Mushrooms are fascinating fungi. Think about it: certain mushrooms are the only straight, out of the ground fungi we and our companion pets can eat. Indeed, they are a member of only a handful of fungi like yeast that can be found in foods or are used to make foods such as cheese and bread. Mushrooms, though, are more complex than that; the kingdom of fungi, also called fungus kingdom, is filled with edible, hallucinogenic, poisonous and medicinal mushrooms.
Similar to fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, mushrooms are packed full of certain and essential vitamins, minerals, and have important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, mushrooms have been used by in folk medicines and also served as medicines prior to the development and use of pharmaceuticals for millennia. Nowadays, fungi also are used to make antibiotics, which doctors may use to treat bacterial infections. The resurgence of holistic medicine for people, pets and other species has brought the wondrous properties of mushrooms back into the spotlight as alternatives to more conventional practices.
The use of mushrooms to treat certain ailments is still a science that needs to be applied wisely. Therefore, we recommend you consult with an integrative veterinarian or physician before using them. Additionally, sourcing – regarding harvesting and processing – is always a consideration with any food or herb. Mushroom species can accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides. Thus, contamination with toxic compounds may offset whatever potential health benefits they have to offer.
Popular Medicinal Mushrooms
- Chaga – Supports the immune system and has anti-cancer properties
- Cordyceps – Proven beneficial in some human and animal asthma patients
- Maitake – Anti-cancer properties
- Reishi – Stimulates and supports the immune system
- Shiitake – Contains phytochemicals known to support the immune system and cellular functions
- Turkey Tail or Yun zhi – Proven to improve survival in canine hemangiosarcoma patients
Functional Components of Mushrooms
Beta-glucans are the most medicinally-beneficial compound found in mushrooms. They make up to 50% of the cell wall structure of fungi and yeast, and are also found in the cell walls of seaweed and grains. Beta-glucans are polymers of glucose and are of varying lengths and degrees of branching that convey special properties to each fungus and yeast.
Once they are ingested, beta-glucans bind to receptors on the intestinal macrophages (a phagocytic white blood cell), which then carry them to other organs such as spleen, lymph nodes, bone marrow and reticuloendothelial tissues. The macrophages metabolize the beta-glucans glucans into smaller, more immunologically active metabolites which bond to and activate the complement receptors on bone marrow granulocytes (stem cells), thus increasing immune competence.
Alpha-glucans are also present in the fungal cell wall. They provide nourishment for sporulation, and help to prolong the survival of the spores by blocking their oxygen intake which slows their metabolism. Alpha-glucans, unlike beta-glucans, are ubiquitous in the plant kingdom, and are not specific to yeast, fungi, grain and seaweed.
These molecules that make up the cell wall of fungi and yeast provide a specific factor that allows them to be recognized not only by other yeast and fungi, but also by other plants, humans and animals. This recognition of fungi and yeast is an innate immune response that exists in both plants and animals to protect them from the old and ongoing threat of fungal invasion, infection, and even death. It is the branched chain beta-glucans, mannans and glycoproteins that provide the molecular recognition factors that trigger the protective immune responses.
Other compounds found in the cytoplasm of the mushroom cell include: terpenes, alkaloids, sterols, phenolic compounds, proteins and fatty acids. The triterpenoids of Chaga and Ganoderma spp. have some potent medicinal properties, such as hepatoprotective, lipid lowering, antioxidant, inhibition of histamine release by mast cells, anti-inflammatory activity, and act synergistically in immune activation when used in combination with beta-glucans.
Sterols are also found in mushrooms. Ergosterol, found in all mushroom, is tested for in documenting fungal contamination of grain. It is a precursor in forming vitamin D2, which is catalyzed by exposure to UV light, except in dogs and cats, who lack the enzyme to allow this conversion of either the ergosterol or cholesterol that is present in the skin of most other mammals.
Functions of Medicinal Mushrooms
Ongoing basic research and clinical trials in human and veterinary medicine have established the value of certain mushrooms in maintaining and balancing a healthy immune system as well as adjuncts or sole therapy in managing and treating various types of cancers.
The so-called Powerful Five mushrooms are described in more detail here:
(Cordyceps militaris) is a traditional medicinal mushroom with a variety of health benefits such as antitumor, antimutagenic, antiangiogenesis, antiaging, endocrine balancing, and hypoglycemic effects. Cordycepin has many pharmacological activities including immune stimulating, anticancer, antivirus, and anti-infection activities. A variety of chemical constituents, including polysaccharides and glycoproteins, are involved in these activities. Cordycepin down-regulates the immediate hypersensitivity reaction stimulated by lipopolysaccharides. It is an important quality of life enhancing mushroom.
(Grifola frondosa) means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. This mushroom is high in β-glucans which some believe makes it more effective than the Turkey Tail mushroom in its antitumor effects that derive from enhancing the immune system response through activation of macrophages, T cells, and NK cells. Maitake is also high in phospholipids and certain lectins, thus supporting brain function, nerve function, and regeneration. It lowers blood pressure, decreases cholesterol (through mevinolin, a secondary metabolite found in many fungi), is hepatoprotective, lowers blood glucose and is anti-diabetic.
(Lentinula edodes) is considered as an “elixir of life” in Japan, possessing the ability to enhance vital energy and believed to cure colds. It is high in enzymes, amino acids and minerals. It can reduce blood pressure, decrease blood cholesterol levels, prevent heart disease, and fight cancer. Other studies have shown its potential antibiotic actions by stimulating white blood counts, antibodies, and interferon, and inhibiting prostaglandins.
(Ganoderma lucidum; Ling zhi), known as the “Herb of Immortality” and “emperor of Mushrooms”, is used in various forms and combinations with other mushrooms, herbs, and antioxidants. It is a Qi tonic in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the activity resides in the polysaccharide, lysosomal enzyme, and triterpene constituents of the fungus. Among its many medicinal properties, it is immune and bone marrow stimulating, analgesic, anti-viral and -bacterial, antihypertensive and liver protective. This mushroom is most recognized for its help controlling cancers by activating cytokines and natural killer (NK) cells. Further, it serves as a potent antioxidant to ward of dementia; It also enhances the quality of line in elderly people and pets.
(Trametes/Coriolus versicolor, Yun zhi) is a multicolored mushroom easily recognized by its colored patterns resembling the colors of a wild turkey’s tail feathers. It is perhaps best recognized in veterinary medicine today because of the 2012 published double-blind randomized multidose pilot study showing that it significantly delayed the progression of metastases and afforded the longest survival times reported in canine hemangiosarcoma. A commercial product I’m Yunity® for dogs is available today. In addition to the antitumor properties, Turkey Tail also is antimicrobial, antiviral, anti allergic, immuno-modulating, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic, hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective.
Mixing Mushrooms. By using Reishi, Maitake and Shiitake together, their individual positive effects become enhanced. Other mushrooms, Chinese herbs, and antioxidants maybe also added to this synergistic base. For treating lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma, the quality and length of life may be extended by adding Trametes/Coriolus to this mixture.
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