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Modern Uses of Medicinal Fungi

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Fungi (yeasts, molds, mushrooms) have played an important role in Chinese culture for a recorded 4000 years, with oral tradition dating it to perhaps 7000 years. Three varieties in particular, Hoelen (a mushroom cultivated on the roots of the Chinese red

Fungi (yeasts, molds, mushrooms) have played an important role in Chinese culture for at least 4000 years, with oral tradition dating back perhaps 7000 years.  Common Asian mushrooms such as wood ear and jelly fungus are known to have been important food sources, with several varieties utilized to make wine, vinegar, soy sauce, and pickled vegetables.

Though written and oral accounts refer to the healing powers of several varieties of medicinal fungi, the spores of the common puffball were probably the most widely used initially, applied externally to heal scalds, burns, and general pains of the body, while the giant Agarikon fungi was widely chosen as a curative for stomach ailments. Both are said to have been greatly prized by Japanese doctors as well.

Fungi and its various medicinal applications began being listed in Chinese medicinals, particularly the Shen nung Pen ts’ao king, and the Ming i pie lu, about 3000 years ago, and were even mentioned in classic Chinese literature.  One family of fungi referred to as chi (quite possibly the reishi), has several entries in both volumes, including the green variety which is said to “brighten the eye, strengthen the liver, quiet the spirits, improves the memory, and prolongs life,” while the yellow variety is said to “act on the spleen as a tonic and constructive.”

Similarly, a number of other varieties of fungi are listed for their purported healing properties.   Among those, three varieties in particular, Hoelen (a mushroom cultivated on the roots of the Chinese red pine trees), caterpillar fungus, and ergot, are currently drawing broad interest from the Western medical community.  Interest that has led to the discovery of exactly why these plants are beneficial to human health.

One of the greatest findings in recent years concerning the natural curative powers of plants is scientific proof that fungi contain a number of compounds that can stimulate immune function and inhibit tumor growth in humans. 

Among these compounds, those termed polysaccharides, which are large, complex chains of molecules constructed of smaller unites of sugar molecules, are also found in lichens (a symbiosis of fungus and green alga), bacteria, and even from the cell walls of yeast (a carbohydrate called zymosan). These immune-activating polysaccharides are similar to those found in more complex plants such as echinacea and astragalas (a widely used Chinese herb).  And they are now understood to do an amazing thing in our bodies. 

These giant polysaccharide molecules are similar to ones found in the cellular membranes of bacteria, and thus, trick our immune system into believing it is being invaded, and accordingly, it mounts an immune response.  While this perceived threat poses no actual danger to our bodies, this immune response triggers the increase of a number of powerful immune activities including macrophage and “killer” T-cell (white blood cell) activity.

But polysaccharides are not the only active components found in fungi, nor is immune and anti-tumor activity the only influence they have.

Smaller compounds such as terpenes and steroids present have also been shown to resist the growth of tumors, and a number of what are called “protein-bound” polysaccharides have even shown to have antibiotic and antiviral properties, as well as the ability to lower blood pressure and reduce blood-level lipids (fats) and sugar.  These properties make fungi especially useful in treating infections, flu, diabetes, various heart conditions, and according to many studies, perhaps the HIV.  But as research into these fascinating plants continues, there's no doubt but that other benefits will be discovered.



Medicinal Mushrooms, Christopher Hobbs



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Nobert Bermosa
Posted on Nov 21, 2010
James R. Coffey
Posted on Nov 18, 2010
Posted on Nov 18, 2010

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James R. Coffey

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