How A Mushroom Can Fight the Illness Of Old Age

MAGIC MUSHROOMS: The ancients used to call Reishi mushrooms the 'mushroom of immortality' — and for good reason, say scientists. Picture: THINKSTOCK

MAGIC MUSHROOMS: The ancients used to call Reishi mushrooms the ‘mushroom of immortality’ — and for good reason, say scientists.

REISHI mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes in traditional medicine in China, Japan and Korea for at least 2,000 years. Now scientific research is demonstrating Reishi’s life-extending properties, as well as its significant ability to stimulate brain neurons, search and destroy cancer cells, and prevent the development of new fat cells in obese individuals.

Those are not all the targeted benefits. Studies show Reishi’s numerous compounds have a therapeutic effect on asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, liver disease and more.

Given Reishi’s complex composition of bioactive compounds, scientists say there is still more to discover.

The mushrooms were known to the ancients as “the mushroom of immortality”— and for good reason, Indian researchers from the Research and Development Centre in Gwalior say in the journal, Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, in 2009. The mushrooms had the reputation of promoting health and longevity, boosting the immune system, and reducing the risk of life-shortening conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Science appears to have validated this traditional wisdom.

Reishi mushrooms used to be rare and expensive but advances in cultivation techniques have made them more available, which has led to an explosion of research on their properties and components. (The mushrooms are available from practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, or on the internet.)

Studies have shown Reishi mushrooms can contribute to longer life spans. They can help manage some of today’s most troubling age-related conditions, including autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, diabetes, liver disease, cancer and more.

How is it that this simple mushroom can have such wide-ranging health effects? Keep in mind, say scientists, that there isn’t one single cause of ageing and disease. Numerous factors contribute to these conditions — to combat them, you need to fight them from a multi-targeted approach. That’s what makes Reishi mushrooms so powerful. The mushroom itself contains hundreds of biologically active molecules, all of which work together to have such broad-reaching health benefits.

Researchers have identified three specific compounds essential to Reishi’s powerful antioxidant and anti-ageing effects:

1. Polysaccharides have anticancer effects based on their ability to prevent abnormal blood vessel formation and to boost immune system function.

2. Triterpenes protect the liver, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent platelet clumping that leads to heart attack and stroke, fight allergic responses triggered by histamine, and also possess anticancer activity.

3. Ganoderma lucidum peptide is a unique protein that has remarkably potent antioxidant characteristics that are still being unravelled.

But what makes Reishi mushroom beneficial to so many varied aspects of your health is its actions on many different targets in your body. The actions triggered by Reishi mushrooms produce important changes that may contribute to their promotion of longevity. Reishi extracts are known to:

• Protect cellular DNA from oxidant damage that causes ageing and cancer.

• Protect mitochondrial DNA and the mitochondria themselves from oxidant damage that weakens their energy-producing abilities and makes them inefficient, another major cause of ageing.

• Increase levels and activity of a large suite of natural intracellular antioxidant molecules, resulting in reduced oxidation of cell membranes and organelles that lead to aging and its related diseases.

• Protect kidney tubule cells from oxidant damage that leads to kidney failure.

• Increase expression of a key longevity gene and promote an increased life span in species ranging from yeasts, to primitive worms, to mammals such as mice.

Several studies have shown that Reishi is one of the most powerful mushrooms with regard to antioxidant characteristics. Reishi mushrooms boost total antioxidant capacity, an important measure of the vigour with which they fight oxidant damage, Turkish researchers from Gazi University’s Department of Biology say in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2011.

In a human study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2004, Reishi mushrooms were given to healthy volunteers as a single 1,100mg dose. Plasma antioxidant capacity rose rapidly to a peak at 90 minutes, while urine antioxidant capacity (a measure of what has been in the body) rose by 29% after three hours, with no evidence of toxicity or side-effects.

Reishi’s many mechanisms of action allow it to have such a dramatic impact on such a wide array of age-related health threats. Here are some of the most promising areas of research.

Reishi mushrooms and cancer prevention

New compounds are being discovered within extracts of Reishi mushroom regularly; at least three were identified in late 2012 alone, in Japanese research in the journal Fitoterapia (Phyotherapy). These discoveries are shedding light on Reishi extracts’ remarkable, multi-targeted anticancer properties.

Most intriguing are findings on the phenomenon of immune surveillance. New cancer cells appear in your body every day but your healthy immune system normally searches these out, quickly activating killer cells to destroy developing cancers before they can form tumours.

Advancing age, coupled with the onset of other chronic illnesses, and exposure to various environmental toxins (and even some medications), means your immune system’s ability to carry out immune surveillance wanes. If just one abnormal, cancer-prone cell escapes detection and destruction, it can develop into a full-blown malignancy with tremendous swiftness.

An evaluation of all available clinical trials on the use of Reishi in cancer treatment was published in June 2012, by scientists at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney in the Cochrane, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

While there were insufficient data to demonstrate efficacy of Reishi by itself, when Reishi was given alongside radiation and/or chemotherapy, patients were 50% more likely to respond positively compared to those given chemotherapy and radiation alone. Results in cancer patients receiving Reishi showed the expected increases in immune cells known to enhance tumour response and stimulate host immunity.

There’s an abundance of data on the ways Reishi extracts boost immune surveillance, and enhance detection and elimination of emerging cancer cells from the body. In late 2012, several new studies revealed these mushrooms have substantially deeper and more advanced mechanisms than had been previously suspected.

The mechanisms of how Reishi identifies and then attacks cancer cells are extremely sophisticated and effective. We know that cancer cells evade immune system surveillance by “hiding” their abnormal surface markers. These types of molecular changes not only permit primary cancer to arise, but also contribute to relapses of cancer following chemotherapy.

Research shows Reishi extracts force cancer cells to reveal their telltale markers, flagging them for destruction by immune killer cells. At the same time, Reishi extracts induce the production of specific molecules the immune system needs to complete the killing process.

Ultimately, Reishi extracts enhance the killing of cancer cells by normal immune killer cells, and reduce the amount of chemotherapy drugs required to finish the job, say researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Applied Microbiology in South China and the Guangdong Institute of Microbiology, in a report in the journal Public Library of Science One in 2012.

In addition to their impressive immune-surveillance-boosting properties, Reishi extracts have numerous other ways of attacking cancer:

• Reishi compounds, particularly the triterpenes and polysaccharides, limit tumours’ growth rate by blocking the abnormal reproductive cycles of cancer cells. Some of these compounds are directly toxic to cancer cells, while sparing healthy tissue.

• Reishi compounds inhibit metastatic processes and decrease the expression of genes involved in cancer cell survival, proliferation, invasion and metastasis.

• Reishi compounds also trigger the programmed cell death called apoptosis that is suppressed in malignant cells. Together, all of these effects of Reishi mushrooms are shown to reduce the size and growth rates of human tumours, both in animals and in human clinical trials.

The most dramatic impact has been shown in colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer death among cancers that affect both men and women.

Reishi and brain function

Reishi extracts have been found to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor, which in turn supports the rapid development of healthy neurons and enhances their mitochondrial function, say Taiwanese scientists from the Institute of Biopharmaceutical Sciences, National Yang-Ming University, in Taipei, in the journal Nueorpharmacology in 2012.

Reishi’s powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties make these mushrooms attractive candidates for preventing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Both of these diseases are driven by oxidative stress and inflammation.

Studies reveal that supplementing with Reishi mushrooms has beneficial effects for stroke victims. First, it can limit the size of the stroke-damaged area in the brain, which helps limit behavioural and functional damage caused by the stroke.

Second, Reishi mushrooms protect brain tissue from hypoxia/reperfusion injury, the “one-two” punch of oxygen starvation followed by excessive oxidation that produces most of the damage in the brains of stroke victims.

As valuable as these benefits are, nowhere are the effects of Reishi mushroom extracts clearer than in their impact on diabetes-related cognitive disorders. In animal studies, Reishi spores alleviated diabetes-induced oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction in the hippocampus, one of the brain’s chief memory-processing areas.

Reishi and diabesity

Obesity is a health hazard sweeping the globe in epidemic proportions. It is particularly prevalent in South Africa, and chief among its complications is type 2 diabetes. The conditions are so often found hand in hand that researchers refer to them as a single disease called “diabesity”. Reishi mushrooms are especially valuable in the fight against this epidemic because they’ve been shown to have benefits across the entire spectrum of diabesity.

Laboratory studies show that the polysaccharides and triterpenes in Reishi extracts can prevent the development of new fat cells from pre-adipocytes, helping to limit excessive fat storage seen in obese people. The extracts also have favourable effects on lipid profiles (cholesterol and triglycerides), which are frequently elevated in those with obesity and/or diabetes — and are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Reishi extracts also work to lower blood sugar by several different mechanisms, helping to reduce diabetic consequences such as kidney disease.

Reishi and liver disease

Your liver is the direct recipient of toxic threats both from the environment and from destructive molecules produced within your body. While it is well protected with its own antioxidant and detoxification systems, oxidation and inflammation eventually take their toll, leaving the ageing liver at risk for decreased function, increased accumulation of toxic injury, fibrosis and cancer.

Fortunately, Reishi mushrooms are shown to offer direct protection against such threats.

A study by Chinese researchers from the Zunyi Medical College, School of Public Health, for instance, published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012, shows pre-treating animals with Reishi spores can protect them when they’re exposed to cadmium, a highly toxic metal capable of causing massive liver failure.

The researchers found the spores decreased the cadmium accumulation in liver, while “pushing” the toxic metal into the liquid matrix of the cells. Once there, the mushroom spores increased the production of a cadmium-binding protein that removes the toxin from the body.

Reishi mushroom extracts similarly are shown to protect liver tissue from the toxic effects of certain bacterial infections. Other studies reveal that Reishi polysaccharides restore natural liver antioxidant systems to normal function following an infection, while inhibiting liver enzymes that produce excessive oxidative stress.

One of the most exciting potential applications for Reishi mushrooms in liver disease is in the condition called liver fibrosis, which is the final stage of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Statistics have shown that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common form of liver disease, ultimately affecting 20%-30% of the population. In most cases, liver disease that has advanced to the stage of fibrosis is considered irreversible.


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