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Volume 12 | Number 2 Journal of the American Herbalists Guild
ungi are extremely ancient
organisms, and tremendous
diversity exists in many
habitats throughout the
world. Most of the scientic
work performed on fungi
with regard to their medicinal and healing
eects can be thought of in two categories:
antibiotics and immunomodulators.
A landmark discovery in human history was
that various soil fungi contain powerful
antibiotics, apparently to protect themselves from
bacterial infections. These antibiotics have saved
literally millions of lives, starting with penicillin
discovered in 1928, and streptomycin in 1943.
While these medicines have been mostly
benecial, many decades of their medical misuse
and overuse, plus their widespread inclusion in
animal and dairy products, have created a global
emergency: the arrival of antibiotic-resistant
superbugs that might cause pandemics that could
wipe out millions.
But the relationship between fungi and
humans is far older than the potent 20th-century
antibiotics described above. Many other fungi
have been used in healing and medicine, going
back over 3,000-4,000 years, and possibly
further back to the Stone Age (Peintner & Pöder
2000). Instead of soil organisms, these medicines
were and are derived from “higher” fungi, the
macrofungi that produce visible fruiting bodies –
commonly known as mushrooms – for the
distribution of their spores.
Besides humans’ long relationship with them
for use as medicine and food, mushrooms are also
recognized as pathogens, perhaps as best
evidenced by the body’s innate recognition of
specic compounds that all fungi carry as part of
their cell walls: beta-glucans (ß-glucans).
Fungal ß-glucans and the
Immune System
Also found in some plants and bacteria, ß-glucans
are glucose polymers occurring in many sizes
and shapes. The major active compounds for
immunomodulatory and antitumor eects
are the ß -D-glucans, which often occur in a
triple helix conformation. Many structural
variations of these bioactive mushroom cell wall
carbohydrates exist in dierent species, but all
have a main chain consisting of (1 3)-linked
ß -D-glucopyranosyl units along which are
randomly dispersed single ß -D-glucopyranosyl
units attached by 16 linkages giving a comb-
like structure (Bohn & BeMiller 1995).
Just as shape plays a role in ß-glucans’
activity, so do size and solubility. Larger forms
of the ß-glucan molecules derived from the cell
walls of fungi, especially in their native triple
helix form (Bohn & BeMiller 1995), or particles
of these, seem to be more potent than smaller
molecules. Water-soluble ß-glucans have
also been widely studied and shown to have a
variety of immunostimulatory (activate immune
Mushroom Medicine:
Challenges and Potential
Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D., L.Ac., RH (AHG)
fDr. Christopher Hobbs is a
fourth-generation,
internationally renowned
herbalist, licensed
acupuncturist, herbal clinician,
research scientist, consultant
to the dietary supplement
industry, expert witness,
botanist, and mycologist with
over 35 years of experience.
Christopher is the author or
co-author of over 20 books,
including the groundbreaking
Medicinal Mushrooms (Book
Publishing Co., 1987) and
Grow It, Heal It (Rodale Press,
2013). Christopher lectures on
herbal medicine worldwide.
He has taught at universities
and medical schools such as
Stanford Medical School, Yale
Medical School, Bastyr
University and the National
School of Naturopathic
Medicine. He has taught
classes for the last six years at
the University of California,
Berkeley as a Ph.D. graduate
student in evolutionary
biology, phylogenetics, plant
chemistry, and ethnobotany.
Visit Christopher’s website at
www.christopherhobbs.com.
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functions) or immunomodulatory (regulate
immune functions) eects (Batbayar et al 2012,
Rice et al 2005). An extract of a mushroom
fruiting body, such as Lentinula edodes (shiitake)
or Trametes versicolor (turkey tail), might contain
up to about 40-50 percent or higher ß-glucans.
Once inside the human body, the primary
eect of ß-glucans seems to be activation of the
immune response to alert the host to the presence
of, and to inhibit, infectious pathogens. Is it
serendipity that mushrooms that are edible and
nutritious contain compounds that stimulate the
immune system, but without the threat of disease?
How do fungi act as immunostimulants? The
mechanisms are still not clearly dened, but
ß-glucans are absorbed in the gut, where they
bind to gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT)
binding sites without intestinal absorption.
Additionally, ß-glucans bind to macrophages
associated with the gut barrier, acting on several
immune receptors including Dectin-1,
complement receptor 3 (CR3) and toll-like
receptors (TLR-2/6), triggering a group of
immune cells including macrophages,
neutrophils, monocytes, natural killer cells and
dendritic cells (Goodridge et al 2001). Due to
these actions, both innate and adaptive immune
responses can be modulated by ß-glucans, and
phagocytosis (the engulfment of pathogens and
foreign substances to break them down or clear
them) can be enhanced (Chan et al 2009).
Most ß-glucans cannot be digested, and so
have to be captured by macrophages, internalized
and fragmented within the cells, then transported
by macrophages to the marrow and endothelial
reticular system. The smaller ß-glucans fragments
are subsequently released by the macrophages
and taken up by other immune cells which leads to
Choosing Medicinal Species
Since all mushrooms contain ß-glucans, and ß-glucans are recognized
by the human immune system through ancient cellular evolutionary
interactions, it stands to reason that all mushrooms are immunomodulating
and immunostimulating. Despite this, we focus on well-known medicinal
species like Trametes versicolor (turkey tail), Lentinula edodes (shiitake),
and Grifola frondosa (maitake), because these are commonly available and
have a long history of use, or perhaps because of their striking appearance
as in the case of Ganoderma lucidum (reishi). Reishi has been valued for
its beautiful shape and bright varnished appearance for many centuries.
Based on my research and experience, I prefer to use turkey tail and
shiitake above other species, simply because they have a larger body of
clinical trials and long traditional use. Reishi has a very long history of use,
but is only supported by clinical reports from China (which reported that
the mushroom tea administered to people yielded better outcomes than
expected), not rigorously-designed clinical trials. Human clinical trials with
larger sets of volunteers taking the remedy vs. those having a placebo for
at least 12 months, and following up for at least five years, are needed.
These studies are ongoing in Asia and in the U.S., where preliminary
evidence is promising. I do not rely upon animal studies mainly because of
the wide range of differences in activity of ß-glucans and other compounds
as well as the way the liver metabolizes them in different species.
I do recommend use of Inonotus obliquus (chaga), Auricularia
polytricha (wood ear), Hericium erinaceus (lion’s mane), and other
up-and-coming species as well, but limited scientific research and
information about traditional use of these mushrooms are available.
Figure 1: An example of the
molecular structure of soluble
yeast ß-glucan (Waszkiewicz-
Robak B 2013)
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diverse immune responses.
In summary, when specic fungal, bacterial,
or other microorganismal markers are detected in
the gut, a large number of immune system
mechanisms, likely both humoral and cellular, are
activated (Batbayar et al 2012). These processes
stimulate the immune system’s vigilance to attack
viruses, abnormal cells, and of course, pathogenic
fungi and bacteria. The terminology for pattern-
recognition of fungal ß-glucans by our immune
system, recognition that has developed over
evolutionary time, is pathogen-associated
molecular pattern (PAMP) (deSmet et al 2013).
Preparation and Dosage
For maximum activity, delivery of mushroom
medicine via water-based extract or micropowder
is best. These methods of administration
are preferable to alcoholic extract because
ß-glucans and proteins are not alcohol-soluble,
and alcohol interferes with hydrogen bonding,
altering the tertiary structures to the point where
immunomodulatory activity is reduced (Bohn
& BeMiller 1995). For these reasons, I do not
recommend tinctures for immune disorders,
cancer, or viral syndromes. On the other
hand, some mushrooms contain small weight
molecular compounds (e.g., reishi triterpenes)
which have demonstrated sedative, anti-
allergenic, hepatoprotective and other activity,
and these compounds are soluble in alcohol.
The tincture may be useful in these cases.
Based on a lot of clinical and personal
experience, I’m convinced that a high dose is
necessary where there is a need for strong
immunomodulation or stimulation and one is
dealing with a serious ailment such as cancer.
The average dose used in many clinical trials for
cancer support with chemotherapy is about 5 to 6
grams per day of enzymatically processed
mycelial extract, such as the Trametes versicolor-
derived pharmaceutical products Polysaccharide
peptide (PSP) or Polysaccharide K (PSK), which
are produced in liquid culture using
fermentation technologies. These products are
highly rened and concentrated protein-bound
polysaccharides that are often characterized as
drugs and are in no way comparable to crude
mycelium produced on grain.
For prevention, about 25 grams of shredded
or powdered crude mushroom fruiting body as a
decoction (drink 1 strong cup, twice daily for
maximum eect, and less for prevention or
maintenance), or 2 to 3 grams per day of a
water-based extract (a minimum of two “00”
capsules twice daily, equaling a total of 2 grams)
should be sucient for most people. This dose
applies to nely-powdered fruiting body, steamed
or otherwise, though steaming the powder or
shredded mushrooms rst, then drying and
powdering may be preferable for reducing the
possibility of digestive disturbance. The idea is to
get the particles as ne as possible to allow for
greater surface area exposure and absorption.
About twice this dose is appropriate for treating
more serious conditions (typically used as
adjuvants with other drugs, remedies, or
functional medicines like CoQ10), depending on
the user’s body weight and sensitivity.
Pharmacodynamically, ß-glucans stay in the
blood for some time (Rice et al 2005). For
instance, after 24 hours, 20 percent of laminarin
was still detectible in the blood serum. This
Trametes versicolor
(turkey tail).
Photo by Christopher Hobbs
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means that some activity likely continues
throughout the day with oral intake. Still,
mushroom extracts act as short-acting mitogens,
which means that they have to be taken
frequently for full benets. In my experience, a
divided dose of half in the morning and half in the
evening works best. A dosage of three times a day
oers maximum eects, but this frequency seems
to create a problem with compliance for most
patients.
Since I wrote the rst edition of my Medicinal
Mushrooms book in 1987 (second edition in 1995,
Botanica Press, published by the Book Publishing
Company in Tennessee), I’ve been experimenting
with medicinal mushrooms both inside the clinic
and out, personally and with friends and family.
I’ve been combing the research for many years as
well. After all this time I still have questions:
Which species make the strongest medicine?
What form of extraction — water-based
decoctions or steaming the powdered fruiting
bodies — will be more potent? Denitive studies
to help resolve these issues are still needed.
Are the fruiting bodies stronger than the
mycelial product? Based on my sense of taste and
my clinical and personal experience, I always
prefer the fruiting bodies for making medicine
because this reduces the possibility that a
signicant amount of grain or other substrate
such as straw will be present in the nished
product, thereby reducing the amount of active
ingredients and increasing levels of starch or
other inactive common molecules.
Medicinal Mushrooms
as a Dietary Supplement
What can one really expect from a full dose of
medicinal mushrooms added to the diet daily?
Mushroom medicines are widely recommended
for prevention of cancer, as an adjuvant treatment
for cancer with chemotherapy, or for some people
perhaps by itself, as a standalone treatment
(though no clinical trials here). First of all, keep
in mind that chronic metabolic illnesses like
cancer, liver diseases, viral syndromes, immune
weakness, and especially chronic immune
weakness in general, are conditions that have
likely settled into the body deeply over years,
and so are very dicult to treat. Medicinal
mushrooms are not panaceas or magic bullets
and may be of limited benet in some cases.
A total program for health is needed: diet,
meditation, mindfulness and spiritual practice,
exercise, handling and reducing stress as well
as possible, herbs, body work, and counseling.
Medicinal mushrooms should be used as
regular dietary supplements that can oer proven
and decided benets, while being exceptionally
safe. It’s important to take them daily and very
regularly for full health benets. I believe that
anyone or nearly anyone with cancer, viral
syndromes and immune weakness can obtain
some benet from medicinal mushrooms. From
my experience, the regular addition of edible
mushrooms (especially oyster mushrooms,
shiitake, maitake, wood ear, porcini, chanterelles)
can provide a signicant health benet for
balancing blood lipids, blood sugar, immune
function, weight, and overall nutrition.
Recently I’ve been focusing on the
nutritional and health-giving benets of
mushrooms added to the diet regularly, and even
Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster
mushroom).
Photo by Jason Hollinger CC BY SA 2.0
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daily. Mushrooms are amazing dietary
supplements simply for their nutritional value
alone. Almost all mushrooms should be cooked
before eating. That’s because mushrooms contain
a lot of indigestible long-chain polymers like
chitin, an amino polymer found in crab shells. You
can imagine how tough a crab shell is to digest. In
fact, the irritating qualities of the larger molecular
weight polymers in raw mushrooms can cause
stomach upset readily. After cooking, mushrooms
yield a lot of valuable health-giving nutrients such
as trace minerals including copper, zinc, and
many others. Mushrooms also contain rather high
amounts of macro minerals such as potassium
and phosphorus.
For food or nutritional purposes, stick to the
eshy fungi that are soft and tender like Pleurotus
ostreatus (oyster mushrooms ), shiitake, various
Agaricus species, or Auricularia polytricha (wood
ear). I believe that the many varieties of oyster
mushrooms are the most digestible of all. These
mushrooms yield valuable soluble ber and some
insoluble ber; in fact they are one of nature’s
foods highest in ber. Fiber helps move the
bowels, removes toxic waste products, regulates
blood cholesterol levels, and interacts with the
immune system and gut microora in benecial
ways. Some mushrooms also contain an amazing
amount of protein. For instance, shiitake and
oyster mushrooms contain up to one quarter
usable protein (Khan et al 2008). This protein is
quite high quality, and in some cases rivals egg
protein. Many mushrooms are also very tasty,
especially Boletus edulis (king bolete), Cantharellus
cibarius (chanterelle), oyster mushrooms,
maitake, and many others. Considering their
high-ber, low-carbohydrate and high-protein
content, plus other nutritional properties and
their delicious avor, mushrooms are really the
ideal diet food. Eaten regularly, mushrooms will
provide all of these nutritional and health-giving
benets, along with the medicinal actions.
Most medicinal polypores like reishi or
Ganoderma applanatum (artist’s conk) are hard as
a piece of wood. You can cook them all you want
and pound them too, but they just will not
tenderize. Fortunately, the medicinal qualities of
these fruiting bodies can be liberated by boiling
or other methods of extraction.
A Note about Foraging
Wild mushroom hunters must bear in mind that
some species are quite toxic, or even lethal. As
the old saying goes, “There are old mushroom
hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there
are no old and bold mushroom hunters.” I have
eaten over 50 wild species and have lived to
tell the tale. This is because I make sure of the
identity of the mushroom I’m about to eat and
take few chances. Special attention should be
paid to the world’s most poisonous mushrooms,
such as Amanita phalloides. Anyone daring to
forage mushrooms in the wild should be able to
recognize these deadly species without doubt,
paying attention to all their subtle characteristics
such as spore color, stem shape and texture, and
whether the gills (if present) connect to the stem
or are free. Considering all wild mushrooms, very
few are lethal, but all it takes is one. Take a class,
get some good books with lots of pictures, and
for medicinal mushroom identication you can
check out my book by the same name, or others.
REFERENCES
Batbayar S et aL 2012, Immunomodulation of Fungal β-Glucan in Host
Defense Signaling by Dectin-1 Biomol Ther. (Seoul) 20(5):433-45
Bohn JA & BeMiller JN 1995, (1β3) β-D-Glucans as biological
response modifiers: a review of structure-functional
activity relationships Carbohydrate Polymers. 28: 3-14
Chan GC-F et al 2009, The effects of ß-glucan on human immune
and cancer cells Journal of Hematology & Oncology 2:25
Goodridge HS et al 2009, Beta-glucan recognition by the
innate immune system Immunol Rev. 230(1):38-50
De Smet R et al 2013, ß-Glucan microparticles are good
candidates for mucosal antigen delivery in oral
vaccination J Controlled Release. 172(3): 671–678
Khan A et al 2008, Comparative Study of the Nutritional
Composition of Oyster Mushrooms Cultivated in
Bangladesh Bangladesh J. Mushroom. 2(1): 9-14
Khan MA et al 2009, Investigation on the nutritional composition
of the common edible and medicinal mushrooms cultivated
in Bangladesh Bangladesh J. Mushroom. 3(1):21–28
Peintner U &Pöder R 2000, The Iceman and his Natural
Environment ,The Man in the Ice Volume 4, 2000, p 143-
150, Ethnomycological remarks on the Iceman’s fungi
Rice PJ et al 2005, Oral Delivery and Gastrointestinal Absorption of
Soluble Glucans Stimulate Increased Resistance to Infectious
Challenge J Pharmacol Exper Ther. 314(3): 1079-1086
Waszkiewicz-Robak B 2013, Spent Brewer’s Yeast and
Beta-Glucans Isolated from Them as Diet Components
Modifying Blood Lipid Metabolism Disturbed by an
Atherogenic Diet. From: Lipid Metabolism (Baez RV)
(Chapter 12). Rijeka, Croatia: InTech Europe
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(1→3)-β-d-Glucans that have β-d-glucopyranosyl units attached by (1→6) linkages as single unit branches enhance the immune system systemically. This enhancement results in antitumor, antibacterial, antiviral, anticoagulatory and wound healing activities. The (1→3)-β-d-glucan backbone is essential. The most active polymers have degrees of branching (DB) between 0.20 and 0.33. Data suggest both that triple helical structures formed from high molecular weight polymers are possibly important for immunopotentiating activity and that activity is independent of any specific ordered structure. Other data indicate that it is the distribution of the branch units along the backbone chain that is responsible for activity. There are data that indicate both that β-d-glucopyranosyl units are required for immunopotentiating activity and that the specific nature of the substituent is unimportant. There are also data that indicate both that the more water-soluble polymers are more active (up to a certain degree of substitution (DS) or DB) and that some insoluble aggregates are more stimulatory than the soluble polymers. The best conclusion at this time is that the immunopotentiating activity of (1→3)-β-d-glucans depends on a helical conformation and on the presence of hydrophilic groups located on the outside surface of the helix. Immunopotentiation effected by binding of a (1→3)-β-glucan molecule or particle probably includes activation of cytotoxic macrophages, helper T cells, and NK cells, promotion of T cell differentiation, and activation of the alternative complement pathway.
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Beta-glucans are recognized by the innate immune system. This recognition plays important roles in host defense and presents specific opportunities for clinical modulation of the host immune response. Neutrophils, macrophages, and dendritic cells among others express several receptors capable of recognizing beta-glucan in its various forms. This review explores what is currently known about beta-glucan recognition and how this recognition stimulates immune responses. Special emphasis is placed on Dectin-1, as we know the most about how this key beta-glucan receptor translates recognition into intracellular signaling, stimulates cellular responses, and participates in orchestrating the adaptive immune response.
The Iceman and his Natural EnvironmentThe Man in the Ice Ethnomycological remarks on the Iceman's fungi Rice PJ et al Oral Delivery and Gastrointestinal Absorption of Soluble Glucans Stimulate Increased Resistance to
  • U Peintner
Peintner U &Pöder R 2000, The Iceman and his Natural Environment,The Man in the Ice Volume 4, 2000, p 143150, Ethnomycological remarks on the Iceman's fungi Rice PJ et al 2005, Oral Delivery and Gastrointestinal Absorption of Soluble Glucans Stimulate Increased Resistance to Infectious Challenge J Pharmacol Exper Ther. 314(3): 1079-1086