Copyright 2007 Joe Smulevitz, C.H., M.H.
Most of us think of mushrooms as a tasty addition to salads, soups, casseroles, or as a topping on pizza.  Certain mushrooms have much more to offer than just taste and texture for the palate. Three, well-studied medicinal mushrooms, maitake, shiitake, and reishi may provide vital health bearing benefits.

These exotic mushrooms have been savored for centuries in Asian cultures, to help promote health and longevity.  In North America, the healing powers of these mushrooms were only thought of as folklore. Over the past few decades, studies in Europe and North America have confirmed that maitake, shiitake, and reishi mushrooms, may indeed, contain therapeutic properties.  As a result, medicinal mushrooms have become increasingly available in North America.

The health promoting properties in medicinal mushrooms are complex sugar polymers, called polysaccharides.  Essential components of life, polysaccharides are used within the body for the storage of potential usable energy.  Polysaccharides are often referred to as immune modulators, for their ability to regulate the immune system, helping the body defend itself against disease and infection. 

Here is a breakdown of these remarkable medicinal mushrooms:

The main polysaccharide in maitake mushrooms, beta-D-glucan, are among the most powerful immune stimulants, according to test tube studies.  The mushroom is being researched for the treatment and prevention of cancer and as an adjunctive treatment for HIV infection. Maitake mushrooms show promise for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels in animal studies.

The key ingredient found in shiitake mushroom is a polysaccharide known as lentinan, named after the mushrooms generic name.  This potent polysaccharide is an approved anti-cancer drug in Japan, used in conjunction with chemotherapy. Studies indicate that patients with advanced or recurrent stomach cancer had longer survival times when lentinan was administered in combination with chemotherapy.  The shiitake mushroom has also been shown to help lower blood cholesterol levels, and may improve liver function in hepatitis patients. 

Reishi, unlike shiitake and maitake mushrooms that contain complex polysaccharides as their main component, also includes specific triterpenoids as key compounds. Triterpenoids are a class of beneficial phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants that have health related effects) that accounts for many of reishi's potential health benefits.  Animal studies and introductory trials in humans demonstrate that reishi may lower blood pressure, decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol, and help reduce blood platelets from sticking together.  Clinical studies in Asia, point to reishi being effective in cases of chronic hepatitis, and having strong antiviral properties against the herpes simplex virus in experimental conditions. 

If your local grocery store does not carry maitake, shiitake or reishi mushrooms, check the nearest Asian food store.  Purchase mushrooms that are clean, plump and firm.  Avoid mushrooms that have wet slimy spots or are wrinkled.  The mushrooms will stay fresh about a week in the refrigerator when stored loosely in a closed paper

Mushroom extract supplements are available, often combined with other herbs in immune boosting combinations. Mushroom supplements with vitamin C added, should enhance absorption of the complex polysaccharides contained in these healthy mushrooms.

Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, a researcher, and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at
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