Medicinal mushrooms are the latest phenomenon in complementary medicine – a re-emerging therapy that is increasingly being recognised in scientific literature for its potential use in a variety of conditions. But they are certainly not a novel therapy; Ötzi the iceman, a Copper Age man found mummified in the ice of the Swiss Alps who lived over 5,000 years ago, was found with a medicine kit containing Fomes fomentarius (amadou). Hippocrates, who lived around 2,500 years ago, described amadou as a potent anti-inflammatory and recommended it for cauterising wounds. Mushrooms were also used traditionally by the First Nations peoples of North America, who used Calvatia (puffball) strains to heal wounds.
Within the complementary medicine community, medicinal mushrooms are perhaps most associated with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The origins of TCM are shrouded in myth, beginning around 5,000 years ago with Emperor Yan Di – also call Shen Nong or the Divine Farmer. Shen Nong is attributed as the author of the first Chinese herbal (though it was compiled much later – around 2,200 years ago), containing 356 ingredients, including Ganoderma lucidum (reiishi) mushrooms.[2,3]
Today, around 700 mushroom species (out of the 14,000-15,000 known mushroom species) have established medicinal properties, with a further 1,100 species estimated to have medicinal potential, though all mushrooms have a certain amount of impact on the immune system. The beta-glucans which make up the cell walls in mushrooms are immunologically active via the fungal polysaccharide-specific receptors found on several immune cells, including dectin-1, CR3, TLR, SIGNR1, LacCer and scavenger cells. which we consider medicinal have other components alongside the beta-glucans – including antiviral, antifungal, sterol, statin and phenolic proteins.
This blend of a long history of traditional use with the more recent scientific understanding of the therapeutic actions of medicinal mushrooms make them an obvious choice for many clinicians. The plethora of research into use of mushrooms in disease states such as cancer[6-8] and HIV,[10,11] and into the immune boosting and antioxidant properties of mushrooms[12-14] has made them a popular choice for treating adult patients. But what of mushrooms for younger patients? There are few controlled trials in children due to the obvious limits surrounding ethics and consent, but anecdotal evidence from practitioners using medicinal mushrooms in children shows some promising results.
A 2017 review of the use of biologically active polysaccharides (including beta-glucans) in the management and prevention of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) concluded that beta-glucans are an effective possible therapy in a range of populations, including children (especially beta-glucans from Pleurotus ostreatus).
Anecdotally, practitioners have seen success in their own children and younger patients with medicinal mushroom treatment. A blend of five mushroom powders (Cordyceps sinensis (caterpillar mushroom), Lentinula edodes, Trametes versicolor, Grifola frondosa and reiishi) has been used for both chronic immune system support (0.4g) and acute dosing for treatment of URTIs (1.5g) in a child of 18 months, with the powder added to a formula milk drink. The mushroom blend was well-tolerated.
One clinician spoke of their experience treating a child of seven with a persistent chest infection which had not responded to three rounds of antibiotics. The child was given a blend of 5g caterpillar mushroom and 5g reiishi 2-3 times per day administered in yoghurt. After one week of treatment the chest infection cleared; treatment was continued for two more days to fully ensure recovery.
The great benefit for using dried medicinal mushroom extracts in children is their versatility in administration options. Mushroom powders are not heat sensitive and can be added to food, milk or formula with little effect on taste or texture, and so compliance is high. With the high incidence of infectious disease, most commonly URTIs, in young children attending school, kindergarten or day care, chronic support of the immune system is an important therapeutic consideration – with medicinal mushrooms the dosing can also be increased for more acute support in times of illness.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of using medicinal mushrooms in children is the presentation of food as medicine. To begin, at a young age, teaching our children that the food we eat is not just fuel, but can be both therapeutic and preventative in action. To introduce to our children the magic of therapy from the botanical world which surrounds us is to instil in children the wonder of the natural world, and a healthy respect for its actions.
- Stamets P, Zwickey H. Medicinal mushrooms: ancient remedies meet modern science. Integr Med (Encinitas) 2014;13(1):46-47. [Full text]
- Ody P. The Chinese medicine bible, 2010. New York: Sterling. [Source]
- Baker J. Plant songs: reflections on herbal medicine, 2018. Bloomington: Balboa Press. [Source]
- Chang ST, Miles PG. Mushrooms: cultivation, nutritional value, medicinal effect, and environmental impact, 2nd ed, 2004. Boca Raton: CRC Press. [Source]
- Powell M. Medicinal mushrooms: a clinical guide. Eastbourne: Mycology Press. [Source]
- Chien RC, Lin YC, Mau JL. Apoptotic effect of Taiwanofungus salmoneus (agaricomycetes) mycelia and solid-state fermented products on cancer cells. Int J Med Mush 2017;19(9):777-795. [Abstract]
- Chien RC, Tsai SY, Lai EI, et al. Antiproliferative activities of hot water extracts from culinary-medicinal mushrooms, Ganoderma tsugae and Agrocyte cylindracea (higher basidiomycetes) on cancer cells. Int J Med Mush 2015;17(5):453-462. [Abstract]
- Rouhana-Toubi A, Wasser SP, Agbarya A, et al. Inhibitory effect of ethyl acetate extract of the shaggy inc cap medicinal mushroom, Coprinus comatus (higher basidiomycetes) fruit bodies on cell growth of human ovarian cancer. Int J Med Mush 2013;15(5):457-470. [Abstract]
- Mohan S, Chinnaswamy P, Krishnamoorthy AS. A study on the effect of Ganoderma lucidum (W.Curt.: Fr.) Lloyd in Indian HIV carriers. Int J Med Mush 2005;7(3):435. [Abstract]
- Sumba JD. GACOCA formulation of east African wild mushrooms show promise in combating Kaposi’s sarcoma and HIV/AIDS. Int J Med Mush 2005;7(3):473-474. [Abstract]
- Wang CR, Zhou R, Ng TB, et al. First report on isolation of methyl gallate with antioxidant, anti-HIV-1 and HIV-1 enzyme inhibitory activities from a mushroom (Pholiota adiposa). Environ Toxicol Pharmacol 2014;37(2):626-637. [Abstract]
- Kim YH, Jung EG, Han KI, et al. Immunomodulatory effects of extracellular beta-glucan isolated from the King Oyster mushroom Pleurotus eryngii (agaricomycetes) and its sulphated form on signalling molecules involved in innate immunity. Int J Med Mush 2014; 19(6):521-533. [Abstract]
- Cör D, Knez Ž, Knez Hrnčič M. Antitumor, antimicrobial, antioxidant and antiacetylcholinesterase effect of Ganoderma lucidum terpenoids and polysaccharides: a review. Molecules 2018;23(3):E649. [Full text]
- Lung MY, Huang WZ. Antioxidant potential and antioxidant compounds of extracts from the medicinal sulphur polypore, Laetiporus sulphureus (higher basidiomycetes) in submerged cultures. Int J Med Mush 2013;15(6):569-582. [Abstract]
- Jesenak M, Urbancikova I, Banovcin P. Respiratory tract infections and the role of biologically active polysaccharides in their management and prevention. Nutrients 2017;9(7):779. [Full text]