Mushrooms have been valued as both food and medicine throughout the world for thousands of years, but until recently, many in the West associated all mushrooms with poison. The recent surge of Western interest in medicinal mushrooms shows that this attitude may be changing, however. Japanese products containing LEM, a polysaccharide-rich extract from the shiitake mushroom, and similar extracts from maitake are currently undergoing trials in Japan and the United States to see whether they are effective treatments for various cancers and AIDS. Currently, the total world worth of the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products derived from mushrooms is estimated at more than $1.2 billion.
Reishi and maitake are medicinal mushrooms that recently have become popular in the United States; they are described below. Should you have an inclination to incorporate these or other mushrooms into your diet, preparation suggestions are included. If you choose to gather your mushrooms from the wild, a healthy respect for the possibility of eating a poisonous one is good. Be an informed gatherer. It is best for beginners to learn how to identify edible mushrooms from local experts; community colleges often offer good mushroom-hunting classes.
The Latin word lucidum means “shiny” or “brilliant” and refers to the varnished surface of reishi’s cap, which is reddish orange to black. The stalk usually is attached to the cap at the side. In Japan, 99 percent of reishi growing in the wild are found on old plum trees, although wild reishi are rare.
Medical uses: For 4,000 years, the Chinese and Japanese have called upon reishi to treat liver disorders, hypertension, arthritis, and other ailments.
Recent test-tube and human studies have demonstrated antiallergic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant effects. When more than 2,000 Chinese patients with chronic bronchitis were given reishi syrup in tablet form during the 1970s, 60 to 90 percent showed a marked improvement in health, including increased appetite, within two weeks.
Precautions: Although reishi extracts have shown very low toxicity in animal experiments, the long-term effects of reishi and its derivatives are still virtually unknown.
Taking reishi: Reishi may be taken in syrups, soups, teas, tinctures, and tablets, and by injection. The form and dosage should be worked out in consultation with your health-care provider.
Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese; in ancient times, people who found the mushroom were said to dance with joy because it could be exchanged for its weight in silver. Alternatively, the name may derive from the way in which the small, fan-shaped fruiting bodies overlap like butterflies in a wild dance. In the United States, they also are known as hen-of-the-woods because the mass of mushrooms looks like fluffed-up feathers. The stalks are often fused, massed at the base of stumps and on roots. They are common in eastern North America, Europe, and Asia. Maitake collectors always forage alone and never divulge the location of their treasure, even to their own families. In Japan, they traditionally mark their hunting grounds with hatch marks on trees bordering the trove and keep others out of their hunting areas.
Until cultivation techniques were devised in 1979, maitake was harvested from the wild. In 1990, Japanese cultivators produced nearly 8,000 tons of maitake, and production is expected to increase with expanding exports to the West.
Medical uses: Laboratory studies have shown that maitake extract can inhibit the growth of tumors and stimulate the immune system of cancerous mice. Human clinical studies of patients with breast and colorectal cancers are under way in the United States. In China, sixty-three patients with lung, stomach, or liver cancers or leukemia who took four capsules of maitake extract three times daily before meals for one to three months showed an “anticancer” effect. Reports that maitake extracts may help AIDS patients fight Kaposi’s sarcoma and other symptoms are preliminary and require further studies.
Precautions: Little information has been collected concerning the toxicity of maitake, although some cases of allergic reaction have been reported.
Taking maitake: Maitake can be found in gourmet restaurants, dried and packaged in gourmet grocery stores, and increasingly in prepared products in the United States, Asia, and Europe. As a general health supplement, I recommend taking 3 to 7 g a day in tea or in soups and other dishes.
In the wild, this light amber fungus is found on fallen hardwood trees. The caps have nearly ragged gills and an inrolled margin when young, and they are covered with a delicate white flocking. The stem may be central or off center. Indigenous to temperate Asia, they are not found in the wild in the United States but are widely cultivated. A similar species occurs wild in Costa Rica.
Medical uses: A vast amount of research into shiitake’s medicinal properties has been completed and shows that it has the ability to fight tumors and viruses and enhance the immune system. For more details, refer to the accompanying story.
Precautions: Shiitake is nonpoisonous, but researchers have observed cases of shiitake-induced skin rashes, and some people who work indoors cultivating shiitake experience “mushroom worker’s lung”, an immune reaction to shiitake spores. A watery extract of the whole mushroom is reported to hinder blood coagulation, so people who bleed easily or who are taking blood thinners should check with their health-care provider before using shiitake or its derivatives for a long period.
LEM has shown no evidence of acute toxicity in more than seventeen years of use in Japan, even in massive doses (more than 50 mg a day for one week), though mild side effects such as diarrhea and skin rashes have been reported. Likewise, lentinan has no known serious side effects. People with allergies may experience adverse reactions due to its histamine-sensitizing properties.
Taking shiitake: The traditional dose is 1 or 2 fresh shiitake mushrooms daily for preventive care or 6 to 16 g of dried shiitake in tea, soup, or other dishes. Commercial preparations (extracts in capsule form) of shiitake are available in the United States in health-food stores but may be expensive. Dried shiitake mushrooms are available in Asian food stores in the United States, usually at more affordable prices. To avert possible digestive upset from eating large quantities of fresh shiitake, LEM, which is concentrated and easily absorbed, is preferred as medicine.
Recipe: Stuffed Shiitake
The rich taste of shiitake makes this recipe a perfect one to serve as an appetizer or offer as a light evening meal.
1 dozen fresh shiitake
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon tamari
1/2 dozen wild mushrooms, such as oyster, chopped
1 cup bread crumbs
1/3 to 2/3 cup Parmesan cheese
Chopped parsley to taste
Paprika to taste
Cut the stems off the shiitakes and chop them finely. Reserve the caps. Saut‚ the onion, celery, and garlic in the olive oil. When the onion is transparent, add the shiitake stems, tamari, oyster mushrooms, bread crumbs, and Parmesan cheese, and saute for 3 to 4 minutes longer. Stuff the shiitake caps with the filling, sprinkle them with chopped parsley and paprika, and place them on a cookie sheet. Bake the shiitakes at 375øF for 15 minutes, broil for a minute longer to brown the cheese and serve.
Powdered extracts and capsules: Because the scientific literature indicates that whole mushrooms are especially active antitumor agents and immune-system enhancers, I recommend taking dried and powdered mushrooms by the teaspoon, either in a cup of ginger tea or sprinkled into soup or on stir-fry and rice. Mushrooms that are too tough and fibrous to powder can be sliced thinly and dried for use in teas and tinctures.
Softer and thinner mushrooms can be easily powdered and put into capsules. A size 00 capsule holds about 400 mg of powdered mushroom. For mild to moderate immune-system support, I recommend taking two capsules morning and evening and, for specific immune-suppressed conditions, two to three capsules three times daily.
Teas and soups: Teas of medicinal mushrooms should be simmered for 40 minutes to an hour, or until they are dark and taste strong. You may add one part ginger to every eight parts mushrooms and one part licorice to every sixteen parts mushrooms to mask any bitterness.
To make a soup, begin with the mushroom tea, to which you may add broccoli, carrots, potatoes, beets, greens, garlic, onions, and/or a little seaweed. Thicken it with a little barley. Fish, chicken, or a little red meat can be added. Simmer for about fifteen minutes. Drink 1 to 3 cups of the soup a day. Tender, fleshy fungi, such as shiitake and oyster mushrooms, can be eaten with enthusiasm, but push fibrous chunks of reishi aside–the essence has already permeated the broth, and they are far too tough to chew, even after boiling.
Christopher Hobbs is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. He is author of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture (Botanica Press, 1995) and many other books. He is a fourth-generation herbalist and botanist with more than twenty years of experience.