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Mushroom therapy: A Pandora’s box of benefits

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Mushrooms (fungi) are common food items, but they also form an important branch of medical herbalism called ‘mycotherapy’. They contain high levels of copper, niacin, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, selenium and vitamin D. Fungal enzymes even give jeans that ‘stone-washed’ look. In agriculture, they enhance a crop’s nutrient uptake and, of course, some antibiotics, such as cephalosporin and penicillin, are made from fungi.


This use of mushrooms goes back to time immemorial. “Otzi, the ‘Iceman’ found preserved in the Alps on the Italo-Austrian border in 1991, who died around 3300 B.C., was carrying the tinder mushroom (Fomes fomentarius, used as a portable firelighter) and the birch bracket mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus), still used in Bohemia today for gastrointestinal diseases, and prostate and rectal cancers (Phytomedicine, 2006; 14: 185-91). The birch bracket mushroom has anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antiviral (in particular, against the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV) and antibacterial properties (Biosci Biotech Biochem, 2002; 66: 2748-50; J Nat Prod, 2003; 66: 1104-6; Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 2001; 45: 1225-30; J Antibiot, 2000; 53: 973-4).

Traditional medicine

The so-called turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) is used for impetigo, ringworm and cancer in Mexican folk medicine ( shtml). The shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes) is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for upper respiratory diseases, poor blood circulation, liver trouble and exhaustion ( Shiitake). The hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) is also used in TCM to help spleen and stomach ailments, to calm nerves and to treat haemorrhoids ( labs/med_mush/final_pdfs/chapt3_b.pdf, pp 42-3), while the reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) has been used for more than 4000 years to treat liver disorders, hypertension, arthritis, flu-like conditions and cold sores (J Ethnopharmacol, 2005; 102: 107-12).

The caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) caught the world’s attention after three female Chinese runners-Wang Junxia, Qu Yunxia and Zhang Linli-broke five world records, for the 1500, 3000 and 10,000 metres, in 1993 at the Seventh National Games in Beijing. The number of new world records set at a single track event elicited considerable suspicion, but drug tests revealed no illegal substances. Their coach Ma Junren revealed that the runners were simply taking caterpillar mushrooms on his orders.

Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) and king oyster (Pleurotus eryngii) mushrooms protect the liver, and are used as an antidiabetic and to build up immune resistance in the Friuli region of Italy (Biochem Biophys Res Commun, 2008; 373: 435-9). Wood ear mushrooms (Auricularia auricula) are used in Mongolia, northeast China, Korea and Japan for coughs, nosebleed, uterine bleeding and convulsions, and is even believed to have anti-ageing effects (Sung CK et al., eds. International Collation of Traditional and Folk Medicine, Part III. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 1998: 7-8).

The umbrella polypore mushroom (Poly-porus umbellatus) is used in TCM as a diuretic, and for kidney disorders such as nephritis and pyelonephritis (Chem Pharm Bull, 2007; 55: 1148-50). The tuckahoe mushroom (Wolfiporia cocos) is used in Korean folk medicine as a sedative, anti-emetic, antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory ( sedative-drugs-uses-and-sideeffects-1041180.html), while the cogumelo do sol or sun mushroom (Agaricus blazei) is used in Brazilian folk medicine to treat chronic hepatitis, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and hyperlipidaemia (J Medicinal Food, 2009, 12: 359-364).

Finally, the lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is used in Japanese folk medicine for its antidementia and worm-killing actions (http://;

Harald Gaier

Harald Gaier, a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London, and the Irish Centre of Integrated Medicine, Co. Kildare (


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