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Marvelous Mushrooms


Many think 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 , , 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 ; 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 ,” 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 and , 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 .


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
Ikekawa, 2001

This EatSmart column is reprinted from USAWEEKEND Magazine and is copyrighted by Jean Carper. It cannot be reprinted without permission from Jean Carper.

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2 responses to “Marvelous Mushrooms”

  1. […] Mushrooms have been regarded as a longevity tonic in Asia since ancient times. Beta glucan and other unique compounds found in mushrooms have been shown to help boost immunity, ward off infections, fight cancer, and even balance blood sugar and cholesterol levels. […]

  2. […] Mushrooms have long been an important source of food and medicine throughout the world. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine have known about the amazing health benefits of mushrooms for thousands of years. Only recently, however, have mushrooms come into widespread culinary and medicinal use in the Western world. And only in the last decade or so have scientists begun to understand the potential that certain mushrooms hold for fighting and preventing disease. […]