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Mushrooms: Ancient Allies
for Modern Medicine

by Paul Stamets

Paul Stamets has been a dedicated mycologist for more than 30 years. (Shown here with the ancient and rare Agarikon mushroom surviving in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest). Paul has discovered four new species of mushrooms and written six books on
mushroom cultivation, use, and identification.

paul stamets

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The medicinal use of mushrooms dates back more than 10,000 years. Today modern medicine is re-discovering what our ancestors knew: fungi contain some of the most potent medicines found in nature.  Although approximately 60% of our current medicines still originate from natural sources, and despite advances in modern medicine, the natural world remains largely unexplored in its potential for improving human health.  Mushrooms are now the subject of numerous research studies worldwide in the search for new immuno-enhancing, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.  Because it is estimated that only 10% of mushroom-forming fungi have been described scientifically from a pool of about 150,000 species, the potential is tremendous.
Roughly 12,000 genes make up the DNA of mushrooms, yet these 12,000 genes “code” for more than 200,000 compounds, only a few hundred of which have been isolated so far.  What this means is mushrooms are a treasure trove of medically significant compounds. Why do fungi hold so much promise as antibiotic compounds?  Nature offers us this clue--many animals and mushrooms share similar microbial adversaries: pathogenic bacteria.
Mushrooms are under constant assault by hungry microbes, resisting bacterial parasitization and attack by disease-causing fungi. As a result, they have evolved to contain novel antibacterial and antifungal antibiotics not yet discovered. The complex array of antibacterial and antifungal medicines that can be made from mushrooms are particularly interesting because humans are afflicted by many of the same pathogens that attack mushrooms themselves--including the bacteria Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Escherichia (E. coli), the fungi Candida (C. albicans), Aspergillus, and Fusarium.
Nature is a numbers game. When working to enhance an individual’s innate immunity, nature knows it is more expedient to use a constellation of synergistic compounds instead of relying upon only one active constituent.  Similarly, capitalizing upon the resistance strategies of many mushroom species against infection is better than one. This is particularly true today, when humans are exposed to so many stress and disease vectors.
Where modern science and ancient wisdom diverge is reflected in the search for Active Ingredients, or “AIs”.  An active ingredient is a specific molecule or compound that shows a potent and target-specific effect. The story of the discovery of penicillin is one of many examples of the discovery of an AI from a fungus. Alexander Fleming, awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1928, noted that when the Penicillium green mold and the Staphylococcus bacterium were in close contact, the staph bacteria stopped growing. Little droplets of fluid exuded from the margins of the mold, and within these exudates was the mysterious anti-staph compound, the active ingredient.  After his observation, the hunt was on for the causal mechanism, using what is known as “bio-guided fractionation.” Simply put, the extracted compounds were chemically partitioned and each sub-mixture was tested to see which branch of the fractionation path led to greatest potency. Penicillin was discovered, eventually saving millions of lives and altering the course of human history.
Potent antibiotics have been isolated from fungi to suppress bacteria and the infections they cause. Over many generations, bacteria develop a tolerance to the antibiotics, and those bacteria develop antibiotic resistant gene sequences.  These drug-resistant “transponder” genes can move from one group of bacteria to another, complicating how antibiotics are best used, and threatening current infectious disease treatments. Many novel compounds with antibiotic potential are provided in blends of mushroom species. The multiplicity of many of mushroom species’ host defenses makes it difficult for a single bacterium to cause infection.
Antibiotics are just one approach for fighting disease. We now know that viruses often lower the host’s immunity, which then sets the stage for bacterial infection. Limiting viral assault is a complicated endeavor and may decrease the likelihood of cancer being triggered. Many cancers today are associated with viruses, including liver (Hepatitis virus), cervical (HPV papillomavirus), and skin (MCPyV polyoma virus).  It is well known within the medical community that virally-induced infection can be fought by an individual’s natural immune system, via what is known as “host defense.” With the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, finding foods that help one’s host defense against infection becomes increasingly important. 
Several mushroom species, especially the polypore mushrooms, are uniquely positioned to benefit human health. Reishi, Maitake, Turkey Tail, Mesima, Zhu Ling, and Agarikon stand out as being exceptionally safe to use while providing support to immunity. Each mushroom species has a unique molecular structure inside where species-specific health supporting compounds are embedded. Sugars (particularly mannoses, hexoses, arabinoses, glucoses, galactoses and fucoses) are abundantly manufactured by the mycelium as it forms into a mushroom. Some of the glucans are assembled into heavier-weighted beta glucan polysaccharides by the mycelium.  These mycelially-generated polysaccharides stimulate an immune response in animals.
Beta glucans are not exclusive to mushroom-forming fungi. They are also found in yeasts and shellfish and are widely distributed throughout fungi, bacteria, and crustaceans.  However, mushroom-based beta glucans are uniquely branched and adorned. Embedded within this scaffolding are combinations of sterols and other complementary antioxidants that result in an immune response far greater than beta glucans by themselves.
Numerous studies show that when each mushroom species is ingested, an immune response is stimulated, increasing the number of macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells in the body, both of which target diseased cells, including cancerous ones.  Natural killer cells seek out the cancer cells, and search for binding sites on the stroma of the cancerous cells.  The cancer’s ability to evade detection by the NK cells or the low numbers of NK cells compared to the number of cancerous cell clusters causes mortality. Increasing the ability of the immune system to find binding sites enables entry of NK cells into cancer cells, while also reducing the proliferation of blood vessels that feed tumors. This proliferation of blood vessels fueling the growth of tumors is known as angiogenesis. Dr. Alexander Li, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, focuses on foods that are anti-angiogenic. According to Dr. Li, Maitake mushrooms are one of the best foods for starving cancer, comparable to the best pharmaceutical medicines available.
The diversity of mushroom species known to have an immune benefit is strong reason for multiple mushroom-based therapies, and is attracting the attention of doctors worldwide. Mushrooms have vast stores of Active Ingredients, which directly inhibit infection by pathogens and stimulate the immune system, creating a shield of host defense to enhance natural immunity.  At a time when science is struggling to find new medicines, mushrooms remain a vast treasure trove of medicinal foods--once widely used by our ancestors, and now rediscovered by modern medical practitioners and patients.
Mushrooms such as Reishi, Maitake, Turkey Tail and Agarikon, have been used for millennia to fortify human health. Dioscorides (circa 65 A.D.) first described Agarikon, a large, tough, beehive shaped wood conk that grows exclusively on old growth trees, as the “elixirium ad longam vitam” meaning the elixir of long life. Agarikon historically was used for its anti-inflammatory and its respiratory support--especially from the ravages of “consumption,” thought to be tuberculosis, now known to be caused by Mycobacteria. Surprisingly, little attention has been focused on this group of fungi by modern science until recently. 

Paul Stamets is a mushroom expert and the founder of Fungi Perfecti, an environmentally friendly company specializing in developing organic medicinal mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people. Look for their Host Defense brand of medicinal mushrooms at your local natural foods store or visit www.fungi.com.

Related Info:
Medicinal Mushrooms: Nature's Abundant Pharmacy
The Organic Factor
The Wisdom of Organic Agriculture
Revisioning Agriculture for the 21st Century
Reduce the Effects of Aging with Natural Supplements

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