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Medicinal Mushrooms - Ancient Medicine in Modern Times

by James Zhou(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 73 - February 2002

An innovative UK patent has recently been granted on mushroom-derived polysaccharides in a herbal liquid formula for treating viral infection of the liver. This standardized extract called Liver Energy Formula (containing the active compounds found in six different mushrooms) combines the five-element theory of traditional Chinese herbal medicine with modern pharmacological processing techniques, a combination that may finally modernize the way herbal medicines are prepared, prescribed and used by consumers in the West.

Chinese mushrooms - from left to right: Maitake, Ganoderma, Cordyseps, Shiitake and Fu-Ling
Chinese mushrooms - from left to right: Maitake,
Ganoderma, Cordyseps, Shiitake and Fu-Ling

For thousands of years in the Orient, mushrooms have been revered as longevity-promoting tonics as well as being used in herbal medicine. Of an estimated 700 species of known edible mushrooms, up to 200 may have medicinal properties. Whilst anecdotal evidence and folk medicine are testimony to the health benefits of edible mushrooms, clinical studies now offer undeniable proof that medicinal mushrooms can offer real therapeutic healing. Mushrooms including Ganoderma (Reishi), Poria (Fu-Ling), Cordyceps sinensis, Grifola (Maitake), Lentinus (Shiitake) and Hericium have been reviewed in pre-clinical in vitro and in vivo studies and open-label and double-blind clinical trials on the respiratory, renal, hepatic, cardiovascular, immunological and nervous systems, and their effects on cancer, glucose metabolism, inflammatory conditions, hepatitis and in toxicological studies have been assessed.

According to the five-element theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), liver energy has been characterized with the property of wood and with green as its colour. Thousands of years ago the Chinese had recognized the importance of liver energy in maintaining health. It was said that liver supports the heart energy, cleanses the blood and controls stomach/spleen energy (digestive and immune systems). Western medicine describes the liver as a physical organ that carries the function of detoxification, uptake of glucose from the blood, synthesis of immune complement, coagulation factors, globulin and cholesterol, etc. Both TCM and Western medicine agree that the liver plays important roles in immune balance, and sugar and fat metabolism.

In TCM many herbs have been used for enhancing liver function, protecting against liver damage, or regaining liver health. Edible mushrooms such as Lingzhi (Ganoderma), Xianxun (Lentinus) and Fu-Ling (Poria cocos) have frequently been prescribed in TCM for liver conditions. These edible mushrooms are known to have important salutary effects on health or even in treating disease. A mushroom contains many different bioactive compounds with diverse biological activities that have been shown scientifically to be beneficial for maintaining and recapturing good health. Their potential value in a diet includes preventing or treating serious health conditions such as cancer, hepatitis, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hyperglycaemia, and hypercholesterolaemia. The content and bioactivity of these compounds depend on how the mushroom is prepared and consumed. The therapeutic efficacy of a mushroom depends on the amount of consumed active molecules, such as the level of polysaccharides, which are the most important beneficial molecules. The Liver Energy Formula granted a UK patent (to the author) contains standardized polysaccharides that guarantee the potency and consistency of every dose, which cannot be achieved with conventional preparation, including boiling.

Cordyceps Sinensis

Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom, mainly grown in the areas of Sichuan in Tibet and Qinhai in China. Historically it has been used in TCM for blood and yin deficiencies, including excessive perspiration, low sexual vitality, lumbago, internal phlegm and lower back, knee and arthritic pains. This is one of the most popular and precious longevity-promoting herbs because it strengthens the adrenal glands, increases sexual vitality, relieves bronchitis and emphysema, lowers blood sugar and blood fats, lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation.

Scientific studies indicate that Cordyceps has antitumour activity that may be associated with stimulating the production of interferon (IFN)-gamma, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interleukin (IL)-1.[1]

These cytokines were shown to act synergistically for inhibiting cancer cell growth and inducing differentiation of the cancer cells from normal cells. Its immunomodulatory activity is not limited to anticancer properties, but is also beneficial for arthritis and other health conditions, such as lupus and psoriasis, which are due to an imbalanced immune system. Its activity on lowering sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood may be associated with an increase in metabolism in the liver. It is believed that polysaccharides are the key group of molecules that are associated with the immune function.

Ganoderma (Lingzhi/Reishi)

"A protein bound polysaccharide from the mycelium of reishi may hold promise in the treatment of fibrosis of the liver."

Lingzhi has been used for thousands of years as one of the most precious herbs for strengthening total body function, eliminating diseases and promoting longevity. It is native mainly to the southern areas of China. Its medicinal benefits include protecting the liver, calming the central nervous system, increasing white blood cell counts, lowering blood pressure, reducing internal phlegm, easing bronchitis and emphysema, regulating heart beats and strengthening the digestive system, as well as being antimicrobial.

It has also been used to treat liver infections and liver cirrhosis,[2] ringing in the ear, bronchitis, arthritis, sleeping disorders, irregular heart beats, coughs and poor digestion. One clinical study (288 patients) in China on the treatment of chronic bronchitis using Lingzhi extract indicated an 87% improvement. Another clinical study on the treatment of acute liver failure indicated that 19 out of 21 patients recovered their liver function after a 45-day treatment using Lingzhi extract.

Scientific studies indicate that the anti-inflammatory effects of Ganoderma are associated with its inhibitory effects on phospholipases A2.[3]

The liver-protective, anti-fibrotic, antitumour effects are associated with immune-modulating properties, such as cytokines released by activated macrophages and T lymphocytes. The contributing molecules may be a group of polysaccharides extracted from the mushroom.

Poria Cocos (Fu-Ling)

Poria is a sedative, diuretic mushroom, which nurtures the spleen and calms the spirit. This herbal mushroom has been used in TCM for lowering blood sugar and controlling stomach acid. It also contains antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties.

A hydro alcoholic extract of Poria cocos demonstrated anti-dermatitis and anti-inflammatory activity.[4]

This anti-inflammatory effect may relate to its inhibitory effect on phospholipase A2 enzyme. This extract significantly augments secretion of interleukins IL-1 and IL-6, as well as TNF-alpha (tumour necrosis factor-alpha) but suppresses the secretion of an immune suppresser (TGF-beta). In addition, Poria has anti-emetic activity, an anti-carcinogenic, anti-oedema effect, and prevents autotoxicity. These medicinal activities may be related to its immune- modulating function. The polysaccharides are responsible for this modulating function.

Lentinus (Xiangxun or Shiitake mushroom)

Lentinus is one of the most popular spices of mushroom in the Chinese diet because it has great flavour and many health benefits. The health benefits include those associated with improving qi and blood, detoxification, cleansing blood fat and reducing sugar levels, lowering blood pressure, improving acne and skin conditions, and suppressing the appetite.

Approximately 200,000 tons of Lentinus are produced each year. The volume is expected to increase as more benefits become known. The positive effects include anti-carcinogenic, anti-cholesterolaemic, and immune-stimulating and -modulating effects. They also contain rich minerals and amino acid composition.

Lentinus also prevents liver cancer cell metastasis. In an experiment using an animal model of primary colorectal cancer the survival period of the animals was dramatically prolonged. This activity is relevant to the promotion of liver natural killer (NK) and liver macrophage activities.[5]

A heteroglycan-protein fraction from the extract stimulates the production of IFN-gamma (interferon-gamma)in splenic cells, which augments the antitumour immune response. This function supports a broad spectrum of antiviral activity including hepatitis A, B and C viruses, herpes and HIV. A water-soluble extract of Lentinus can induce B cell proliferation by regulating cellular transcription factors such as NF-kappa B.[6]

Beta-glucan has been identified as a key molecule for anticancer activity. Studies indicate that the immune-modulating effect of Lentinus may be relevant to a change in the T-cell sub-population and an increase in tumour necrosis factor production.[7] Eritadenine, one of the active molecules in Lentinus mushroom, is responsible for the decrease of the plasma concentrations of cholesterol and phospholipids. This function is explained as modification of hepatic phospholipid metabolism. Its anti-thrombotic activity (oligosaccharide) is possibly due to the promotion of fibrinolysis and thrombolysis activity.

Hericium and Grifola (Maitake)

Other valuable mushrooms including Hericium and Grifola frondosus (Maitake mushroom) have been studied. Polysaccharide of Hericium shows effects on the increase of proliferation of T and B lymphocytes in spleen cells.[8]

Like Cordyceps and Ganoderma, Grifola contains a similar group of polysaccharides that have immuno-modulatory, lipid-lowering, antitumour activities by stimulating cytokine production including TNF alpha (tumour necrosis factor-alpha) from macrophages.[9]

One clinical study showed that Grifola decreases the recurrence rate of bladder cancer after cystectomy by 50% as compared with the control group. Ether-ethanol-soluble and water-soluble-ethanol extracts of Grifola demonstrated blood glucose-lowering activity.

An appropriate combination of standardized extracts of edible mushrooms is however required to achieve the desired therapeutic efficacy. For example, the above-mentioned single mushroom did not show significant effects on eliminating hepatitis B virus (HBV) but a combination of them in appropriate ratio showed a 63% success rate in eliminating the virus (undetectable HBV surface antigen in the serum after the treatment) in a clinical study in China with 100 HBV-infected patients.[10] This study also showed that the efficacy depends on the amount of polysaccharides present in the formula consumed by the patients.

The use of standardized extracts of edible mushrooms is getting more and more attention from the scientific community. China has used these mushrooms for thousands of years and finally the West is beginning to reap the benefits of these most amazing extracts.


1. Kuo and Tsai. Cordyceps sinensis as an immodulatory agent. Am J Chin Med. 24(2): 111-25. 1996.
2. Par EJ and Ko G. Antifibrotic effects of a polysaccharide extracted from Ganoderma lucidium in rats with cirrhosis induced by biliary obstruction. Bio Pharm Bull. pp417-20. April 1997.
3. Cuella MJJ and Giner RM. Two fungal lanostane derivatives as phospholipase A2 inhibitors. J Nat Prod. 59(10): 977-9. Oct 1996.
4. Cuerlla MJ and Giner RM. Effects of the basidonmycete Paria cocos on experimental dermatitis and other inflammatory conditions. Chem Pharm Bull. 45(3): 492-4. Mar 1997.
5. Mori K, Toyomasu T, Naanba H and Kuroda H. Antitumor action of fruit bodies of edible mushrooms administered to mice. Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress of the Science and Cultivation of Edible Fungi. Braunchweig, Germany, 1987. Mushroom Science. 12(1): 653-60. 1989.
6. Jin M and Kim S. Induction of B cell proliferation and N-kappa B activation by a water soluble glycan from Lentinus lepideus. Int J Immunopharmocal. 18(8-9): 439-48. Aug-Sept 1996.
7. Tamura R and Tanebe K. Effects of lentinan on abnormal ingestive behaviours induced by tumor necrosis factor. Physiol Behav. 61(3): 339-410. Mar 1997).
8. Xu Hm et al. Immunomodulatory function of polysaccharide of Hericium erinaceus. Chung Kou His I Chieh Ho Chih. 14(7): 427-8. July 1994.
9. Hishida I, Nanba H and Kuroda H. Antitumor activity exhibited by orally administered extract from fruit body of Grifola frondosa (Maitake). Chem Pharm Bull. 36(5): 1819-27. 1988.
10. Zhou et al. 1998.

Further Information

The patented herbal formula used in clinical studies to treat hepatic viruses and restore liver energy is currently available for sale in the UK under the brand name Liver Energy. This herbal formula contains standardized polysaccharide extracts of Cordyceps sinensis, Ganoderma (Reishi), Lentinus (Shiitake), Grifola (Maitake), Poria, Hericium schisandra and Bilberry. Dr Zhou's team of qualified staff personally supervize and control every aspect of the harvesting, processing and manufacturing. All herbal ingredients and extracts are organically grown in the mountains of South China, are GMO free and are pharmacologically standardized to deliver both potency and efficacy. No alcohol, sweeteners, sugar, artificial preservatives or any chemicals are used in the making of the formulas. All bottles are brown glass. For more information please telephone 0118 961 9604; or visit the website at


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About James Zhou

Born into a privileged family in the 1960s at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the young James Zhou was raised by Tsaoist monks in the mountains of South China, after his father, a prominent barrister, was murdered by Red Guards. At the age of 7 he started learning kung fu, acupuncture, acupressure, t'ai chi and herbal medicine. At the age of 15 he was a fully trained 'barefoot doctor' schooled in the skills of herbal medicine. As the Cultural Revolution ended, James Zhou graduated from Beijing University with a BSc in Agriculture Science and an MS in Plant Genetics. In 1990 he graduated from the University of Iowa in the USA with a doctorate degree in Genetics and Biochemistry. He joined the faculty of Pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine under contract to create cancer drug treatments. After ten long years without any effective 'cures for cancer', Dr Zhou decided to return back to his roots – traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Today, Heba Laboratories on the edge of suburbian Middletown in Connecticut is believed to be the first ever laboratory in the USA to combine ongoing clinical research of traditional Chinese herbs with product formulation. Among his peers Dr Zhou is reckoned to be one of the foremost experts in the field of medicinal mushrooms, and he may also be the only scientist who regularly tests every single herbal formula in his own body for safety and efficacy before releasing them onto the market.

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