, 1989
Maitake mushrooms and immunity
Harry Preuss, M.D., “Maitake Magic.” (Freedom Press).
Enoki mushrooms and cancer
This EatSmart column is reprinted from USAWEEKEND Magazine and is copyrighted by Jean Carper. It cannot be reprinted without permission from Jean Carper.