In the mid '80's I entered an undergraduate school to study environmental microbiology and biochemistry. It was a forestry school, though I was not studying forestry, I had to meet certain forestry remnant requirements like ento
mology and dendrology to graduate. This also included a four week long intensive study on an island in the Adirondacks studying mycology (fungi;mushrooms).
My intent was to be one of those scientists who helped to support a clean planet. My Master of Science focus was on finding a bacterium that degraded lignin -- that brown stuff that mostly left as a tree or stump decays. It is the hardest portion to convert back to soil, and also hardest to handle by paper manufacturing companies which spend thousands of dollars on solvents. Those solvents and the lignin waste that result are toxic waste. We were looking for a biological way to do the same thing. I found a couple of bacterium in the process, but none were as effective or efficient as fungi for doing the job.
Directly after I finished my MS work I landed in a laboratory studying a very important fungi in the paper and pulp industry. This would be my life for approximately two years.
In 2005, I was awarded an National Institute of Health Research fellowship where we studied the effects of a natural product on the immune systems of healthy patients and those burdened by breast cancer. The natural product: mushrooms! Not any mushrooms but medicinal mushrooms all used for centuries by peoples of Asia, and many not in the form of fleshy mushrooms that we are familiar with.
Ethnobotanists and researchers really got serious about looking at the mushrooms mechanism of actions (i.e. the way they work) when they noticed that people in rural areas were using the mushrooms to treat themselves for various ailments. The health affects were curious enough that they documented how they were used and for what folk traditions they were used for, packed them up and took them into basic science laboratories.
Over the course of 45 to 50 years scientists primarily in Japan, but throughout the world discovered that certain mushrooms like Reishi, Turkey tail, Maitake and Shiitake have elements called polysaccharides in them. Polysaccharides is just another name for 'many sugars'. These are not the same kind of sugar as refined white sugar, its way more complex. It has a protein core and then many sugars branching out appearing like a test tube brush.
What the scientists found, which includes myself, is that these polysaccharides attach to certain receptors on immune cells (Natural Killer, CD8, macrophage and T helper 1) and make them more aggressive.
This is particularly important for cancer patients. Solid tumors create a microenvironment around themselves that causes these cells, once they are in the vicinity, to become 'sleepy' and less effective at locating pre cancerous and cancerous cells and ridding the body of them. What research has shown is that when these polysaccharides attach to the receptors, even within the microenvironment of the solid tumors, the immune cell are more effective at doing their jobs. As a result of research done by scientists, the Japanese pharmaceutical companies manufacture a purified version of the polysaccharide called PSK which is administered during chemotherapy to help with immunity.
In terms of colds, flu and viruses the same has been found to be the case, so these mushrooms are often used during cold and flu season too.
The research of medicinal mushrooms continues to this day at several respected scientific institutions. For more information on research published you should head over to PubMed and type in the keyword: medicinal mushrooms.
Wild mushrooms contain a variable amount of polysaccharides. Those containing the least are button mushrooms. As mentioned Shiitake, and Maitake contain a good amount, and a variety called Lion's Mane contains a good source and is used for by some for conditions involving neurological conditions.
Every fall and spring I enjoy forging for mushrooms and preparing them. Take a look at the recipe section of my blog and you will find a recipe or two there. I'll post one of my favorites from my book 'Cooking through Cancer Treatment to Recovery' -- Wild Mushroom Pate with Walnuts.