By Linda McGlasson, Assistant Editor
Western culture has often frowned on mushrooms, even fearing the small innocuous forest growth. The French prize their truffles, but even truffles and other edible fungi and mushrooms are not as highly valued or show as much potential as a species of mushrooms called Ling Zhi or Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).
The late Hiroshi Hikino, recognized as the world’s authority on the chemistry of Oriental medicinal plants, called Reishi one of "the most important elixirs in the Orient."
Relatively rare and undiscovered in the West, Reishi and other mushrooms have been revered as herbal medicines for thousands of years in Japan and China. Emperors of the great Chinese dynasties and Japanese royalty drank teas and concoctions of the mushroom for vitality and long life. The ancient Taoists were constantly searching for the elixir of eternal youth, and Reishi was believed to be among the ingredients.
In modern times, Ganoderma lucidum and its fellow mushrooms have been well-researched in Asian universities. It is currently being studied in China as a sports performance enhancer. Its long History has sparked interest in the West where it is used by herbalists to treat diverse problems such as allergies, chronic Fatigue Syndrome, diabetes, liver diseases and many immune-related diseases.
As little as 20 years ago, Reishi was rare and not widely found in Asia. It grew in the wild, but was extremely hard to cultivate. Now with an increased knowledge of the climates that it thrives in, scientists are able to set up artificial growth conditions with the correct amounts of oxygen and moisture for the spores to grow into the Reishi mushroom.
JUST ANOTHER FUNGUS?
Reishi mushrooms are polypore mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting body and reproductive structure of a higher order fungus organism, much like an apple is the fruit of an apple tree. The actual mushroom "tree" is a fine thread-like network called mycelium. This mycelium is for the most part subterranean, living in soil, logs and other organic litter.
Unlike green plants, which produce many of their own nutrients by photosynthesis, mushrooms primarily get their nutrients from dead organic matter or soil. Mushrooms and their mycelium are nature’s original recyclers. Without them, the planet surface would be piled high with dead, decaying material.
Mushrooms rise out of the mycelium when the right nutrients are amassed and the right environmental conditions are present. Mushrooms release spores at maturity. The wind spreads them and when they land on the right spot, the cycle starts over again.
REISHI’S MEDICAL PROPERTIES
In the 16th Century pharmacopedia Pen T’sao Kang Mu, which contains hundreds of natural medicines the Chinese have used for thousands of years, compiler Le Shih-chen described the uses of Reishi. "It positively affects the life energy, or qi of the heart, repairing the chest area and benefiting those with a knotted and tight chest." He wrote that it also increases intellectual capacity and banishes forgetfulness. "Taken over a long period of time, agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened to those of the Immortal Fairies."
In the Orient, Reishi is considered a Fu Zhen herb (immune modulation). Presently, Reishi has various applications including lowering or raising blood pressure, stimulating liver actions, blood cleansing, and acting as an adaptogen in helping the body fight the effects of stress.
Chinese herbalists prize it for its abilities to regenerate the liver. In high doses, and to some degree normal doses, Ganoderma maybe classified as a liver detoxicant and protectant.
In traditional Oriental applications Reishi is also used to treat insomnia, gastric ulcers, neurasthenia, arthritis, nephritis, asthma, bronchitis, hypertension and poisoning. It is also being used in treating neuromuscular disorders — stress-induced tension, myasthenia gravis and muscular dystrophy — all with varying degrees of success.
Toxicity studies show no toxic effects on humans. In research, patients are given much higher doses, as high as 10 grams of extract per day, with no ill effects.
The potency of Reishi mushrooms is usually based on its level of triterpenoids. One can determine the level of this by tasting it. The more bitter it is, the higher the level of triterpenoids. Because Reishi is a polypore, (a group of hard, woody, bracket-like mushrooms) it is not eaten, but cut into pieces and made into a tea. In China, the average dose is 3 to 5 grams a day. Other popular forms of delivery are the water/alcohol extracts and powders.
Reishi mushrooms and mushroom extracts are generally analyzed for specific triterpenoids called Ganoderic acids. When buying a Reishi mushroom product, check for the analysis of how much triterpenoids is in the extract or powder.
"There is no standardization yet, either here or in Asia for Reishi. You have to look for high ganoderic acid-A levels, which indicates high levels of other ganoderic acids," said Kenneth Jones, a researcher/writer specializing in the ethnopharmacology of medicinal plants.
One focus for future research is on Reishi spore extracts. In China, it has been used in injectable form in clinical treatments of various ailments with success. One of the things it has successfully treated is low energy, and debilitation following long illness.
Chinese women take Reishi for beautification of the skin. The results are probably due to the mushroom’s hormone-potentiating effects, Jones said.
Reishi is included in many Japanese patents for hair loss formulas, including products used for alopecia. Spore extract injections of Reishi are also being used to treat lupus in China.
The mycelium of Reishi contains high levels of polysaccharides, which have been shown in research to induce the production of interferon. Interferon is a protein produced inside cells to fight viral infection. Polysaccharides are also tumor fighters and help stimulate the immune system.
Reishi is being recognized for its adjunct use as an immune system stimulator when cancer therapy is being used. The use of Reishi as a cancer treatment in the Orient is centuries old. In following the concept of qi tonics, Reishi is used to strengthen the body’s resistance to outside forces.
Former heart surgeon Dr. Fukumi Morishige, a leading authority on vitamin C in Japan, reports that when Reishi and vitamin C are combined the results against cancer and other diseases are far better than when Reishi is ingested. This is because the vitamin makes the polysaccharides more accessible to the immune system.
It is also an adaptogen, with properties similar to ginseng. The adenosine in Reishi may explain why the Chinese use it for patients suffering from nervous tension. Adenosine relaxes skeletal muscles, calms the central nervous system and operates against the stimulating action of caffeine.
"Reishi mushrooms are certainly an herb for the 90s and beyond," commented Jeff Chilton, president of North American Reishi. "Considering that Reishi has a history of use that spans 2,000 years and is more highly revered than ginseng in the Orient, one could readily compare its potential to that of ginseng."