Shiitake and maitake are more than just exotic-sounding words of a Japanese menu. In fact, they are members of a special group of medicinal mushrooms that Asian peoples have heralded for thousands of years as longevity and immune-system boosters.
What they are?
For millennia, traditional Asian medicine has cherished certain mushrooms – including maitake (Grifola frondosa), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and shiitake (Lentinus edodus) – for their health-promoting effects. More recently, an extract from the mushroom Coriolus versicolor, called PSK, has been found to be a potent cancer fighter. Though other mushrooms – tree ear and oyster mushrooms, for instance – may also provide some health benefits, most of the attention, and the research, has concentrated on the four types mentioned above.
The first three are available as powders (in loose form for teas or in capsules or tables) or as liquid extracts, which concentrate their potency. Dried reishi mushrooms and fresh and died shiitake and maitake may be found in Asian groceries and some gourmet shops, but for therapeutic purposes, supplements are preferred. Maitake, reishi and shiitake mushrooms is no currently available in Australia or New Zealand, but may be obtainable from other countries through some practitioners.
What it does?
Medicinal mushrooms have varied effects, including boosting the body's immune system, lowering cholesterol, acting as an anticoagulant, and playing a supporting role in the treatment of cancer.
Maitake and Coriolus versicolor are commonly used in Japan to strengthen the immune systems of people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Studies have shown that maitake extracts make lower chemotherapy doses more effective while protecting healthy cells from the damage such drugs can cause. The Japanese have been using the PSK extract from Coriolus versicolor as an adjunct to chemotherapy for many years. Several studies have suggested that PSK can improve survival rates in people who have stomach, colon or lung cancer.
Medicinal mushrooms appear to boost the immune system, helping the body to combat disease-causing organisms. Some studies indicate that they may be powerful enough to help people with HIV infection and AIDS (who have very weak immune systems). For example, shiitake mushrooms contain a carbohydrate compound called lentinan, which promotes the body's production of T cells and other immune-system compounds. Laboratory studies show that Coriolus versicolor may be able to overpower HIV in the test tube; more research is needed to discover whether it can do the same in the human body. Other people with compromised immune systems – such as those with chronic fatigue syndrome – may benefit from medicinal mushrooms, too.
Traditionally, reishi (known to the Chinese as 'spirit plants') are used to help people to relax, making them suitable for reducing stress and fatigue. Reishi also contain anti-inflammatory compounds that help to relieve bronchitis, and possibly other respiratory ailments. In a Chinese study of 2000 people with bronchitis, 60-90% of those given reishi tablets improved within two weeks. Shiitake, maitake and reishi may also help to fight heart disease by reducing the tendency of blood to clot, lowering blood pressure, and possibly reducing cholesterol levels.
- Build immunity.
- Help to prevent cancer.
- Enhance cancer treatments.
- Alleviate bronchitis, sinusitis.
- Treat chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Help to prevent heart disease.
- Dried mushrooms.
- Fresh mushrooms.
- People taking anticoagulant drugs should avoid reishi supplements because the mushrooms contain compounds that also 'thin' the blood.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
For immune-system support for cancer: Take 500 mg of reishi, 400 mg of shiitake and 200 mg of maitake mushrooms three times a day, and/or 3000 mg of Coriolus versicolor, divided into two doses, a day.
For heart disease or HIV/AIDS: Take 1500 mg of reishi and 600 mg of maitake daily.
For bronchitis or sinusitis: Take 1500 mg of reishi and/or 600 mg of maitake daily during the illness.
Guidelines for use:
For best results, divide the supplements into two or three daily doses and take with or without food. The effects of medicinal mushrooms aren't dramatic, and may take several months to make themselves known.
Possible side effects
Shiitake, maitake and reishi, as well as Coriolus versicolor, are all safe when used in appropriate doses. In fact, in studies of cancer patients, Coriolus versicolor was remarkably free of any adverse side effects.
In rare cases, long-term use of reishi mushrooms – three to six months of daily use – may cause dry mouth, a skin rash and itchiness, an upset stomach, nosebleeds or bloody stools. Stop taking reishi if any of these symptoms arise. Pregnant or breast-feeding women should consult a doctor before trying any of these mushrooms medicinally.
Facts and Tips
- Don't forage for wild mushrooms, medicinal or culinary. It's too easy to mistake a deadly fungus for an edible one.
- Powdered or dried mushrooms can be used to make an earthy-tasting tea, or they can be added to soups. Dried mushrooms must simmer in liquid for at least 40-60 minutes to release their flavor and healing properties.
- Mushrooms are expensive, but if you're undergoing chemotherapy, you may deem the price worthwhile.
Did you know?
The Japanese translation of maitake is 'dancing mushroom', because if you find one, you dance for joy. A maitake mushroom can weigh as much as 45 kg.