5 Cancer Fighting Qualities of Mushrooms
There’s something quite special about a mushroom - its characteristic earthiness, texture and umami please the palate while its nutritional qualities nurture the body. Even the standard button mushroom is stuffed full of vitamin D, vitamin B and is rich in antioxidants such as selenium and copper. It’s clearly a great food source, but what about it’s medicinal properties?
Mushrooms have played a significant role in Eastern medicine for hundreds of years. Their use is not just confined to herbalists and traditional practitioners either. In Japan and China, compounds found in mushrooms have been licensed as an adjunct to chemotherapy for over 30 years.
Here in the West, the use of medicinal mushrooms is far more controversial. Whilst there is some compelling evidence proving their efficacy in vitro and with animal studies, there is a lack of randomised, placebo-controlled trials. Such trials are necessary before mushrooms can be licensed for use in Western medicine, as effects of a certain compound observed in in vitro and animal trials are often not mirrored when the compound is administered to humans.
But times are changing. In the last decade scientists in the West have become increasingly interested in the pharmaceutical potential of active ingredients derived from certain types of mushrooms such as shitake, reishi and turkey tail. Such is the surge in interest that there are currently 80 clinical trials currently evaluating the effect of mushroom extracts on a wide range of diseases including high blood cholesterol, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and of course cancer.
Below I outline some of the ways in which mushrooms may play an important role in the future of oncology.
1. Boosting the immune system
Beta-glucans are naturally occurring polysaccharides found in the cell wall of all fungi. It is well established that this family of biopolymers can boost the production of immune cells (particularly lymphocytes, macrophages, T cells, dendritic cells, and natural killer cells) in a laboratory setting. Although there is a lack of statistically significant research in humans, scientists have observed an immunostimulatory response in a wide variety of species including earthworms, bees, shrimp, fish, chickens, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, sheep, goats, pigs, cows and monkeys. It is rare that similar results are observed in such a wide variety of species, which surely indicates promise for its efficacy in humans.
2. Reducing inflammation
Many cancers are dependent upon an inflammatory environment to allow them to grow and metastasise. Metabolites (particularly polysaccharides, terpenoids and phenolic compounds), within mushrooms have been found to be effective, powerful and safe anti-inflammatory agents which act by down-regulating the inflammatory response3. Once again, these experiments have been largely confined to the laboratory with very little evidence in the clinical setting, but there are a few small trials confirming their effect on breast, lung, gastric and colorectal cancers.
3. Regulating estrogen production
There is hope too for people with estrogen-driven breast cancer and other hormone-related cancers. Flavones and isoflavones found in button mushrooms are thought to inhibit the production of an enzyme called aromatase which is a key catalyst in the production of estrogen. This effect is similar to the mechanisms of tamoxifen and other estrogen regulators.
4. Preventing cells from growing and dividing
Lectins are cell-recognition proteins found in animals, plants and fungi. They bind to specific cell-surface carbohydrates. Some of the lectins found in mushrooms have unique characteristics that allow them to bind to tumour cells and prevent them from growing and dividing. For example, in a study on mice with sarcoma, one particular lectin resulted in an 80% reduction in tumour growth.
5. Gut health
Gut health has become one of the biggest areas of interest in the quest for healthy living. Where once we viewed bacteria as harmful, it is now clear that some bacteria play a vital role in our health. The gut (or gastrointestinal tract) contains billions of bacteria, good and bad, which break down the food we eat so that it can be absorbed into our bloodstream. The balance of gut bacteria directly affects our body’s ability to derive nutritional value from what we eat. Put simply, healthy guts are characterised by a diverse culture of good bacteria.
Mushrooms are proven prebiotics, which means they encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut such as Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium.
So What Next?
There are over 50,000 known species of mushrooms and, although only 1-2% of these are poisonous, the vast majority aren’t eaten as they are simply not pleasant enough to eat. Of the 2000 or so species of edible mushrooms, there are just a few that stand out for their medicinal properties. These include chaga, shiitake, himematsutake, lion’s mane, turkey tail, cordyceps and reishi.
I believe that there is some very compelling evidence justifying the use of medicinal mushrooms to help control the growth and spread of cancer. I’m aware that there is very little clinical evidence right now, but the in vitro and animal studies are numerous and impressive.
I simply don’t have time to wait for robust clinical evidence to emerge so, in addition incorporating mushrooms into my diet, I take a mixed mushroom supplement which was recommended by my nutritionist. Using a simple Google search of my cancer type and the mushroom variety (e.g. HER+ breast cancer cordyceps) I am optimistic about their efficacy for my type of cancer. More importantly, my research has not identified any contraindications or significant side-effects. My oncologist is aware that I am supplementing my diet and, although he is sceptical about their effectiveness, he has not advised against taking them.
I would encourage you to do your own research and find out which mushrooms show the most potential for your type of cancer. Finally, two points of caution: 1, always run any supplements past your oncologist; 2, ensure you are buying from a well established supplier with a reputation for sourcing pure and sustainable ingredients.