Dr. Abrams recalls if mushrooms are capable of preventing cancer and are beneficial to eat during cancer treatment.
In the West, we are a culture that fears mushrooms for some reason. I think it’s deeply enculturated in past folklore. In the East, in China, in Japan and in Korea, mushrooms are prized for their gourmet qualities, as well as for medicinal benefits. And, there was an observation made in the 1960s that a group of people living in a certain prefecture in Japan who were harvesting enokitake mushrooms, had much, much less cancer than their neighbors in the same area, and it was felt that maybe because they were consuming more mushrooms they were having less cancer. And that was the first, sort of, introduction of this concept into the West, but, you know, once we became able to look at mushrooms chemically and break them down to their different compounds, then more interest evolved in the West as to the possible benefits of mushrooms in the fight against cancer.
And what we now appreciate is that many of the sugars, the complicated sugars linked to proteins that are present in mushrooms, stimulate the body’s immune system in a way that it might augment the immune system’s fight against cancer, particularly in conjunction with standard chemotherapy or radiation.
So there are a number of mushrooms out there that are sold either as specific fractions in the mushroom that may have some activity against cancer, extracts of the mushroom or, some people eat the mushrooms themselves in hopes that they can benefit against cancer.
Probably one of the largest selling mushrooms in the world is Ganoderma lucidum, the Reishi mushroom known as Ling Zhi in China. It’s the mushroom of the immortality. Reishi, in addition to having benefits in augmenting the immune system, may have some chemicals that actually fight cancer in addition to the immune system augmentation. They may actually work against cancer cells. So that’s a very popular mushroom. It’s not a mushroom that we can eat or cook with.
Mushrooms that we can eat or cook with, that may have some benefit, are shiitake and maitake. They both, again, are immune-enhancing mushrooms, and they taste good. They can be dried or they can be fresh, and they may be of some benefit. Also, again, mushrooms are sold in capsules or as tinctures either alcohol-based or hot or cold water extracted products, and all of these, you know, are available and can become very confusing.
There aren’t a lot of cancer specialists who know that much about mushrooms and most of the data, the evidence, that Western oncologists thrive and demand is coming from studies that were done in Asia that are difficult to get translated. So, there is a bit of a leap of faith here and there is a need for more research to be done.
There are other mushrooms that may benefit specific problems that cancer patients have. For example, Cordyceps is a mushroom that we know increases vigor and stamina, and a lot of cancer patients suffer from fatigue. Cordyceps is an unusual fungus in that it grows on caterpillars and other insects and it’s difficult to find. You have to go to the highlands of Tibet, but the people that make mushroom products have harvested a Cordyceps fungus and now clone it and make their products from that, and Cordyceps I believe may be useful in ameliorating the fatigue associated with cancer or its treatment.
Another interesting mushroom that’s also a delicious edible if it can be found is Hericium or Lion’s Mane. It’s a very beautiful mushroom and it’s felt that it may stimulate brain-derived nerve growth factor. So, it’s something, and again we need to do studies in this, that may be useful in the treatment or prevention of the neuropathy that patients get--nerve damage from a number of the chemotherapeutic agents we use--or maybe even for so-called ”chemo brain,” the cognitive impairment that particularly women seem to suffer from treatment of breast cancer.
So, again, it’s an exciting field. More research is needed. I don’t think that these mushroom products particularly can be harmful, but I know many of my more conventional oncology colleagues or radiation therapists advise their patients, “Don’t take any of these mushrooms when you are getting radiation or chemotherapy.” Unfortunately, that might be the wrong advice because that may be when these mushrooms have their most benefit.
About Dr. Abrams, M.D.:
Dr. Donald I. Abrams, M.D., a cancer specialist, is director of clinical programs at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion. Abrams provides integrative medicine consultations for cancer patients and has completed research in complementary and alternative therapies including mind-body treatments, botanical therapies, medical use of marijuana and traditional Chinese medicine herbal therapies.