Many claims are made for medicinal herbs. Sometimes out of sheer enthusiasm and sometimes for commercial motives, practitioners and authors make exaggerated claims and create false hopes. If we look at the studies that have been undertaken in the recent decades to see if there is actual scientific basis for the use of herbs to treat medical problems, we may learn that the claims are justified.
No herb is a cure-all. Herbal medicines do have curative properties. They also have immune- modulating properties. Although scientific research into herbal medicines is still in its infancy, studies show very definite benefits from herbal medicine. Herbs have been used as medicine for centuries, but we have only begun to understand the benefits of medicinal herbs, and as advances in medical technology continue, further research will go much deeper and discover answers that will amaze us.
One of the most studied group of herbs and herbal-relatives is the fungi or medicinal mushrooms. The group is comprised of eight mushrooms ( up until this point in time ) They are:
What we call a “mushroom” is the fruit-body of a fungus. It is the reproductive part of the fungus that grows above ground and releases spores, the seed-like elements from which new fungi are made. Every fungus begins as a tiny, seed-like spore carried by wind and water until it lands in a hospitable place and germinates to start a new fungus colony. In effect, fungi are molecular disassemblers. They take the complex compounds created by plants - cellulose, carbohydrates, and proteins - and disassemble them so that plants can digest them. Scientists theorize that the ability of fungi to break down organic matter is linked to their anti-disease properties. These mushrooms live in a hostile environment. To survive, they must have their own unique, healthy immune systems. They also appear to exhibit a primitive intelligence.
Cordyceps one of the medicinal mushroom group, grows from the bodies of caterpillars. Its spore attaches itself to a host, germinates, begins feeding and grows into a small mushroom. The host such as an ant prodded by an intuitive desire, climbs a tree, digs its mandible into the tree and remains there for the rest of its life. From this vantage point, the Cordyseps releases spore that spread over the forest floor. The relationship serves that mushroom well and it never grows large enough to kill the ant.
Mushrooms for medicinal purposes were known to primitive man. In 1991, hikers in the Alps discovered a 5,300- year- old mummy, the oldest intact human being ever discovered. The “Iceman” ( as he came to be called ) yielded much information about the neolithic period in which he lived. He possessed a copper axe proving that smelting and shaping copper was already in existence a thousand years earlier than previously thought. He may have undergone treatments resembling acupuncture: he had tattoos on his legs and back on or near real acupuncture points for treating arthritis. He possessed a leather medicine kit and strung to a leather thong were two walnut-sized dried fungi that researchers identified as Piptoporus betulinus. This fungus is known for its antibiotic properties and when ingested, it can bring on short bouts of diarrhea. What researchers determined was that the iceman suffered from intestinal parasites and most likely used the mushroom as a natural worm killer and laxative.
Herbs and combinations of herbs called formulas are prescribed for almost any kind of ailment. A formula can contain flowers, roots, tendrils, leaves - all parts of a plant, bush or tree are used depending on the effect wanted. Beneficiary effects come from their breakdown into every nutrient known.
Medicinal mushrooms have a unique ability to break down into substances that help the body adapt during times of stress; these are called adaptogens. The fungi are also noted for the boost they give to the immune system. These mushrooms are particularly noted for their immuno-regulator effect. Immuno-regulators are quiet or activate depending on circumstances: they trigger the production of white blood cells when the system is underactive, and lower their number when the system is overactive.
Rather than concentrate efforts on treating disease, the best practitioners teach their patients to prevent disease. We know that a good diet, getting the right amount of exercise, managing stress, and getting enough sleep all strengthen the immune system. But another way to fortify the system is to include medicinal mushroom products in a daily supplement regimen. Compromised immune systems give rise to the chronic disorders of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other lasting disorders.
The immune system begins developing during the first weeks of gestation. Cell-mediated immunity associated with T cells or lymphocytes, develops in the womb. When the child is born, he or she has a fully developed intact natural immune system. The system reaches its peak at the onset of puberty, remains stable until its plateau reaches about the age of 35, then begins to decline. At age 50 the immune system really falters. Nature has made the human body to die about this time to make room for the next generation. However, life expectancies have been pushed past age 75 in many countries. People live longer but their immune systems lag far behind in effectiveness.
When we eat plants and mushrooms, we digest their polysaccharide molecules. Polysaccharides are long chain molecules constructed from sugar and how they arrange themselves determines how they bind together and what compounds they form. Each molecule has six carbons. Linkages can occur at any combination of six positions. Mushrooms are polysaccharide molecules linked at the first position with the third position; they are called betaglucans. Betaglucans are huge molecules and the size appears to have a lot to do with their value as immune-system stimulators.
Betaglucan definitely makes the immune system work better. Its molecules resemble the molecules found on bacterial cell walls making the body believe it’s being invaded by a bacterium. When macrophages - giant white blood cells - encounter a betaglucan, they believe they have encountered a pathogen and they attack. This reaction gives a boost to the entire immune system: T cells are alerted, antibodies increase, cytokines or cell messengers are multiplied, and free radicals are produced which because of their unpaired electron bind with bacteria, viruses, etc., and immobilize them.
So what can betaglucan do? It can reduce post-operative infections for one. In one study, patients who had undergone high-risk gastrointestinal surgery were given betaglucan intravenously each day for a week. Only 9% contracted infections as compared to 49% in patients who did not receive betaglucan. The mortality rate for the betaglucan group was zero compared to 29% for the groups not receiving betaglucan.
Medicinal mushrooms contain terpenoids. These are anti-infectious agents good at killing bacteria and viruses. Even most important is the role of terpenoids as anti-inflammatory agents The inflammation that accompanies an infection, trauma, or changes in an organ system such as in the walls of arteries can be controlled and tempered by terpenoids. An added benefit is that they do not prevent white blood cells from doing their job as do steroids given for inflammation which suppress white cell activity.
Mushrooms are high fiber food that help beneficial and necessary bacteria in the large intestine to breed and because of the terpenoids, are antimicrobial, killing antigens and microbes but also passing along samples of the antigens and microbes they have killed to the immune system. The memory part of the immune system is alerted and kept informed for future pathogen invaders. In the role of prebiotics, mushrooms are an intestinal fertilizer promoting the growth of good bacteria. They assist in the absorption of minerals and help produce the members of the B vitamin family.
First off is the Reishi mushroom, Latin name Ganoderma lucideum, considered the mushroom of immortality - promoting longevity and one of the most important tonics. Scientists began studying Reishi beginning in the 1980s. Efficacy tests have proven that this mushroom helps prevent the reduction in the number of white blood cells as a consequence of radiation therapy. It is a powerful anti-oxidant counteracting the damaging effects of free radicals on body tissues. In cancer treatment researchers are seriously interested in its ability to increase the production of three toxin-like substances: tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin 1- beta and interleukin 6 - all associated with controlling the growth of or promoting the death of malignant cancer cells.
Cordyceps, another heavily researched member of the group, grows under trying conditions at high altitudes of 12 to 15, 000 feet primarily in Tibet. It grows on just about any category of insect - crickets, cockroaches, bees, caterpillars, beetles and ants. The mushroom has proven useful against a variety of diseases. One particular benefit is its effect on lipids or fats. Cordyseps helps prevent atherosclerosis by decreasing the number of platelets that can get caught in the plaque buildup on artery walls. Clinical studies have shown that Cordyseps can increase the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol and reduce the amount of bad (LDL) cholesterol. Hyperlipidemia a disease of high levels of fat in the blood can also be treated with the mushroom. And if you are worried about antioxidant buildups, studies using Cordyseps, showed patients’ red blood cells had significantly higher levels of an enzyme called superoxide dismutase or SOD, a powerful natural antioxidant.
Hepatitis B kills an estimated eight percent of the population in Africa, Southeast Asia, and China. In the U.S. approximately 1-1/4 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis B. The immuno-stimulant alpha-interferon is the main treatment for hepatis B but it is effective only in about 30% of cases. Research evidence show that Cordyseps may be able to treat some cases of the disease. In a significant number of patients, a complete conversion of antibodies to the virus took place which means that the disease was completely resolved and the virus was no longer contagious. Cirrhosis of the liver has a direct cause and effect relation to hepatitis and sufferers are a hundred times more likely to develop liver cancer and about 30% eventually succumb to liver cancer or complications of chronic active hepatitis. After conventional treatment of hepatitis, if the liver has not healed correctly, post-hepatitis cirrhosis results. Cordyseps can boost concentrations of the liver’s essential enzyme called ATP helping the liver regenerate itself, and preventing cirrhosis.
One of the most exciting mushrooms discovered recently is the Agaricus blazei. This mushroom is a native of Brazil and is a member of the button mushroom family. The Agaricus appears to have the highest level of beta glucan of any mushroom and this particular form is especially advantageous against tumor cells. Its low molecular weight makes it readily absorbable and very effective. Research on the effects of Agaricus anti-neoplastic action showed tumor cells being killed off at sites where beta glucan was injected plus migration of the beta glucan to other parts of the tumor where no beta glucan was injected. It seems that the Agaricus polysaccharide can inhibit tumors from growing plus it also stimulates the increase of certain white blood cells that scavenge and kill malignant cells (granulocytes) inducing apoptosis or cell suicide. The body rids itself of malignant cells by making them burst. One way to do this is for the liver to produce a series of proteins whose cascade causes holes to be punched in the membrane of targeted cells and their insides to ooze out. The most active component of this cascade is called C3, a powerful booster of macrophages that will eat the cells’ remains, and the Agaricus’ beta glucan activates both macrophages and C3 protein.
The Maitake or Hen of the Woods mushroom grows in clusters resembling the fluffed tail of a brooding hen. The Japanese have used the mushroom as a tonic to increase vitality and the immune system; researchers have been looking into it for diabetes and cancer. In lab studies, Maitake does increase insulin production and can control glucose levels as well. In this country, scientists have conducted experiments to study the effect of Maitake on prostate cancer cells. All the malignant cells treated with a highly purified beta glucan extract from Maitake died in 24 hours. Other Japanese studies showed that beta glucan aided the immune system through the production of macrophages, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and interleukin-6 - all involved in tumor destruction.
Until recently the Phellinus linteus mushroom was almost unknown outside Korea. In traditional Korean medicine the mushroom was known to reduce inflammation. Recent studies concentrated on the mushroom’s effect on metastasis of cancer cells. Some of the findings showed that mice injected with cancer cells and who took Phellinus linteus alone had a higher survival rate: tumor growth was inhibited and the frequency of metastases was reduced. In mice who took Adriamycin an anti-cancer agent, alone, the tumor was significantly inhibited but metastasis was only slightly inhibited. The combination of Phellinus linteus and Adriamycin was effective in inhibiting tumor growth but not in inhibiting metastasis.
At the 14 th annual International Chemotherapy Symposium, 1991, 68 paper on the mushroom Trametes versicolor were presented. The mushroom was a folk remedy for cancer for decades now it is made into a drug called Krestin. Krestin is the best selling anticancer drug in Japan and almost always prescribed to cancer patients who have had a tumor removed and are undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy. In a ten-year study of 185 lung cancer patients who were undergoing radiotherapy, Japanese doctors administered Krestin to about half the patients and the rest got a placebo. After ten years, 39% of patients who had Stage I or II lung cancer and took Krestin survived; only 16% survived in the non-Krestin group. Of Stage III cancer patients, 22% survived in the Krestin group and only 5% of the group who did not take Krestin survived. Controlled clinical trials of 227 patients with breast cancer showed 81% of patients who took PSK - the chief ingredient of Krestin - and chemotherapy survived ; 64% of patients who had chemotherapy alone survived.
In China the drug PSP a form of Krestin, is prescribed to cancer patients. After studying over 650 patients who were undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy the PSP group had markedly fewer side effects than the control group: using 20 criteria for assessing adverse reactions to anticancer drugs - anorexia, night sweats, weakness, vomiting, etc. The overall effective rate - the rate at which patients’ health improved - was significantly higher in the PSP groups - 86% compared to the control group at 42%.
The polysaccharides of the Hericium erinaceus mushroom when used in combination with other substances made the T lymphocytes proliferate at three times the normal rate. Although the mushroom alone has not chemotherapeutic effect, it does work on tumors by stimulating the immune system which in turn helps to control and reduce the burden of the tumor.
Shiitake, the last of the medicinal group, tastes great and an extract called Lentinan is the third most widely prescribed anticancer drug in the world. Lentinan triggers the production of T cells and natural killer cells. Because of its effect on lymphocytes, Lentinan has been used in studies in combinations with AZT and protease inhibitors, two drugs specific for HIV. When the extract was combined there was a marked increase in lymphocytes not found in singular use of drugs. Shiitake has been found effective against several bacteria including varieties of Streptococcus.
It is nearly impossible to tell which part of the immune system fails when a tumor starts growing uncontrollably. Multiple mushroom formulas take the approach that each mushroom in the formula can aid the immune system in a different way. Each mushroom appears to produce its own unique type of beta glucan; by putting multiple mushrooms in a mix, you will stimulate and initiate several avenues of healing.
For supplies and further information consult Marie Cargill.