Roy Upton is one of the wise men of the natural products world. His roots run deep. He’s trained in Eastern and Western herbalism and is an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner. He’s on all the botanical organization boards. He co-authored the Botanical Safety Handbook, and he’s GM of the botanical supplement company Planetary Herbals.
One of Upton’s hats is executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which publishes monographs on botanical quality-control standards. At last count, the AHP had published 31 monographs, one of which is on reishi mushrooms. Upton says it’s his favorite one, which piqued our interest. We caught up to him to inquire about the state of medicinal mushrooms.
“Lots of people believe that because mushrooms are great you just pile all of them into a single pill and that is it. This is American chop suey herbalism,” Upton says. “This is better than nothing and is of immense value for anyone undergoing conventional [cancer] therapies but it is only a partial approach to immune support.”
Many mushrooms show varying degrees of support for fighting cancer. But because you can’t say the C-word under U.S. regulatory rules, companies focus on immunity. That’s because mushrooms tend to improve the performance of various white blood cells—the front lines of immune function.
“In my opinion of working with people for 30 years and the opinion of many researchers who have reviewed the mushroom literature,” Upton says, “use of these types of immune tonics should be standard of care in conventional cancer therapy and should be encouraged after conventional care is discontinued as they have been shown to increase and restore immunocompetency dramatically.”
Upton says mushrooms are most effective for immune support as either concentrated extracts or water- or solvent-soluble compounds (but not just ground mushroom powder because of the indigestible polysaccharide fraction chitin).
The four mushroom varieties with the strongest data to back them follow.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese because people were said to jump for joy when they found maitake mushrooms, as the fungus was literally worth its weight in silver. Research about the maitake mushroom, with its immunomodulatory and antitumoral properties, has led to the isolation of several bioactive compounds. One of these, D-fraction, is known to reduce tumor cell viability.
Researchers have studied D-fraction in humans with lung, liver and breast tumors. Compared with patients who did not receive any cancer drugs, those who took the maitake D-fraction had less tumor growth, fewer markers of tumor expression and increased NK cell activity. The NK cell activity is important because these white blood cells are essential in containing viral infections, so cancer notwithstanding, NK cells help with immune function.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is “the most broad-acting immune support herb I have ever seen,” Upton says. “Literally thousands of studies on the reishi mushroom demonstrate it helps with occasional or seasonal allergies, enhances liver function and normal detoxification processes, it's adaptogenic and helps coping with external stresses, and reishi has immune-supportive effects.
When you have good reishi, it is amazingly experiential in promoting calm, focused, enduring energy, a peaceful night sleep and energy support if exhausted. Reishi should be standard of care in conventional autoimmune therapies as reishi reduces side effects associated with conventional therapies, enhances efficacy of conventional therapies and increases chances of survival.”
Reishi tastes earthy, slightly bitter and pairs well with cacao, cordyceps, tocos, and ashwagandha.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is used in China to help support stamina, endurance and libido. Cordyceps gained much attention in the West since the early 1990s, when Chinese track athletes set records and it was revealed cordyceps was an important part of their training regimen. Since that time cordyceps has been embraced by a growing number of endurance athletes worldwide.
A pilot study in healthy older subjects between 50 and 75 years old found 1 gram per day of cordyceps improved exercise performance with metabolic and ventilation markers “and might contribute to wellness.”
Cordycep is also an adaptogen. It tastes mildly sweet and pairs well in a tonic with maca, mucuna, ashwagandha and tocos.
Turkey Tail/Coriolus (Coriolus versicolor), commonly called turkey tail in the U.S. because of its fan shape, “absolutely should be a superstar for immune support, especially when undergoing conventional therapies for cancer,” says Upton. “It’s clearly shown to be safe and effective for increasing quality of life, reducing symptoms associated with conventional therapies, enhancing the efficacy of conventional therapies and increasing chance of survival.” One study noted that Coriolus, in particular the PSK proteoglycan, “demonstrated the most promise” as an immunoceutical.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is high in antioxidants and beta-glucans. It's traditionally used to balance energy, increase mental sharpness, and support a healthy immune system.
Chaga tastes earthy and works well as a coffee alternative or addition. Also good in ginger ale!