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Medicinal Mushrooms: How This Superfood Improves Gut Health and Supports Healing

Updated: Feb 26, 2022


Medicinal mushrooms are one of the most important adjunctive supplements I use in my Integrative Oncology Practice. These little powerhouses have numerous uses beyond their anticancer and immune system regulating activity. They also have significant benefits in regulating gut health and have shown therapeutic effects in management of “metabolic syndrome”, a condition characterized by diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure. All of these conditions are relevant to our “fur-kids” as well.

Not all mushrooms are medicinal. Medicinal Mushrooms include Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Coreolus (Coreolus versicolor), Maitake (Grifola frondosa), and Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) mushrooms, to name a few. White button mushrooms have also shown some interesting benefits in regulating gut health. These are all mushrooms that your dog and cat can eat.


Health Starts in the Gut

I’ll get to the anticancer effects of mushroom compounds in a later blog. Today I want to focus on the lesser known beneficial effects on gut health. After all, health starts in the gut. This is a well-accepted and proven fact in western biomedicine. This is the reason it is so important to optimize food quality and gut health. It sets the stage for healing.

About 75% of the food Westerners consume does not benefit microbiota in the lower gut. Most of it, refined carbohydrates, is already absorbed in the upper part of the GI tract, and of what reaches the large intestine is of limited value containing less minerals, less vitamins and other nutrients important for maintenance of the microbiota. The consequence is that the microbiota of modern man has a much reduced size and diversity in comparison to what our Paleolithic forefathers had, and individuals living a rural life have today….Attempts to reconstitute a normal microbiome have often failed as they have always been undertaken as a complement to and not an alternative to existing treatment schemes...Alternative (nutritional) formulas, based on regular food ingredients, especially rich in raw fresh greens, vegetables and fruits and with them healthy bacteria are suggested to be developed and tried.”


stress

It is the reality that the diets we feed our pets are a reflection of the convenient and highly processed diets we eat ourselves. The good news is there are actionable steps we can take to improve the balance of the intestinal microbiome. Medicinal mushrooms are one tool to do this, and happen to have a slew of other beneficial effects.

A WHOLE SYSTEM APPROACH TO HEALTH AND WELL-BEING

While we will talk about Medicinal Mushrooms as a supplement, remember that supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet and stress management. However, they can be a very good supportive intervention when taken as part of a whole-being approach which encompasses healthy diet and emotional wellness for your pet.

For example…. Did you know that Lion’s Tail mushroom and L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan found in high quantities in the fruiting bodies of medicinal mushrooms have been shown to assist in the treatment of anxiety and depression and lift mood? Also, it is becoming widely accepted that many brain and neurobehavioral disorders are strongly linked with gut health through what is now known as the gut-brain axis.

THE BIG PICTURE

Looking at the big picture, we can begin to appreciate how true healing cannot occur if we are focused on one problem, like “cancer”. If we are truly attempting to restore health and reach the highest level of well-being possible, we have to look at our body as a complete ecosystem addressing not only the cancer but the environment in which it developed. This is the importance of a whole-body approach to healing. Medicinal mushrooms are just one tool in our whole-body healing toolbox. ​

GUT HEALTH AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

Probiotics support a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They play an important role in the health of the immune system, have demonstrated anti-inflammatory action in the gut itself and also affect inflammatory responses in the body. For example, a small protein (MIMP; micro integral membrane protein) recently identified on the surface of the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus plantarum, was shown to decrease inflammation in the gut by improving the gut barrier, restoring balances in the microbiome and decreasing inflammatory signaling molecules called “cytokines".

The reason I bring this up here is that medicinal mushrooms have a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome.

PREBIOTICS

Medicinal mushrooms are a prebiotic. Prebiotics are defined as substances that induce the growth or action of microorganisms that contribute to the well-being of their host.

Here is a great article on the prebiotic activity and beneficial effects of medicinal mushrooms on the gut microbiome if you're interested.

Prebiotics have been identified as playing a vital role in the health of the gut microbiome and experimental studies have shown a decreased risk of cancers when certain prebiotic foods are consumed. These studies show that the gut microbiome is affected by consumption of these prebiotic foods.

Other prebiotic foods that I often recommend considering for cancer patients are organic raw dandelion greens, and other green leafy veggies. Many Traditional Herbal medicines, including Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicines, also have prebiotics effects. For example, Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) which is used commonly to balance Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine formulas, has prebiotic activity, potent modulatory effects on the gut microbiome and improves the function of the cells lining the intestines.


MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS AND GUT HEALTH

Aside from their prebiotic effects, medicinal mushrooms have been shown to have significant action in decreasing inflammation in the gut. For this reason they are being investigated for their role in treating inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Triterpene ganoderic acid C1, a substance found in Reishi mushrooms, decreased the inflammatory signaling molecules TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma by blocking NF-kB activation in the colon. NF-kB is an important regulator of inflammation in the body.

A Ganoderma supplement was showed to increase good bacteria in the gut and inhibit pancreatitis through this effect on the gut microbiome.

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

A polysaccharide from Lion’s Mane showed similar anti-inflammatory action in treating colitis. It was also shown to restore balance to the gut bacteria and protected from experimentally induced gut dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance).

In another study, this same mushroom was shown to cause favorable changes to the immune system through its regulation of the gut microbiome and has been proposed as a functional food for immunotherapy.

Coreolus (Tremetes versicolor/Coreolus versicolor)

Coreolus, also used in Traditional Chinese herbal medicine and known as Yun Zhi, was shown to have potent effects on increasing good bacteria in the human gut and supported the beneficial effects of FOS and other prebiotics. It's wide array of health benefits is attributed to this effect. PSP, a particular polysaccharide isolated from Coreolus mushroom, was shown to be involved in these microbiome regulating actions. Coreolus PSP increases beneficial bacteria in the gut and modulates the human microbiome.

Coreolus PSP has garnered attention in veterinary oncology given a recent article regarding its potential benefit in a small number of dogs with splenic hemangiosarcoma.

White Button Mushrooms

White button mushrooms have even shown some interesting benefits in regulating gut health and gut immunity.


GUT HEALTH AND CANCER

Gut health and the balance of the gut microbiome has a major impact on the immune system, in particular the ability of the immune system to fight cancer. This has important implication to our anticancer therapies, including advancements in treatment which include anti-tumor vaccines which rely on a competent immune system.

Studies on gut health and cancer have shown that the positive impact of a healthy gut microbiome on general health is an important contributor to decreased metabolic derangements and chronic inflammatory disorders seen in cancer patients. The interaction between cancer and the immune system is influenced by a healthy gut microbiome. Studies have documented cause and effect mechanisms between gut bacteria and cancer through immunologic mechanisms, and there is evidence that the gut microbiome modulates responses to chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy.

In addition, dysbiosis has been directly linked to certain cancers, most notably colon cancer. Here are just two of many references to the link between intestinal health and colon cancer: here and here.

The role of the gut microbiome in treatment of liver carcinoma has also been published.

This topic could go on for ages as there are literally hundreds of articles about the beneficial effects of medicinal mushrooms and the compounds found in them.

 

Two Things You Need to Know About Mushroom Supplements

 

ONE

Not all supplements are created equal

Many of the beneficial compounds found in medicinal mushrooms are not bioavailable (absorbable by the body) unless the cell wall protecting them is broken down.

This requires hot water processing.

Many mushroom supplements available over the counter do not process their mushrooms this way. Work with a veterinarian familiar with mushroom supplements in order to find one that is worth your money and will be providing medicinal benefits. Enzyme-assisted hot water extraction is another effective method that yields even higher polysaccharides.

 

TWO

Nature is Intelligent

Studies have shown that combinations and whole organism supplements are more effective than single polysaccharides.

There is a lot of focus in our western biomedicine framework on evaluating single compounds found in medicinal mushrooms for their anticancer, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulation and other health benefiting effects. While these have shown beneficial effects, the combination of the multiple substances found in the whole mushrooms are even more effective when viewing them from a more global perspective that considers their actions in a living biological system.

This is true for herbal medicine in general.

This is the difference between using traditional herbal medicines as they were intended and using them as pharmaceuticals from a western biomedicine mindset. They just don’t work as well when we try to use them like drugs.

While clinical studies evaluating single polysaccharides or other compounds in herbal medicines are informative and helpful to our understanding of the mechanism of action with these treatments, using the whole plant provides a more balanced therapeutic effect and is what I usually recommend for most herbal medicines, including medicinal mushrooms.

 

This is just a short review of the many research articles on the benefits of medicinal mushrooms for optimizing gastrointestinal health and balance. As always, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best supplement regimen for your pet’s individual condition as well as mushroom supplement companies that have good quality control so that you know you are getting compounds that are bioavailable and medicinally useful.

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