by Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Author, Eating for Energy
While often thought of as a vegetable and prepared like one, mushrooms are actually a fungus, a special type of living organism that has no roots, leaves, flowers or seeds. Amazingly, most mushrooms have a fairly good protein content. They can be viewed as the “meat” of a vegan diet. They are also a very good source of disease-fighting phytonutrients including beta-glucans, genoderic acid, and lucidenic acid.
Furthermore, mushrooms have been shown to contain carbohydrates – called polysaccharides - that improve communication between immune cells and make immunotherapy for conditions like cancer more effective. These cancer-preventive properties are furthered due to the abundance of L-ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant, found in mushrooms.
With so many varieties to choose from, this article will focus on 3 of the most health promoting mushrooms: Shiitake, Reishi, and Yun-zhi.
Shiitake is a flavourful mushroom used in traditional Japanese cuisine and folk medicine. It is a very good source of complete protein, iron, and selenium, and a rich source of vitamin C, fiber, and the B vitamins.
Studies have pinpointed some of shiitakes' benefits to an active compound called lentinan. Among lentinan's healing benefits is its ability to strengthen the immune system, enhancing its ability to fight infection and disease. Against influenza and other viruses, lentinan has been shown to be even more effective than prescription drugs; it even improves the immune status of individuals infected with HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS.
Lentinan has also been shown to have anti-cancer activity. When lentinan was given for human gastric cancer, abnormal cancerous cells were fragmented and destroyed as a result of greater T lymphocyte activity and the development of cancer-thwarting reticular cells.
Animal studies have revealed that another active component in shiitake mushrooms, called eritadenine, lowers cholesterol levels no matter what types of dietary fats the lab animals are given!
Reishi, known as lingzhi, in Chinese, means "herb of spiritual potency" and has also been described as "mushroom of immortality". Because of its presumed health benefits and apparent absence of side effects, it has secured a reputation in the East as the ultimate herbal substance.
Reishi mainly works in a generalized manner on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the neuroendocrine system. As such, it supports the endocrine glands, enhance the immune system, and lessens nervous tension.
Reishi has also been found to strengthen the respiratory system and to have a healing effect on the lungs, and is particularly beneficial for individuals with asthma, cough and other respiratory complaints.
As with most mushrooms, reishi has shown to have cancer prevention properties (in animals) thanks to its polysaccharide Ganoderma.. In one study, after daily injections in mice with cancer, it was reported that tumors in 50% of the animals had completely regressed within 10 days!
Yun-zhi, or the “cloud mushroom”, has been used to dispel dampness, reduce phlegm, treat pulmonary infections, to strengthen the tendons and bones, for vital energy, and to support liver health.
Researchers and traditional herbalists have discovered that polysaccharides in Yunzhi mushrooms possess immune-enhancing properties that help to boost the body's defenses against microbes by increasing white blood cell count, and helping to fend off and an array of cancers.
A review of the research revealed that when one of the compounds in the Yun-zhi, called protein-bound polysaccharide, was administered to patients with esophageal cancer, gastric cancer and lung cancer, and to those who were undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy, there was an almost immediate alleviation of symptoms and a prevention immune status deterioration.
Jong SC, Birmingham JM. Medicinal and therapeutic value of the shiitake mushroom. Adv Appl Microbiol 1993;39:153-84 1993.
Kikkawa et al. (1968). Japanese Journal of Cancer Research; 59: 155-157
Ng. T (1998). A review of research on the protein-bound polysaccharide (polysaccharopeptide, PSP) from the mushroom Coriolus versicolor (basidiomycetes: Polyporaceae). General Pharmacology: The Vascular System; 30(1), 1-4.
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