Medicinal Mushrooms – History, uses and future perspectives

Today there are about 270 species of mushrooms with medicinal or therapeutic properties, some of which have long been known to man. These can constitute a vast source of benign active compounds, with applications mainly as enhancers of the immune system and with anti-tumor action.

The medicinal properties of mushrooms have been known to man since time immemorial. The first evidence of the use of mushrooms with medicinal properties appeared in Asia, and this practice is deeply rooted in oriental culture, where mushrooms were revered. In ancient Japan (10000-710 BC), Maitake ( Leafy Grifola ) was a precious species, worth its weight in silver, being used in the treatment of hypertension and as an enhancer of the body’s natural defenses. The Reishi ( Ganoderma lucidum) is probably the most symbolic mushroom of the ancient Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures, traditionally associated with health, recovery, longevity, sexual prowess, wisdom and happiness. It was mentioned for the first time in the Shih-huang empire of the Ch’in dynasty (221-207 BC) and has since been represented in several forms of art. Another mushroom very popular in China, Korea and in ancient Japan, Shiitake ( Lentinula edodes ), was first mentioned by a Chinese doctor Wu Sang Kwuang, during the Sung dynasty (960-1127 AD). Shiitake was known for improving physical endurance and used to cure colds and lower blood cholesterol.

Among Ötzi’s objects, the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found in the Italian Alps, were two species of medicinal mushrooms, Fungus-Wick ( Piptoporus betulinus ) and Horse-hoof ( Fomes fomentarius ), the first known for its antibacterial properties and the second traditionally used in Europe to stop bleeding and cauterize wounds.

Horse hoof ( Fomes fomentarius )

Currently, there are about 270 species of mushrooms with medicinal or therapeutic properties. These constitute a vast and still unexplored source of benign active compounds, with applications mainly as enhancers of the immune system and with anti-tumor action. Most of these active compounds are polysaccharides, also known as β – glucans, which interact with the immune system, regulating specific aspects of our immune response, increasing the body’s defenses against pathogens. Other compounds have the ability to destroy free radicals and have cytotoxic effects on cancer cells.

Below are briefly described the properties and potential medicinal applications of some species of mushrooms that can be found in our forests or even on the shelves of most supermarkets.

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