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Mushrooms for cancer care

  • Dr. Amparo Aracil
    Dr. Amparo Aracil

    Amparo is a medical herbalist and doctor interested in community herbalism and acute medicine. Amparo combines¬†their work as a herbalist with working as a doctor, previously¬†for the NHS¬†and now in both primary care and A&E in Spain.¬†Amparo¬†has¬†also¬†worked with Herbalists Without Borders Calais providing first aid and herbal medicine to migrants and refugees. Having a special interest in psychoneuroimmunology and auto-immune conditions, they have extensive clinical experience helping people with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and¬†thyroid disorders.

    Amparo has been involved with writing lectures and teaching clinical skills for Heartwood students, and runs student clinics on a monthly basis.

    Amparo is a registered member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and the General Medical Council. You can find more about them at their website.

  • 12:43 reading time (ish)
  • Chinese Herbal Medicine Herbal Research

There has been much scientific interest in fungi for cancer care in recent years, and for good reason. This article shares some of the research in this fascinating branch of oncology and herbalism.

The demand for medicinal mushrooms has been gradually growing and is expected to continue doing so in the next decade (1). With increasing research, the general public is becoming more and more aware about the health benefits of these fascinating members of the fungal kingdom. 

Medicinal mushrooms have been used in East Asia for thousands of years, with records of this being left in the Chinese herbal book Shen Nong Ben Cao, which dates to 200AD (2). Medicinal mushrooms are still used within traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as part of the mainstream medical system in China (3). The anti-tumour properties of mushrooms have been extensively researched in Japan, where the active constituent of shiitake is used intravenously in conventional treatment protocols (2). 

Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals, they belong to a completely different category: the fungal kingdom. Mushrooms are metabolically closer to animals but structurally closer to plants. Both plants and mushrooms have a cell wall formed by long chains of sugar molecules called polysaccharides. The long sugar (glucose) chain in plant cell walls is called cellulose. In mushrooms, the structure of these long glucose chains is slightly different to cellulose, as it has side chains attached to the main chain, making it a more complex structure. These mushroom polysaccharides or complex glucose chains are responsible for many of mushroom’s health benefits, including immunomodulatory effects and anti-tumour activity (2).

Mushrooms for cancer care
Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum)

Some fungi are composed of a network of thread-looking long chains growing underground, called the mycelium or mycelial network, and a visible fruiting body, the so-called mushroom. Mushrooms are the visible part of fungi, and they are responsible for producing spores and helping fungi reproduce. Mushrooms are fungi’s reproductive organs, as they bear the spores the fungus will use to spread and propagate itself (4).

The main biologically active compounds found in mushrooms with an anti-tumour and immunomodulatory action are the polysaccharides and triterpenes. Polysaccharides are water-soluble and triterpenes are alcohol or ethanol-soluble. Some research has suggested that the degree of anti-tumour activity is related to the degree of branching and solubility of the polysaccharides. The more branching, the higher the anti-cancer activity in vitro (5). 

Mushrooms trigger a wide range of immunological changes that are useful in having an anti-cancer effect. Some of these changes include the following (2): 

  • Increase in natural killer (NK) cells
  • Increase cytotoxic T-cell activation
  • Decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines
  • Apoptosis of cancer cells

Some mushrooms such as turkey tail have also been shown to minimise chemotherapy side effects, being helpful when taken concomitantly with conventional treatment.

Dr. Amparo Aracil

Amparo is a medical herbalist and doctor interested in community herbalism and acute medicine. Amparo combines their work as a herbalist with working as a doctor, previously for the NHS and now in... Read more

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