Ken Babal, C.N.

We all know that vitamin and mineral supplements can augment diets by providing essential nutrients that ward off disease. Likewise, botanicals can help us stay well, and can be used medicinally. There is yet a third category that ranks high for cultivating optimum health and resistance to disease. This is the mushroom category. Mushrooms are members of the fungal family, sometimes referred to as the third kingdom. Being neither plant nor animal, they possess highly unique characteristics that confer a wide array of health benefits.

In addition to essential nutrients, mushrooms contain many compounds with protective and therapeutic actions. Of particular interest is beta glucan, a complex carbohydrate, or polysaccharide that activates cellular immunity. Although we generally think of carbohydrates as providing energy, research reveals that some are involved in molecular recognition and cellular communication. Beta glucans are found in other foods, including oats and yeast. However, their chemical structures and effects are different from those of the beta glucans in mushrooms.

For thousands of years, mushrooms have been revered in China and Japan for their ability to maintain and improve health, preserve youth, and increase longevity. In many classic herbal formulations they are considered the main ingredient, or emperor. Today, there are hundreds of scientific studies validating the traditional usage of mushrooms. In numerous experiments and clinical trials, mushrooms have demonstrated antiallergenic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral actions, and an ability to sensitize cells to insulin.

There are a number of active ingredients in mushrooms that are obtained by alcohol extraction or methods other than simple hot water extraction.

The following are some examples of proven medicinal mushroom standardized extracts.

D-Fraction from Maitake  is perhaps the most famous of the mushroom extracts, having been the focus of much anticancer research. D-Fraction is a concentrated extract containing a protein-bound beta glucan, which has been shown to stimulate vital components of cellular immunity such as T cells, B cells, macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells.1 Last year, a breakthrough study found that D-Fraction up-regulates twenty-two apoptosis genes, including the BAK-1 gene.2 Researchers concluded that D-fraction has strong anti-cancer properties in breast cancer cells through BAK-1 gene expression. This is highly significant because it places D-fraction in a unique category apart from ordinary “immune boosters,” antioxidants and apoptosis-inducers.

Maitake is also the source of a unique glycoprotein called SX-Fraction, which has been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity. SX-Fraction is a completely different compound from D-Fraction, and was awarded a US patent in 2007 for anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive, anti-obesity and anti-hyperlipidemic effects.3 Studies at Georgetown University found that SX-Fraction reduced levels of fasting blood glucose, blood pressure and body weight in genetically obese and diabetic rats. The extract also prevented hypertensive rats on a high sugar diet from developing insulin resistance. Furthermore, a clinical study found that Type 2 diabetics taking SX-Fraction for two months were able to significantly reduce their fasting blood glucose, triglycerides, insulin and body weight.4

Reishi is perhaps the most renowned of all medicinal mushrooms, and is prescribed as an anti-aging tonic. It is said to be a supreme “shen” (spiritual) tonic that invokes peacefulness and changes how we perceive life. Reishi is widely used in Asia to support cardiovascular functions and reduce LDL cholesterol. It has been found to be effective in preventing and treating arteriosclerosis, angina and shortness of breath associated with coronary heart disease.

Reishi contains steroid-like compounds (triterpenes) that inhibit inflammation and histamine, the chemical responsible for allergic symptoms. Medicinal triterpenes are fat-soluble and are concentrated by alcohol extraction.

Lion’s Mane is one of the edible mushrooms widely distributed in Japan and China.  Studies show that a class of compounds in Lion’s Mane, called hericenones, is able to regenerate neurons by stimulating production of Nerve Growth Factor.5 In addition, a fat-soluble fraction isolated from Lion’s Mane, called amyloban, is able to protect against neuronal cell death caused by toxic beta amyloid peptide, the main component of plaque that develops in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients.6

A study at a Chinese Pharmaceutical University compared Lion’s Mane extract with donepezil (Aricept), a common Alzheimer’s drug.7 Results showed that rats treated with the extract performed a water maze test equal to or better than those receiving the drug, depending on the dosage of the extract. Also, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, demonstrated that Lion’s Mane is effective in patients diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.8

And others mushrooms extracts are Agaricus, Cordyceps, Shiitake, Tremella, Meshima, Chaga, Coriolus and Poria. Agaricus enjoys superstar status in Japan. Its medicinal actions include counteracting or preventing tumors, fighting viruses, lowering cholesterol, regulating blood sugar levels and enhancing immunity. Cordyceps strengthens lung power and is a good choice for those who require energy for physical work or sports. It is considered one of the best sexual tonic. Shiitake is the most researched mushroom in the world, and is the source of two extensively studied derivatives used in Japan: lentinan and LEM. Tremella is a mushroom whose skin hydrating properties make it particularly useful as a beauty aid, both internally and externally. When compared to a form of hyaluronic acid, it demonstrated a stronger water holding capacity (500 hundred times its weight). Meshima mushroom has been attracting attention as being particularly protective of breast tissue. Researchers from Indiana University found that an extract of Meshima suppresses growth and invasive behavior of breast cancer cells.9 Chaga has received wide acclaim as a medicinal mushroom mentioned in the 1968 novel Cancer Ward. In Russian medicine, a tea made from Chaga is used as to treat ulcers and tuberculosis, and to counteract or prevent tumors. The immune-enhancing activities of Coriolus and its constituents have been extensively studied in Japan since the mid-1970s, with over 400 clinical studies conducted on it. It is the source of PSK (polysaccharide-K) (brand name Krestin), one of the all-time best-selling cancer drugs sold mainly in Europe and Japan. Poria is very popular in traditional Chinese formulations for tonifying the spleen and kidney and for clearing dampness.


1. Kodama, N. et al. “Effect of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) D-Fraction on the Activation of NK Cells in Cancer Patients,”  Journal of Medicinal Food 6 (4) 2003, pp. 371-377.

2. Soares, R. et al. “Maitake (D-Fraction) Mushroom Extract Induces Apoptosis in Breast Cancer Cells by BAK- 1 Gene Activation,” Journal of Medicinal Food XX(X) 2011, pp. 1-10.

3. US Patent No. 7,214,778 for “Glycoprotein with Anti-diabetic, Anti-hypertensive, Anti-obesity and Anti-hyperlipidemic Effects from Grifola Frondosa, and a Method for Preparing Same.” (2007)

4. Konno, S. et al “A possible hypoglycemic effect of maitake mushroom on type 2 diabetic patients.” Diabetic Med. 18, 2001.

5. Kawagishi, H and Zhuang, C. “Compounds for dementia from Hericium erinaceum.” Drugs of the Future, 2008, 33(2): 149-155.

6. Nagai, K. et al “Dilinoleoyl-phosphatidylethanolamine from Hericium erinaceum protects against ER stress-induced Neuro2a cell death via protein kinase C pathway.” J Nutr Biochem, 17 (2006) 525-530.

7. Kawagishi, H et al “Anti-dementia effects of a low polarity fraction extracted from Hericium erinaceum.” Abstracts of the 5th  International Medicinal Mushroom Conference, p. 18-19, September 5th – 8th, 2009, Nantong, China.

8. Mori, K et al “Improving Effects of the Mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceum) on Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Double-blind Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial.” Phytother Res, 23, 367-372 (2009).

9. Sliva D. et al “Phellinus Linteus Suppresses Growth, Angiogenesis, and Invasive Behavior of Breast Cancer Cells Through the Inhibition of AKT Signaling” British Journal of Cancer, 2008, pp. 1348-56.