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Medicinal Mushrooms - Magic? . . . comments by Terry Willard, Ph.D.
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Medicinal Mushrooms - Magic? . . . comments by Terry Willard, Ph.D.

Are Medicinal Mushrooms Magic?

By Terry Willard Ph.D.

From the vision-producing mushrooms the shamans used in their incitation rites to the mushroom hunter of northern Europe, mushrooms have always held a great fascination for man. Many a fairy tale has included members of the Fungi kingdom as part of the backdrop. Yes, mushrooms are members of the Fungi kingdom. People often shutter when they hear the word ‘fungi’. It brings up images of some life forms taking over a university student’s refrigerator, athletes foot, dirty showers or maybe a yeast infection. There are more than 100,000 different species of fungi, some beneficial to man, some not. Some are edible, some poisonous, some produce visions and some have strong medicinal properties. In the Western world, medicinal mushrooms have not played as much a central role as they have in Asian culture. We can find references in Western culture for medicinal mushrooms as far back as 455 B.C. with Hippocrates’ use of them. Fungi are also mentioned in the works of Pliny ( 23-78 AD), Dioscorides (55 AD) and Galen (130 - 200 AD), showing that the ancients were quite familiar with their uses.{1} Even in present day, after the discovery in 1928 of penicillin (a fungus), we find them playing a prominent role, making up a whole class of antibiotic medicines. But for the richness of folklore on medicinal mushrooms, we have to delve into Asian culture, where there is more than 3,000 years of recorded fungi use, continuously maintaining a prominent spot in their medical systems.

It shouldn’t be surprising that some mushrooms have strong medicinal properties when you consider their basic role is that of transmuting waste material into good, nutritious material. It is surprising that they are considered panacea, making medicinal mushrooms almost seem magical. Claims from being tonic and energy enhancing, with beneficial effects on the immune, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, nervous, digestive and skeletal/muscular systems, make one wonder if they are a little over-stated. The fact that they are used to reduce tumors, blood cholesterol, blood pressure, bronchial inflamation, nervous tension, viral infection, insomnia, duodenal ulcers, allergies, diabetes, hepatitis, progressive muscular dystrophy and high-altitude sickness makes us wonder how they work. They are also being used to reduce symptoms of AIDS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Cancer and the side effects of chemo-therapy. At the same time these wondrous medicinal mushrooms are being used to enhance over- all energy, athletic feats, intellectual challenges, environmental stresses and are considered longevity herbs. {2,3}

What make them tick? Besides the myths of their transmuting our toxic waste material and negative emotions into healthy ones, we can gain some insight by looking at their biochemistry. There are three basic groups of chemicals that seem to be responsible for a large amount of the medicinal effects of these mushrooms. They are branched polysaccharide-protein complexes, triterpenes and nitrogen-containing compounds, like adenosine. Polysaccharides have been extensively studied in the last several years for their immune regulating abilities. Many well-known medicinal herbs such as Echinacea, and Astragalus have polysaccharides as a major part of the immune-enhancing actions. It now appears that the polysaccharide-protein complexes are even more important than the individual polysaccharides. Most of the medicinal mushrooms are very rich in these complexes, resulting in many of the immune responses credited to their action. Triterpen