Fungi are an essential part of a sustainable world. They are involved in the decaying and recycling of matter into the nutrients that animals and plants feed on. Medicinal mushrooms in particular help to purify the environment by decomposing dead trees and plants. For humans, there are approximately 700 species that can be eaten as a nutritious food. And of course medicinal mushrooms provide a wide variety of health benefits that can contribute to the prevention and treatment of disease.
What is commonly referred to as a “mushroom” is also called the fruit body. This is the part of the fungus that grows above ground, with the sole purpose of releasing spores as a part of the reproduction cycle.
Fungi live near the bottom of the ladder in the ecosystem. Similar to humans they have an immune system to protect against a variety of pathogens. During the mycelial stage, when fungi actively digest food and fight hostile competitors, they excrete digestive enzymes to decompose matter. Before the digested food can be absorbed into the cells where the food is used, the fungi must deactivate pathogens and toxins. This is done by releasing special polysaccharides and other disease-fighting chemicals inside the cell walls where the food passes through. This process is believed to provide many of the nutrients that are also invaliable for the human immune system.
Many of the rules for preparing plant-based herbs do not apply to mushroom supplements because mushrooms have a unique structure that is completely different from plants. The cell wall in plants is composed of cellulose while mushrooms have a cell wall made of chitin. Chitin is the same hard fiber contained in the shell of a lobster. This is important since chitin is indigestible to humans; yet chitin contains the potent immune-stimulating compounds common to all medicinal mushrooms, the beta-glucans, specific types of polysaccharides. Hot-water extraction is the only way to break down teh cell wall and release the bioactive polysaccharide.
Mushroom beta-glucans are often referred to as “long chain” molecules or “macro” molecules. They consist of multiple spiraling chains of repeating patterns. The spirals and the different patterns of linking create the complex three-dimensional shapes that give molecules their names. The term beta-glucan is a classification based on structural characteristics with particular designations such as beta 1-4 or beta 1-3 further describing the linking pattern in the long chain molecule. The glucose structure of the beta-glucans is formed from its six carbon atoms. Each of the six carbon atoms in the glucose structure is a potential starting or ending point for the links that bind these long chain molecules together.
In the 1980s, researchers at Harvard University began to understand how critically important shape and structure were to the immune-boosting power of the beta-glucan molecule. Researchers observed a beta-glucan molecule linking up with receptors on the surface of an important immune cell, a macrophage. This “lock and key” process was observed to stimulate the macrophage activity and soon after, continued research found other examples. Receptor sites were found on other immune cells such as natural killer cells and neutrophils, and continued research found that different shapes beta-glucans produced different immune responses, that dramatically improved outcome for a number of serious medical conditions and diseases.
Spotlight on Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga is a parasitic fungus that grows on hardwood trees – particularly birch trees – in cool climates. It can be found in the forests of Russia, Northern and Eastern Europe, Korea, parts of Canada and in the northern United States. From the family Hymenochaetaceae, chaga has a worldwide reputation as one of the most medicinally valuable fungi.
In China, it is called “King of all Plants.” The Siberians call it “Gift from God.” In Japan it is referred to as the “Diamond in the Forest.” Its Norwegian title –”kreff juke”—translates to “cancer polypore.”
The chaga mushroom extracts nutrients from the birch tree over the course of its growth. By the time the mushroom reaches maturity it is nutritionally dense, filled with phytochemicals (plant chemicals). It is hard and black in appearance and contains high concentrations of melanin.
Moscow’s Medical Academy of Science has identified the mushroom as a powerful adaptogen – a compound that can help mitigate and protect against the effects of stress.
The chaga mushroom’s host of beneficial phytochemicals is sometimes used to explain the mushroom’s purported adaptogenic role. Chaga mushrooms contain:
•Flavonoids, phenols and antioxidants;
•Various B complex vitamins, including high amounts of niacin (B3), riboflavin (B2) and pantothenic acid (B5);
•Minerals, including: copper, manganese, iron, zinc, potassium and calcium;
•Up to 30 percent chromogenic complex, a powerful generalized tissue protector;
Chaga Mushroom and Superoxide Dismutase
Researchers have observed that components of the chaga mushroom exhibit strong antioxidant properties. Chaga contain high levels of the antioxidant superoxide dismutase (SOD), which may explain some of the mushroom’s purported antioxidant effects. SOD is an enzyme that breaks down oxygenated molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are largely responsible for cellular degradation and are thought to be one of the primary causes of the aging process.
Research is underway to investigate if SOD is effective in disrupting the progression of diseases related to free radical damage. SOD is present in every living cell and is responsible for regulating a number of important processes in the human body. Using supplements like Chaga offers a simple way to increase endogenous SOD levels. SOD stops the oxidative actions of singlet oxygen molecules. Singlet oxygen causes cellular damage to various tissue types through its oxidizing effects. This is the same type of oxidation that causes metals to rust.
SOD neutralizes the ionic charge of singlet oxygen, eliminating its potential to cause further cellular abnormalities.
Anti-Inflammatory and Digestive Health
The chaga mushroom has anti-inflammatory properties and animal research suggest this may be helpful in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases including Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Studies completed with mice identify the inflammation that occurs in both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis was reduced when the mice were given doses of the aqueous extract of chaga. This indicates that the consumption of chaga may decrease the intestinal damage that occurs in inflammatory bowel disease patients, which could delay or prevent future required surgeries to remove sections of damaged intestinal tissue. However, further clinical trials with humans are necessary to conclude these findings.
The chaga mushroom has been a treatment for cancer and other various diseases since the 16th century in Russia. Recent research suggests chaga has the potential of inhibiting tumor growth in bowel cancer. It is believed a compound called ergosterol peroxide found in the chaga mushroom regulates the beta-catenin (found in the tumors) in colorectal cancer. This was demonstrated in a study that cultured colorectal cancer cells and introduced ergosterol peroxide from the chaga mushroom to the culture. It was then observed that the ergosterol peroxide inhibited the proliferation of colorectal cancer cells. Other animal research has demonstrated that the chaga mushroom can help treat diabetes in mice, however there are no human studies documenting the effect on diabetes in human. The animal study identified chaga’s polysaccharides had positive effects on the pancreas delaying and/or reversing damage that can lead to diabetes mellitus. Also, there was a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, and a reduction in insulin levels and free fatty acid levels in the study mice
Chaga Mushroom Cautions
Chaga is generally well tolerated and adverse effects are not commonly reported. However, components of the mushroom may interact with some prescription drugs. Chaga is not recommended for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers in light of insufficient evidence of safety.
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As with all supplements, be sure to speak with your doctor or healthcare provider before you start chaga mushroom supplementation, or any supplement program.