Reishi (Mushrooms)

Reishi (Mushrooms)

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mushroom magic

Put the power back in your immune system with a little help from medicinal mushrooms
fOR A STRONG DEFENSE against springtime colds, consider some of the most potent immune boosters in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): medicinal mushrooms like reishi, shiitake, and maitake. "At times when you're likely to have a compromised immune system, I'd recommend taking medicinal mushrooms daily — like you would a multivitamin," says Sarah Cimperman, N.D., a naturopath based in New York City.

Western science has even found a way to strengthen the power of these natural immune enhancers. "New methods of preparation are leading us to compounds that TCM wasn't able to extract," says Paul Stamets, mycologist (another word for a fungus expert) and author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press, 2005). Those new methods allow scientists to create supplements that deliver concentrated doses of the potent anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant compounds that live in medicinal mushrooms — compounds that are largely unavailable elsewhere in nature. Much scientific attention is being paid to a particular category of mushroom-derived substances called polysaccharides, which appear to stimulate the immune system by increasing the activity and number of natural killer cells.

For general immune support, you can cook up shiitakes, maitakes, and other mushrooms when you're making soups, stir-fries, or pasta dishes. "To get the most out of these mushrooms, you have to tenderize them by heat so you're able to digest the beneficial compounds," says Stamets. Or you can visit your local TCM practitioner for a custom blend of dried mushrooms to be steeped in water and taken in tea form.

For more concentrated immune defense when you're traveling, stressed out, or otherwise susceptible to illness, Cimperman suggests taking a supplement that contains a blend of several mushroom varieties, such as Thorne Research's Myco-Immune liquid extract ($27.50; www.amazon.com). Stamets agrees that getting a concentration of polysaccharides from an array of different mushrooms may be most effective for "awakening the immune system"; Stamets's own MycoSoft Gold Capsules ($32; www.fungi.com) contain 13 species of mushrooms.

Proving their worth

With such powerful ingredients, it's not surprising that mushrooms may offer a number of advantages beyond enhanced immunity. Here, a look at a variety of the most healthful types of mushrooms and the good things they've been shown to do.

SHIITAKE Used historically in Japan and China to stamp out colds, shiitake mushrooms contain eritadenine, a substance that has been shown in animal studies to reduce cholesterol levels. A 2002 report in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine also found that the shiitake-extracted polysaccharide lentinan was able to slow the development of colon cancer in mice.

REISHI In a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, researchers gave a reishi-based powder to 14 healthy adults and found that the participants showed an "acute increase" in their antioxidant capability. Also an anti-inflammatory, reishi is used in TCM as a tonic for fatigue, insomnia, and coughs.
MAITAKE Traditionally prescribed as an overall immune booster, maitake may also have cancer-fighting and cholesterol-lowering effects; it may even protect against diabetes: A study conducted at Japan's Nishikyushu University in 2001 showed that maitake extracts improved symptoms in diabetic rats.

TURKEY TAIL Another mushroom that has long been used in TCM as a general immune booster is turkey tail (Coriolus versicolor). Numerous studies have determined that two polysaccharides in this mushroom — polysaccharide-K and polysaccharopeptide — can help restore the immune system in people undergoing chemotherapy and other conventional cancer treatments. "I sometimes use turkey tail with my breast cancer patients," notes Cimperman.
CORDYCEPS A 2004 in vitro study from Korea's Yeungnam University suggests that cordyceps could help defend the brain against Alzheimer's disease. Often used in TCM for its energizing effects, cordyceps may also increase endurance and exercise capacity.

PHOTO (COLOR): Shiitakes are effective natural cold fighters; they may also help reduce cholesterol levels.
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By Elizabeth Barker