Magic Mushrooms

We typically imagine magic mushrooms

We typically imagine magic mushrooms

But the real magic mushroom is not so glamourous…

Psilocybe semilanceata

Psilocybe semilanceata

Magic mushrooms have been used since ancient times, even appearing in stone age cave paintings. Apart from their psychedelic properties, did ancient man know more?

Are mushrooms magic in more ways than one?

Could mushrooms be the cure for cancer?

Mushrooms are being hailed as a miracle cure for cancer. But can a shiitake stir-fry really work wonders?

From left: shiitake, reishi and maitake mushrooms. Photograph: Getty/Alamy

Behold the mighty mushroom. Neither plant nor animal, the mysterious fungus is a class, or kingdom, of its own, and has fascinated cultures around the world for centuries. But while they do make a tasty omelette filling, does the real magic of mushrooms lie not in their flavour, but in their potential to combat one of our biggest killers – cancer?

The ancient Egyptians believed eating mushrooms brought long life. While their scientific method was perhaps not entirely sound, modern scientists investigating the medicinal properties of the organism are beginning to produce some fascinating results. There are thousands of species of mushroom growing in the wild, but most studies have focused on three main varieties – reishi, maitake and shiitake.

Reishi, otherwise known as ganoderma, has been used in Chinese medicine for 2,000 years and numerous studies have investigated its much-vaunted anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties. In a paper published last year in the US’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, a team of scientists linked its use to cancer-cell death. The team, from the Taiwanese research centre Academia Sinica, found that F3 polysaccharides, a type of carbohydrate molecule found in reishi mushrooms, can induce antibodies to recognise and kill antigens associated with tumours or cancer cells.

Maitake mushrooms are believed to have similar qualities. In a human trial, conducted by Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Centre in 2009, maitake was shown to stimulate the immune systems of breast cancer patients. Laboratory in vitro research by Sensuke Konno, associate professor of urology at New York Medical College, found that non-toxic concentrations of the GD or PL “fractions” found in maitake mushrooms, when combined with vitamin C, not only reduced growth of bladder cancer cells by 90% in 72 hours, but were also highly effective in killing them.

But perhaps the best known of all the medicinal mushrooms is the shiitake. Not only is it a delicious ingredient, but it is also famed for its compound lentinan. Several papers have found the polysaccharide could help increase the survival rate of cancer patients, including research carried out by a team of scientists at Harbin University, China, in 2008, which found that lentinan was “beneficial in terms of increasing mean survival duration, tumour necrosis and reducing the recurrence rate”.

The shiitake extract Active Hexose Correlated Compound (AHCC) is the second most popular form of alternative medicine used by cancer patients in Japan – Agaricus subrufescens, another mushroom, is the first. A study in 2011 by researchers in Texas found that AHCC may also be effective in protecting the body against viruses and infections, including flu.

Mushrooms for sale at a herbal medicine shop in China Mushrooms for sale at a herbal medicine shop in China. Photograph: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy

“These mushrooms have attributes you can’t synthesise, because the molecules are often too complex,” says medicinal plant expert Chris Kilham. He considers the immune value of many of these fungi to be “critically important”, and just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possible health benefits. He complains that many doctors are still ignorant of their potential in modern medicine.

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