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Mushrooms as Medicine?

Mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries, treating everything from asthma to gout. The food is now being marketed in the West as part of a medicinal regimen to prevent cancer, and/or stimulate higher brain function. While there are relatively few trials that have been conducted in humans to support these claims, there are studies that have confirmed the food’s anti-tumor properties.

While mushrooms are inherently healthy and low in calories, scientists at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, assert that mushrooms are particularly good for us because of what they do before humans harvest them. Viki Sabaratnam, the scientist in charge of the school’s mushroom research center, states: “Their basic function in the environment is recycling of large molecules, and in the process they produce these fruit bodies, we call them, and they accumulate some of these components.”

These components include dozens of nutrients like selenium, vitamin D, potassium, and compounds known as beta glucans, which can help fight inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is a primary contributor to many diseases associated with aging, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. In the lab, researchers have reported many promising benefits from mushrooms, ranging from killing cancer in human cells to reducing insulin resistance in diabetic mice.

While the research on humans has not been prolific, and has been re legated to small and specifically targeted populations, a few outliers exist: shitake mushroom extracts have been found to help prolong the lives of stomach cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy; maitake (hen-of-the-woods) and scaly wood mushroom extracts seem to strengthen the immune system of some breast cancer patients. Reishi extracts have been credited with reducing obesity in mice by altering gut bacteria, and in the lab, extracts of oyster mushrooms appear to inhibit growth of breast and colon cancer cells.

Sabaratnam’s research focuses on how mushrooms might someday help fight off dementia, which impacts approximately 50 million people today–with 10 million more added each year. She and her team reviewed studies of 20 different medicinal mushrooms thought to improve brain function, and about 80 different metabolites isolated from those mushrooms that were tested in cells in the lab and in mice. Their findings indicate that these metabolites improved recovery and function in damaged neural cells, and also had antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

“We have shown in lab experiments, yes, some of these properties are there…but it’s quite a long way to go” in terms of the mushroom extracts’ effect on humans. The edible mushrooms that contain high levels of nutrients and antioxidants are high in fiber and lower in cholesterol, and make for a positive addition to any diet.

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