Friday, July 16, 2010

Medicinal Mushrooms: There's A Fungus Among Us

Medicinal Mushrooms

Throughout history mushrooms have been used as food and medicine by nearly every culture. Modern science has conducted numerous studies on the efficacy of mushrooms when used in the treatment of various cancers and a myriad of other diseases with excellent results! The scope of this article could not even begin to approach the broad spectrum of mushrooms available for medicinal use (there are over 38,000 known species of mushrooms!), nor the range of their medicinal factors, so I will attempt to cover the basics of the medicinal mushrooms that are currently used in the treatment of cancer. There happen to be several of them, which I will list, but the focus of this article will be on the Big Three: Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa).

Mycelium under a log. photo by TheAlphaWolf
A mushroom is the above-ground reproductive aspect of a larger organism. The fruiting body called a mushroom produces spores that are easily distributed by wind. The underground aspect is called the mycelium, a threadlike structure that can spread for miles in some instances. The mycelium generally feeds on decomposing organic matter and often shares a symbiotic relationship with its host plant, tree or environment. When attached to the roots of some plants or trees, it often will make nutrients more bio-available to the plant, while in return receiving nutrition from its host. Fungi also do a great service for their entire environment, breaking down organic matter and adding richness to the soil. Plants will frequently thrive in an environment where fungi are naturally present; they are a necessary aspect to a healthy eco-system. Some species of fungi actually parasitize their host-plants, insects and other animals. This non-toxic and cutting–edge technology is now being utilized by a few environmentally conscious exterminators to infect certain pests by setting out traps of inoculated bait that quickly dispatches the entire colony.

Superficially speaking, the attributes of mushrooms could be considered clues to their benefits on human health. Their ability to transform organic matter hints at their ability to transform toxins in the body. The manner in which they appear to grow quickly and seem to materialize from nowhere suggests a similarity to the properties of cancer, for which mushrooms are famous for treating effectively.

Mushroom are cellulose based organisms that contain polysaccharides, terpines, steroids and other compounds, many of which show great promise in the treatment of cancer. Polysaccharides, shown in many studies to be anti-tumor, are large molecules with an above average molecular weight which resemble molecules found in bacterial cell membranes. Because of this, their presence in the body creates various immune responses like an increase in the production of killer T-cells and macrophages (specialized white blood cells with strong immune functions). The nutritional content of mushrooms is wide and variable, but most contain significant amounts of protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids (EFA’s), vitamins such as biotin, C, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and occasionally beta carotene, as well as minerals like sodium and phosphorus and moderate amounts of iron and calcium.

photo taken by Eric Steinert at Paussac, France
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) also known as Ling zhi, has a rich history- over 4,000 years- particularly in Asia where it was widely sought after and highly valued. Emperor Ti, the first emperor of China (Chin dynasty- 221 BCE), ordered a fleet of ships to sail the seas of the East in search of this valuable “mushroom of immortality.” The reishi was credited with not only conferring long life, but also great health and stamina. The Taoist sages leaned upon staffs carved from the hard shelf-like mushrooms that increased memory, nurtured the Spirit and calmed the mind. Today, the reishi mushroom is valued mostly for its anti-cancer properties. Ganoderma contains germanium, a compound that increases oxygen utilization in the cells and protects against free-radicals; it has several other active constituents, including Beta-D-glucan, that are anti-tumor, immunostimulating, build the bone marrow, cleanse liver toxins, are antihistamine and the list goes on.

photo by frankenstoen from Portland, Oregon
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is a delicious gourmet treat commonly available in the produce section of most grocery stores-a word to the wise: non-organic mushrooms available as produce are heavily sprayed and best avoided. This well-recognized edible mushroom is the subject of vast amounts of research in Japan and the US for its anti-tumor properties. This is mostly due to the exciting results shown from the protein-bound polysaccharide Lentinula edodes mycelium (LEM) and the polysaccharide Lentinan. Studies have shown dramatic degeneration of tumor cells, an increase in white blood cell, interferon and antibody production, as well as assisting patients with HIV and AIDS and various forms of hepatitis. This is one of the most widely cultivated mushrooms in the world, second only to the button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), and though not native to the US, can be cultivated with growing kits indoors or out.

I definitely danced with joy for this haul!
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is also known as “hen of the woods;” it’s Japanese name translates as “dancing mushroom,” reputedly because its value was worth its weight in silver and anyone who found it would dance with joy. It remains quite valuable and mushroom hunters guard their secret locations vigilantly-not even to divulge their whereabouts to family members! Techniques for cultivation were introduced in the late 1970’s, so Maitake is now much more widely available for food and medicine. Maitake is delicious; it is a tender mushroom that enhances any savory dish. Therapeutically, it is a source of potent anti-tumor and immune stimulating compounds that increase immune function and inhibit tumor growth, proliferation and metastasis. Several promising studies have been done on Maitake D-fraction which is available at most health food stores.

Turkey Tail
Porcini - photo by Strobilomyces
Oyster cluster - L. Huebner 
There are many more mushrooms used as medicine available commercially. Turkey Tail (Coriolus versicolor a.k.a. Trametes versicolor), found in the popular Essiac (and Cassie’s) tea, is antibiotic and immune-stimulating. Studies at Sloan Kettering on the fruiting body of Porcini (Boletus edulis) have shown anti-cancer and anti-tumor activity, especially when used preventatively. A peptide or protein found in this bolete may be responsible for the inhibition rate of 90% against Ehrlich carcinoma and the 100% inhibition rate against sarcoma 180. The gourmet Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), Porcini (also known as Cep or King Bolete), Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), Morel (Morchella esculenta and M. deliciosa) and the Fried Chicken Mushroom (Lyophyllum decastes/Tricholoma aggregatum/Clitocybe multiceps) have all been shown to inhibit tumor growth and to taste extraordinarily scrumptious! Even the boring old standby, the button mushroom has anti-tumor properties.
Chanterelle - L.Huebner
Morel - L.Huebner
Medicinal and epicurean mushrooms may be purchased fresh, dried, powdered, tinctured or in capsules and tablets from natural food stores, gourmet grocers, qualified health care practitioners and are widely available online. Be sure to research the quality of the brand you choose, or you can start cultivating your own mushrooms to really build an intimate relationship with your friendly fungi! Another option is to learn how to identify and forage for your own wild mushrooms by joining a local mycological group (mushroom foraging clubs that have experts on hand) and purchasing an excellent field guide! Never ingest any wild mushroom when in doubt about its identity; some look-alikes may be toxic or even deadly. Don’t let that scare you off too much though, with spore prints and frequent, careful observation, many species of delicious and healthy mushrooms are easy to identify positively.

The author can frequently be found with a flat-bottomed basket and a supply of paper bags in forests throughout the area gathering up her favorite wild gastronomic treats-some to enjoy right away sautéed in a little butter, more to dry for future food and medicine. Please don’t ask me where to find the Maitake or the Morels; it’s a secret I’ll never divulge!

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level III Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
Please call 8 6 0 - 4 8 0 - 0 1 1 5 or email if you have any questions, would like to schedule an appointment, attend meditations, weed walks, or are interested in taking classes.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hyssop: Her Ancient Message Still Applies

(Hyssopus officinalis)

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Psalms 51:6/7

To say that Hyssop has a timely message for humanity and for me personally right now would be a gross understatement. A few months ago, I began to feel compelled to write a monograph about her, but the time was not yet ripe. I could feel that she wanted me to wait just a bit longer, and now as I am beginning to fully integrate her message, I can understand why. Collectively, humanity is at a critical juncture. Both on a personal level and globally, we need to take inventory of our values, our possessions, our relationships and our responsibilities -basically everything- and make some serious choices. What is most valuable to us and worth keeping? What is no longer working and needs to be scrapped?

According the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Five Element paradigm, the lungs are paired with the large intestines and are associated with the Metal Element (or more accurately, Phase). The Metal Phase represents evaluation and release- that is separating the pure from the impure- and eliminating what is left. It is crucial that we rid ourselves of that which no longer serves us in order to create space for new energies that will match our higher frequency. If we fail to do so, we become bogged down emotionally with attachments that drain us, and we find that instead of owning our possessions, our possessions own us. We become so hampered with responsibilities that are not ours that we have no energy left with which to take response-ability for what we must, such as a change of course or direction.

The lungs are also where we hold onto grief that has not been completely released. When we are burdened, whether from sadness, emotional constraint, or a resistance to necessary surrender, we can begin to fear healthy release. We may come to equate pure space with emptiness and loneliness instead of using that void as a starting point for Divine inspiration and creation. The analogy is also made in TCM that our lungs take in the breath of heaven, that is to say air, our physical connection to the intangible or the Divine. The Divine is Universal Truth and Love; a healthy ability to discern what is truly healthful to us and to disengage with what is not is a path to purifying our soul.

Many references hold true that Hyssop purifies the soul, helps one break old patterns of unhealthy thoughts or behavior, like anger, addictions and lack of forgiveness. What is a grudge, dependence, or resentment? Simply stated, unhealthy emotional patterns are based in judgment and often rooted in our inability to let go of our own imperfections enough to have true compassion for ourselves and others. What is forgiveness? The ability to release a judgment that we have been holding onto -whether it is toward ourselves or someone else- is a letting go, a surrendering. Breathing deeply, we inhale the Divine into our body and exhale the emotional weight we no longer need to carry.

On a physical level, Hyssop is one of the premier herbs for assisting the lungs in their ability to breathe deeply. It has an expectorant quality that will purge phlegm, but more specifically will thin mucous, making it more watery and easier to dislodge. Often taken as a tincture or syrup for bronchial complaints, herbalists may combine Hyssop with Mullein, Thyme, Licorice, Basil or other herbs that loosen phlegm, circulate energy in the chest and soothe coughs. A hot infusion of fresh or dried Hyssop herb is an effective remedy for the recent onset of colds or flu because it promotes a light perspiration that helps the body rid toxins through the pores and lowers a fever.

The crushed, fresh herb spread over bruises and contusions will help them to heal faster, and an infusion applied topically is helpful for achy joints. Steam from a hot infusion of Hyssop can help to soothe inflammations of the ear; its camphor-like aroma belies its ability to aromatically open areas of obstruction. In fact, the fragrance of Hyssop was once valued more highly than Lavender essential oil.

The herb is considered very safe; however it can stimulate the uterus and shouldn’t be utilized by pregnant women without professional guidance. Some sources suggest that it should not be used by children or by anyone with epilepsy because it may be a mild neurotoxin. Warnings that the herb can raise blood pressure indicate that it should never be used by anyone with hypertension. The essential oil (EO) has received much scrutiny due to the presence of the toxic ketone pinocamphene and cautions abound that advise consumers to dilute Hyssop EO in carrier oil to a concentration not exceeding 5% potency.

This logic does not take into account the thousands of trace chemicals and chemotypes that are also present in a pure steam-distilled, single source product which create a natural balance. In my opinion, a single chemical extracted and given at high concentrated doses does not represent Hyssop as a whole. I personally use several drops at a time of a very high quality, medicinal-grade Hyssop EO undiluted directly on my skin and have never had any adverse effects. In fact, I have several case studies that show the use of this high-grade oil, applied neat to the top or back of the head can help balance hypo and hypertension. Recently, one of my students was able to come off his high blood pressure medication after only 2 months of applying 4-5 drops of the oil this way on a daily basis. [Naturally, you must be responsible for your own choices if your instinct is to go against modern scientific reductionist data.]

Hyssop can help restore the nerves and soothe grief by generating strength, promoting clarity of thought, relieving depression and easing chest tightness. The judgment we attach our process when we are dealing with unpleasant emotional states is needless and causes us to tighten up, hold our breath and run a hamster wheel of worry. We would serve our higher self better by not succumbing to the temptation to be so internally harsh. Once again, deep and calm breathing helps to soothe the body, calm the mind and release emotional constraint. This release is a sacrifice of unnecessary attachments such as objects, emotions and relationships that no longer serve the highest good.

In the Bible the Jews in Egypt were compelled to protect themselves from the tenth plague by using a bunch of Hyssop to mark their doors with lamb’s blood. In this way, they would be spared the harsh judgment that would be reined upon the Egyptians, specifically the imposed sacrifice of their first born children and cattle, the embodiment of their successors and their assets.

"Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning." Exodus 12:22

Hyssop, besides being regarded as an ancient mystical herb, ritually used for purging and purifying, has also been shown to inhibit many pathogens, including a modern plague, AIDS. Some recent studies have shown that the herb inhibits the replication of HIV and were not harmful to uninfected cells. It is believed that the high content of caffeic acid, certain tannins and some unidentified high molecular weight compounds are the active compounds in Hyssop that are generating this promising research.

It has been suggested in clinical trials that Hyssop may be effective at increasing CD4+ cells and supporting the immune system during HIV related infections. According to, “Two recent studies have reported on preliminary anti-HIV activity from hyssop fractions. A California research group identified a polysaccharide (deemed MAR-IO) that, depending upon concentration, inhibited the SF strain of HIV-1 in laboratory experiments designed to measure HIV-1 cell replication.”

Interestingly, Hyssop also shows some potential in the treatment of liver-related disease, including all forms of Hepatitis. In TCM, the Liver is where we energetically store emotions such as resentment and anger as well as our repressed feelings and unarticulated personal expression. Holding these patterns of stagnation can lead to a plethora of physical and emotional problems.

It is necessary for humanity to stop waiting for others to take responsibility for our own lives or the condition of the world today. Spiritual rebirth is from a place of Purity, and Purity comes from sacrificing that which we have outgrown. We must take inventory at all levels and begin purging superfluous attachments in order to start moving forward. Inspired by the clean and uncluttered space we open up, we can allow the Divine to enter and co-create the World we envision. This is Hyssop‘s message.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment. Please call 8 6 0 - 4 8 0 - 0 1 1 5 or email if you have any questions, would like to schedule an appointment, attend meditations, weed walks, or are interested in taking classes.