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Go Mad for Mushrooms

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The word fungus often brings to mind the fuzz on stale bread and mildew in the shower. Farmers know fungi can devastate such food crops as corn, rice, wheat and rye. But some types are both delicious and healing, valued for centuries as tonics throughout the world.

The word fungus often brings to mind the fuzz on stale bread and mildew in the shower. Farmers know fungi can devastate such food crops as corn, rice, wheat and rye. But some types are both delicious and healing, valued for centuries as tonics throughout the world. They're now used to treat cancer, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other degenerative conditions.

Scientists have named 100,000 different species of fungi and many more have yet to be classified. The Chinese identified those good for the immune system more than 3,000 years ago. In Japan, street pushcart vendors still sell medicinal mushrooms to locals who use them to promote health and longevity. Mushrooms' growing in popularity in North America is encouraged by scientific studies confirming traditional uses and suggesting new applications.

One of the key conclusions of science is that a number of compounds in fungi stimulate the function of the immune system and inhibit tumour growth. The anti-tumour and immune-stimulating properties of mushroom polysaccharides, complex chains of sugar molecules, have been repeatedly proven.

Medicinal mushrooms also behave as adaptogens, performing broad-based actions supporting the function of all major systems, including the nervous, hormonal and immune systems. Adaptogens bolster the body's resistance to toxic environmental influences, stress and pathogens like bacteria and viruses. They're especially noted for their ability to build endurance and reduce fatigue.

Immune-boosting Shiitake

Renowned in Japan and China as a food and medicine for thousands of years, shiitake (Lentinus edodes) is the second most common edible mushroom in the world after the white button.

Much research has been conducted on shiitake's medicinal properties. Two important components are "lentinan" and "lentinula edodes mycelium" extract (LEM). Lentinan is a purified polysaccharide powder and LEM is a powdered extract harvested before the cap and stem grow. Both have demonstrated strong anti-tumour power; they work by bolstering various immune system functions, enhancing the body's ability to eliminate the tumour.

One Japanese study found that chemotherapy patients who received lentinan injections once or twice a week survived longer with reduced tumour growth.

Reishi: King of Tonics

Ganoderma lucidum known in China as ling zhi and in Japan as reishi is particularly famous. In traditional Chinese medicine, it's in the highest class of tonics for promoting longevity.

In the last 20 years, a number of human clinical studies in Japan and China found reishi beneficial for a variety of disorders. Of special note are its effects on lung and heart function. In clinical studies conducted in China during the 1970s, some 2,000 patients with chronic bronchitis were given a tablet form of reishi syrup. Within two weeks, 60 to 90 per cent of the patients showed marked improvement.

In China, numerous preparations of reishi are made for daily use to promote health, induce sound sleep and increase resistance to infections and heart disease. Japan's government has officially listed reishi as an adjunct herb for treating cancer. Clinical reports indicate that its immune-stimulating polysaccharides may make it useful for people who are HIV positive or have chronic fatigue syndrome.

Miraculous Maitake

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is a delectable mushroom extremely popular in Japan. Like shiitake and reishi, it may have anti-cancer benefits. When used consistently as a food or tea, maitake seems to aid in the prevention of certain cancers and stimulates the immune system of cancer patients (even during chemotherapy). Physicians report that patients with Kaposi's sarcoma and other AIDS-related problems show improvement with the extract. These encouraging reports should be verified in controlled studies.

Medicinal mushrooms are available in supplement form. Even better is to make them a routine part of your diet as in China and Japan, where food and medicine are not so artificially separated. Try adding mushrooms to such dishes as tofu scramble, mushroom barley soup or tempeh burritos. You'll be doing a favour not only to your immune system but to your taste buds, too.

How to Use Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms are an effective part of a self-care program for chronic recurring infections like colds and flu as well as for general weakness and fatigue. For more serious conditions, use in consultation with a health-care practitioner.

You can get mushrooms from a variety of sources. Look in natural food stores for fresh and dried mushrooms as well as powdered and liquid supplements. Practitioners of Chinese medicine, including acupuncturists, are also good sources.

I recommend taking one teaspoon of dried or powdered mushrooms daily, either in a cup of tea, sprinkled into soup or on stir-fries and rice. To make a tea, place a teaspoon of dried mushrooms in a pan, add a cup of water, simmer for 40 to 60 minutes and then strain. Ginger or a little licorice improves the taste, which can be bitter.

If you prefer capsules, an average amount of powdered mushroom per capsule is 400 milligrams (mg). For mild to moderate immune support, take two capsules, morning and evening, for a total of 1,600 mg per day. For specific immune-suppressed conditions like chronic fatigue, cancer and AIDS, take two to three capsules three times a day.

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