Mushrooms Can Be Strong Medicine against Cancer

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick B. Massey, M.D.

In the near future, important discoveries in the treatment of cancer may come from one of nature's most unassuming entities: the mushroom.

For centuries, herbalists and healers have attributed robust healing properties to mushrooms. Although some mushrooms are poisonous, many are considered strong medicine by practitioners of culturally based medical systems such as Oriental medicine. Indeed, some mushrooms are traditionally used to treat cancer.

Modern science has been researching the medicinal properties of mushrooms for more than 30 years. However, only in the past 10 years have the effects of mushroom extracts on various cancers been more clearly defined.

Mushrooms make a variety of big, sugar molecules called polysaccharides. Polysaccharides are simple sugars like glucose and mannose joined end to end, like a paper clip necklace. These molecules are part of cell walls and membranes and play a role in cell-to-cell communication.

Scientists have known for years that specific polysaccharides are powerful stimulators of the immune system. One of the ways our immune system protects us from bacteria, viruses and cancer cells is by recognizing foreign polysaccharides.

Many mushrooms produce polysaccharides that stimulate the immune system. Some of them specifically stimulate immune cells that are directly involved in recognizing and killing cancer cells - often called "natural killer" or NK cells. Interestingly, those mushrooms used in culturally based medical for the treatment of cancer seem to produce a lot of polysaccharides that specifically activate NK cells.

Mushrooms exhibit other interesting and potentially beneficial properties. …