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The Versatility of Medicinal Mushrooms

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Few natural medicines in the practitioner’s repertoire hold the promise of the wide-ranging benefits of medicinal fungi. Used for thousands of years and in many cultures, the most widely acclaimed “medicinal mushrooms” hail from Asia. Today, fungi are receiving serious attention as possible therapeutic tools to improve the effectiveness of chemo- and radiotherapy, and to allay some of their serious side-effects.


Apart from their wholesome nutritional value, medicinal mushrooms and fungi have a long and revered history in many cultures, with references dating back thousands of years. [1] The ancient Chinese Dynasties prized mushrooms such as reiishi (or reishi), shiitake and white wood ear fungus (or snow fungus). [2] Even “Otzi", the mummified iceman uncovered in the European Alps, had fungi in his possessions, supposedly for their health benefits. [1]

Medicinal fungi grow in both the familiar mushroom form and the fungal form (Cordyceps sinensis attacks the Himalayan Bat Moth & fruits from the head of the dead insect).[3] Others like turkey tail, sprout from dead trees, growing in fans that grow more or less laterally.


Fungi are susceptible to many bacterial and viral pathogens that also plague humans. Therefore, the intricate defence mechanisms that they have developed against these micro-organisms can be harnessed for human use. [1]. Although there are many medicinal mushrooms that have a long history of use in traditional medicine systems, or have been scientifically researched for medicinal use, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has, at this time, only approved six fungi for therapeutic use in Australia (see Table 1).

Table 1: TGA-approved mushrooms and fungi

Common name

Latin Name


Shiitake Mushroom 

Lentinula edodes

Marasmiaceae (Wasting/Shrivelling Fungi)

Reishi / Reiishi Mushroom

Ganoderma lucidum

Polyporaceae (Polypores & Bracket Fungi)

Turkey Tail Mushroom / Coriolus 

Trametes versicolor

Polyporaceae (Polypores & Bracket Fungi)

Umbrella Polypore / Zhu ling

Polyporus umbellatus

Polyporaceae (Polypores & Bracket Fungi)

Caterpillar Fungus / “Cordyceps” 

Cordyceps sinensis

Pyrenomycetes (Flask Fungi)

Snow Fungus / White Wood Ear Fungus

Tremella fuciformis

Tremellales (Jelly Fungi)

Many medicinal mushrooms have overlapping health benefits, along with their own unique qualities. For instance, shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) are both used extensively for immune enhancement; however shiitake also exhibits anti-candida and anti-aging effects, while reishi is a prized adaptogrn and often used for allergies, chronic hepatitis B and diabetes. [1,2,4,5]


Some medicinal fungi products have specific uses. For example, polysaccharide-Krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide-peptide (PSP) both from Trametes versicolor, are used in the treatment of various cancers including lung cancer and both oestrogen receptor-positive and oestrogen receptor-negative breast cancer. [6,7]

In these cases, the use of single entity products may be indicated, but a comprehensive approach to say, cholesterol reduction, would incorporate the combination of Cordyceps saneness, Tremella fuciforms and Lentinufa erodes (see Table 2). 



Table 2: Targets of medicinal fungi in management of cholesterol and lipids. [2]


Medicinal Fungi

Total Cholesterol

Caterpillar Fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) Snow Fungus (Tremella fusiformis)

LDL-C (low density lipoprotein cholesterol)

Snow Fungus (Tremella fusiformis)


Caterpillar Fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinula edodes)


As mentioned above, the polysaccharides in medicinal fungi (namely, PSK and PSP from Trametes versicolor) are used in various cancer treatments.

Tumour antigens induce tolerance and promote the secretion of a plethora of “chronic” inflammatory cytokines including nuclear factor-kappaB (NFkB), tutor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and matrix metallopeptidase-9 (MMP-9), thereby manipulating the immune system to assist tumour progression. [8]

PSK appears to act in tutor suppression and immune modulation, not by being directly cytotoxic, but by normalising antigen presentation and returning the immune system to active surveillance against tumour antigens.[9] Hence, it is truly a “biological response modifier”,[10] and as such, is able to mitigate the immunologic side effects of cancer treatments and enhance disease-free survival.[7]
The immune-stimulating/ modulating effects of PSK, PSP and other fungal Beta-glucans also account for the anti-infective properties of medicinal mushrooms. Structurally, different Beta-glucans appear to bind to different receptors on immune cells, resulting in different host responses.[11,12]

Other pharmacologically important compounds in medicinal fungi include the triterpenes and ergosterol. 


Some clinicians have been led to believe that fungi cannot be used in patients with Candida spp. infections; however, a closer examination of the disease process shows this practice to be unnecessary. 

Candida is a commensal organism which only changes into its invasive form in an immunocompromised patient, and requires sugar (not fungi) to grow. In fact, other yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii ,and the mushrooms shiitake and turkey tail, have shown anti-candida and immune-enhancing properties.[1,2]


Medicinal fungi offer practitioners wide-ranging, beneficial & powerful actions which can safely be used for immune, cardiovascular, kidney, liver, ling and nerve support, and most excitingly, as an adjunct to chemotherapeutic regimens to reduce the toxicity and side effects of anti-cancer drugs.  As research advances in the study of medicinal fungi, the great ope is that the full extent of their therapeutic properties will soon be identified and incorporated into current medical paradigms.


  1. Stamets P. Novel antimicrobials from mushrooms. HerbalGram 2002;54:28-33. [Link]
  2. Smith JE, Rowan NJ, Sullivan R. Medicinal mushrooms: their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatments. Strathclyde: Cancer Research UK, 2002. [Full Text
  3. Holliday J, Cleaver M. On the trail of the yak: ancient cordyceps in the modern world. 2004 June. [Link]  
  4. Saljoughian M. Adaptogenic or medicinal mushrooms. US Pharm 2009;34(4):HS-16-HS-18. [Full Text
  5. Zhou S. Clinical trials for medicinal mushrooms: Experience with Ganoderma lucidum (W.Curt.:Fr) Lloyd (Lingzhi mushroom). Int J Med Mushr 2005;7(1- 2):111-118. 
  6. Tsang KW, Lam CL, Yan C, Mak JC, Ooi GC, Ho JC, et al. Coriolus versicolor polysaccharide peptide slows progression of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Respir Med 2003 Jun;97(6):618-624. [Abstract
  7. Standish LJ, Wenner CA, Sweet ES, Bridge C, Nelson A, Martzen M, et al. Trametes versicolor mushroom immune therapy in breast cancer. J Soc Integr Oncol 2008 Summer;6(3):122-128. [Full Text]
  8. Aggarwal BB, Shishodia S, Sandur SK, Pandey MK, Sethi G. Inflammation and cancer: how hot is the link? Biochem Pharmacol 2006 Nov 30;72(11):1605-1621. [Abstract
  9. Borchers AT, Krishnamurthy A, Keen CL, Meyers FJ, Gershwin ME. The immunobiology of mushrooms. Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 2008 Mar;233(3):259-276. [Abstract]
  10. Fisher M, Yang LX. Anticancer effects and mechanisms of polysaccharide-K (PSK): implications of cancer immunotherapy. Anticancer Res 2002 May- Jun;22(3):1737-1754. [Abstract]
  11. Thompson IJ, Oyston PC, Williamson DE. Potential of the beta-glucans to enhance innate resistance to biological agents. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther 2010 Mar;8(3):339-352. [Abstract]
  12. Chen J, Seviour R. Medicinal importance of fungal beta-(1-->3), (1-->6)-glucans. Mycol Res 2007 Jun;111(Pt 6):635-652. [Abstract]
  13. Cordyceps. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 2010 May 10. [Link


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