Understanding how food interacts with our bodies and the role it plays in healing various health conditions can be helpful. Whether food is used as part of a medical treatment or a prevention-focused diet, knowledge is power. Though some may disregard medicinal food, medical researchers have proven how prescriptive diets have been used to minify health risks. One such functional food is mushrooms. There are currently 38,000 discovered and classified species of mushrooms that hold medicinal benefits.
The immune-strengthening benefits of certain fungi and their extracts have even shown to have an anti-cancer effect. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
In the last two decades there has been widespread interest in the role of the immune system for maintaining good health. According to a study on medicinal mushrooms, diseases related to immune dysfunction “such as cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, AIDS/HIV, hepatitis and autoimmune conditions” are gaining wide attention from medical researchers and clinicians. As a result, practitioners are looking to mushrooms for their medicinal effects on the immune system.
The immune-strengthening benefits of certain fungi and their extracts have even shown to have an anti-cancer effect. While research foundations such as Cancer Research UK confirm that there is no evidence that mushrooms or mushroom extracts can prevent or cure cancer, specific fungi can prolong and improve the lives of cancer patients, as well as enhance their recovery process.
Given that medicinal mushrooms improve and modulate immune response, people from all over the world have used their medicinal properties to reduce health risks and boost the immune system. More specifically, research has indicated mushrooms have possible anti-cancer, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective (liver protective) properties.
Let’s look at how specific types of mushrooms can boost your overall health.
1. Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Shiitake mushrooms have powerful immune-enhancing and antiviral properties, contributing to lower cholesterol while exhibiting virus-inhibiting effects. Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan which not only strengthens the immune system, but, according to the American Cancer Society, is believed to slow tumor growth. The fungus, native to Asia, is also a good source of iron and antioxidants, which help reduce the damage from free radicals.
2. Reishi (Lingzhi)
Reishi has shown to contribute to the healing of tumors. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Reishi is a well-known Chinese mushroom, regarded as the “herb of spiritual potency.” Reishi has shown to contribute to the healing of tumors, while lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels. According to one report, Reishi helps with the modulation of the immune system and provides hepatoprotection and bacteriostasis (the inhibition of bacteria growth) in the body. It’s been used for more than 2,000 years, and is unique in that its pharmaceutical value is more significant than its nutritional value, setting it apart from other medicinal mushrooms. Reishi can be taken in many forms including powder, dietary supplements and tea.
3. Lactarius salmonicolor (Russulaceae)
Russulaceae contribute to the overall health of the immune system. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
The edible mushroom has potent medicinal benefits. One study identified antioxidant constituents in the rare mushroom. The researchers observed the antioxidant agents by detecting 10 fatty acids and fatty acid esters from an extract, then evaluated the antioxidant activity. Due to its antioxidant constituents, Russulaceae contribute to the overall health of the immune system. Namely, the fungus can serve as an anti-cancer and anti-viral advocate. There are more than 400 species worldwide; most commonly grow in coniferous woods.
4. Coriolus Versicolor (Trametes versicolor)
Two extracts from this mushroom are under evaluation for cancer treatments. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Commonly known as “Turkey Tail,” the mushroom has traditionally been used in Asian herbal remedies. According to the American Cancer Society, two extracts from the mushroom—polysaccharide K (PSK) and polysaccharide-peptide (PSP)—are under evaluation for cancer treatments. In fact, “clinical trials suggest that PSK may help people with certain types of cancer by increasing survival rates and lengthening periods of time without disease, without causing major side effects.” Turkey Tail mushroom is also advantageous in boosting the immune system, and is used in the naturopathic treatment of various HPV infections.
In the study, Phase 1 Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer, Coriolus Versicolor mushroom therapy (administered orally) in the postradiotherapy environment may enhance lymphocyte numbers and natural killer cell activity (NK). By increasing NK cell counts, remaining cancerous cells are attacked, improving the health of breast cancer patients after radiation treatment.
5. Morel (Morchella esculenta)
They possess an earthy flavor, and are high in iron and B vitamins. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
High in Vitamin D, morels are polymorphic, varying in shape, color and size. They possess an earthy flavor, and are high in iron and B vitamins. Due to similar appearance, it’s important to identity “true morels” from “false morels” (poisonous mushrooms). Even with “true morels” there have been documented cases of allergic reactions to these edible mushrooms, so it’s important to take precautionary steps when consuming morels.
The immune-boosting nutrients and health benefits of medicinal mushrooms continue to contribute to the large and persuasive body of scientific research. In fact, scientific studies of medicinal mushrooms have increased during the last two decades primarily in Japan, Korea, China and the U.S. Be sure to take the necessary precautions when identifying edible mushrooms, prior to utilizing them as part of a medical treatment or nutritional diet. By learning about the medicinal benefits of fungi, we can develop a more holistic approach to our overall immune health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Consult with your physician before making any medical decisions.
A grim new assessment of the world's flora and fungi has found that two-fifths of its species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, as The Guardian reported. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>