Many culinary mushrooms help bolster the body’s defenses—and much more.
Say the words “Chinese medicine” to the average American and they’re likely to think “acupuncture.” Certainly this needle-based technique is the most recognizable aspect of East Asian medicine. But it is only part of a unified healing system that includes a strong herbal tradition and the idea that specific foods can help bring the body back into balance.
Among the foods that hold a place of honor in the Chinese diet are mushrooms. While some, such as reishi, are used primarily as medicinal herbs, many others serve both culinary and therapeutic roles. What’s more, modern research has provided a scientific understanding of the healing properties—including the ability to regulate immunity—that have been attributed to these fungi for thousands of years.
Mushrooms are rich in nutrients, including amino acids, iron, zinc and vitamins. But the real secret to their health benefits lies in their phytonutrients, many of which act as host defense potentiators (HDP). These substances regulate various aspects of immunity including cytokines, proteins that help immune-system cells communicate with each other. For example, a mushroom compound called beta-glucan has been found to stimulate tumor necrosis factor, which induces death in tumor cells, and activate macrophages, cells that consume pathogens and diseased body cells. Along with this power comes restraint; as foods, mushrooms support the immune response without overstimulating it (BMC Immunology 2/09).
One mushroom noted for its HDP content is shiitake (Lentinula edodes). Now grown commercially in the US, shiitake has long been regarded in China as a culinary delicacy that promotes longevity by nourishing the shen, or spirit. In studies, shiitake has shown anticancer and antifungal properties. It has also boosted immune response within the intestines (Biomedical Research 4/07).
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) has also been prized for centuries as an anti-aging medicinal food that boosts energy, stamina and well-being. Cordyceps helps the body deal with stress and has shown an ability to increase immunity while reducing inflammation.
The oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) is becoming increasingly popular in US kitchens. Named for its white shell-like appearance, the oyster mushroom has been found to fight cancer cells and the hepatitis C virus. It also acts as an antioxidant (Chemico-Biological Interactions 11/08).
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is known as “hen of the woods” for its feathery appearance. Maitake acts against cancer and may help alleviate intestinal inflammation (Experimental & Molecular Medicine 2/10).
The Woods Have Ears
Some mushrooms are used in Chinese cooking because of their unusual texture. Wood ear (Auricularia auricula) and white wood ear (Tremella fuciformis) are considered jelly fungi, or mushrooms with a solid jelly-like texture not unlike that of gummy candy; white wood ear is also called snow fungus for its pure-white color. (The gelatinous component in hot-and-sour soup is a species of jelly fungi.) In addition to their effects on the immune system, both wood ears have demonstrated an ability to help reduce cholesterol levels, especially the low-density cholesterol (LDL) associated with cardiovascular disease. White wood ear, used in China as a nerve tonic, has aided memory retention in rats (Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin 4/07).
Exotic mushrooms, fresh and dried, are increasingly available to the US consumer, mainly through health food stores and Asian specialty markets. These valuable fungi are also available in concentrate form, often in combination with other concentrated sources of whole-food nutrition.
Sustenance, nourishment, healing, well-being: Mushrooms are a world unto themselves.