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Shiitake Mushrooms -- "Elixir of Life"
Over 100 million years old, shiitake mushrooms appeared initially in the forests of Asia. Wu Ming, an ancient Chinese herbalist of China’s Ming Dynasty, called shiitakes the “elixir of life". But shiitakes were first actively cultivated even earlier than that, in the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1127 AD). Since at least that time, but probably before, shiitakes have been used in Chinese medicine for a wide variety of illnesses. As it turns out, once again the ancient techniques of Chinese medicine have something to teach modern medicine.
Shiitake mushrooms, unlike some other medicinal mushrooms, are much easier to find in the west and form a common ingredient in many Asian recipes. As such, they aren’t hard to find at a regular grocery store – one need not make a special trip to the natural foods store to find shiitakes. Like the chaga and cordyceps mushrooms, shiitakes also contain many polysaccharides, molecules which have been shown in lab studies to have beneficial effects in fighting cancer cells.
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Active Ingredient: The Polysaccharide Lentinan
Lentinan is a particular polysaccharide that is classified as a beta-glucan. Beta-glucans are typically found in grains, baker’s yeast, and some kinds of mushrooms. Since 1980, and especially in Japan, beta-glucans have been used as part of cancer therapy, to aid the natural functions of the immune system. Because they benefit mostly by boosting the immune system, the beta-glucans have been proven to be effective in fighting a broad range of cancers. Several studies show that lentinan extracted from shiitake mushrooms inhibit or even stop the growth of tumors in lab animals.
In some Japanese hospitals, lentinan is extracted from the shiitake, and this extract is given intravenously to caner patients. In 1984, a group of researchers in Japan “showed that lentinan cleared both the virus and the antibody from HTLV-1, as well as an HTLV-III [AIDS] patient" (Murray). HTLV, like HIV, is a virus that attacks the immune system, specifically white blood cells.
But lentinan isn’t just for cancer; this polysaccharide can has other health benefits. Since it boosts the immune system, it has promise for supplemental use by HIV / AIDS patients, and it also appears to lower cholesterol. What’s more, it may help in the treatment of hepatitis-B.
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The All-Around Better Mushroom
The most widely available mushrooms in a standard grocery store are button mushrooms, the white, round, somewhat flavorless mushroom westerners are most used to. Even when shiitake mushrooms’ cancer-fighting ability is left out, the shiitake still has twice the protein, twice the fiber, three times the minerals (especially phosphorous, calcium, and iron), and much higher levels of B and D2 vitamins than the button mushroom (Murray). Eight ounces of shiitakes contain 20% of the daily recommended intake of iron, 10% of vitamin C, 10% of protein, and 10% of fiber, but only 87 calories (World’s Healthiest Foods). (Admittedly, it might be hard to eat a full 8 ounces of shiitake, even for a true mushroom lover!)
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How to Take Shiitakes Medicinally
Shiitakes have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels when eaten raw or in powder form (Dried Mushrooms). Cooked shiitakes do not seem to lose their medicinal potency, but aqueous extracts are probably the most potent.
Cautions and Allergy Information
Some people do demonstrate allergic reactions to shiitake mushrooms, which is referred to as “shiitake dermatitis" and usually presents as a rash. Shiitakes are also rich in purines, which for some individuals sensitive to the substance can lead to gout and kidney stones. This is because purines metabolize into uric acid, and while uric acid itself is not bad (in fact, it is an anti-oxidant), an excessive amount of uric acid can cause health problems.
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Find Out More
Kim et al. “A polysaccharide extracted from rice bran fermented with Lentinus edodes enhances natural killer cell activity and exhibits anticancer effects." Journal of Medicinal Food: March 2007.
Murray, Frank. “Mushroom extracts help manage infections." Better Nutrition: April 1989.