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Forest dwellers long ago discovered the value of medicinal mushrooms for the healing of both the body and the forest. Sadly, most of our ancestors' empirical knowledge is lost, but what little survives hints at a rich, albeit vulnerable source. Unfortunately, as loggers cut down the old-growth forest, many fungi lose their foothold in the ecosystem. Preliminary studies on mushrooms have revealed novel antibiotics, anticancer chemotheropeutic agents, immunomodulators, and a slew of active constituents.
Despite recent medical advances, microbes--especially viruses--continue to kill millions of people, stimulating the search for new antimicrobial agents that are safe for humans to use. Mushrooms, which naturally produce a surprising array of antibiotics, may provide the answer.
Mushrooms share a deeper evolutionary history with animals than with any other kingdom, so humans and mushrooms share risks of infection from some of the same microbes. Although mycelium has just a single cell wall protecting it from hundreds of millions of hostile microbes in every gram of soil, it manages to form networks extending, in some documented cases, thousands of acres and weighing thousands of tons. Nutrient-rich mushrooms, before sporulation, resist infection and rot, and I believe each mushroom species predetermines which bacterial colonies can live upon it. How do mushrooms do this? The cell surface of mycelium "sweats" out antibiotics and many mushrooms target specific species of bacteria.
Useful antibiotics isolated in mushrooms include calvacin from giant puffball mushrooms, armillaric acid from honey mushrooms, campestrin from meadow mushrooms, coprinol from kinky caps, ganomycin from reishi mushrooms, sorolin from turkey tail mushrooms, and agaricin from agarikon mushrooms. With a diversity estimated at over 140,000 species, mushrooms are a promising resource for new antibiotics and they are a hot topic right now with medical researchers. Mushrooms are the subject of clinical studies that examine their usefulness in adjunct therapies used as a complement to conventional medicine. So far researchers have found that mushrooms contain polysaccharides, glycoproteins, protoglycans, ergosterols, triterpenoids, enzymes, acids, and antibiotics that when used individually and in concert can stop infection. Scientists have also found that each species of mushroom has a signature architecture and defense against microbes. (Learn more about the medicinal properties of specific mushrooms in my book MycoMedicinals).
That medicinal mushrooms have been ingested for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years, strongly suggest most are not toxic, and research supports them as likely candidates in our search for natural antiviral agents. Suzuki and others (1990) discovered an antiviral water-soluble lining in an extract of the mycelium of shiitake mushrooms isolated from cultures grown on rice bran and sugarcane bagasse. Collins and Ng (1997) identified a polysaccharapeptide from turkey tail mushrooms inhibiting HIV type 1 infection, while Sarkar and others (1993) identified an antiviral substance extracted from shiitake mushrooms.
People whose immune systems are compromised by a respiratory virus can become infected by bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumonia. Mushrooms having both antiviral and antibacterial properties may prevent such opportunistic infections. Mushrooms also influence populations of bacteriophages--viruses that use bacteria as incubators and vectors for further infection. I hypothesize that studying the interrelationships between mushrooms and their related bacteria, viruses, and bacteriophages will reveal medically significant antibiotics in the near future.
With airline passengers from remote regions of the world concentrating in airports and traveling to farflung destinations, contagious passengers are likely to infect others. Virtually anywhere humans concentrate provides opportunities for contagions to spread, whether by air or by physical contact. With the threat of bioterrorism from weaponized viruses, a readily available, inexpensive, broad-spectrum antiviral antidote would serve the public's health. Mushrooms, especially combinations of mushrooms, offer protection from infectious diseases in at least three ways: first, directly as antimicrobial agents (antibiotics); second, by increasing your immune system's natural defenses, what physicians call the host-mediated response; and third, the custom construction of mycelial mats for mycrofiltration can reduce the risk of infection from environmental sources such as sewage from feedlots and slaughterhouses. The key is to match the mushroom with the pathogen.
Several mushroom species--oyster, shiitake, maitake, turkey tail, and others--have shown anti-HIV activity under certain circumstances. Protease inhibitors, commonly prescribed to combat HIV, interfere with lipid metabolism in the liver, causing an accumulation of "bad" cholesterol (LDL). Oyster mushrooms contain a natural isomer of lovastatin, an FDA-approved cholesterol-lowering drug.
At a recent mycological conference, a scientist reported that a small pool of people who had ingested "15 grams of oyster mushrooms per day for 30 days reduced LDL cholesterol by up to 30 percent." The cholesterol-reducing properties of oyster mushrooms, combined with their anti-HIV glycoproteins, suggest that this mushroom may be one that can dually mitigate the side effects of protease inhibitor therapies while fighting AIDS.
Rarely in the natural world are there organisms whose use can be pivotal in addressing the many causes of disease. Mushrooms stand out. Our mandate is to engage these fungi as allies. Not only are they essential for bolstering the food web by increasing sustainability of soils, but their mycelia and fruitbodies produce a gamut of highly potent products, medically beneficial to the environment and all of us creatures living within.
Adapted with permission from Mycelium Running ©2005 by Paul Stamets, published by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.
Paul Stamets has been a dedicated mycologist for more than 30 years. He is the founder of Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned, environmentally friendly company specializing in developing organic medicinal mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people. Look for their new Host Defense brand of medicinal mushrooms at your local natural foods store or visit www.fungi.com for more information.
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