Reishi: Mushroom of Immortality
 

Kan Herbal Crossroads: July 2005

The names endowed to Reishi Ganoderma Lucidum (Ling Zhi) over the centuries reveal the high respect given this mushroom, which grows on the decaying stumps of broad-leaf trees, or old plum trees. The ancient Chinese christened it ling zhi, or spirit plant, the pictograph of the word alluding to a shaman praying for rain. "Ten-thousand-year mushroom" and "Mush- room of Immortality" are names heralding its reputation to extend one's lifespan, and enhance one's quality of life.

Called the "phantom mushroom", conveying its scarcity in the wild, its tough spore husks elude germination, requiring a certain balance of oxygen and moisture to open and flourish. Its glossy, lacquered appearance inspired the names "varnished conk", and the Latin Ganoderma Lucidum, which consists of root words meaning shiny, skin and brilliant mushroom. Though the mushroom comes in six colors, Ganoderma lucidum is predominently red, known most commonly in the West as Reishi.

The fruiting bodies of this mushroom are reddish-orange to black, with a slender stalk that attaches to the cap from the side. This mushroom grows throughtout the United States, Europe, South America and Asia.

The folkloric uses of Reishi dates back 4,000 years. Taoist priests made potions from it, aspiring for longevity, heightened consciousness, and even immortality. The Chinese granted Reishi the highest regards in their first Materia Medica, circa 200 C.E., placing it first among 365 superior herbs, higher even than ginseng. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Reishi is considered to be of the highest class of tonics used to promote longevity. Reishi has been cultivated extensively for the past 30 years and is now widely accessible.

Much of the information available regarding the medical efficacy of the Reishi mushroom appears in records from centuries of use, practitioner testimonials, and more recently, clinical trials.

Pharmacology

The active compounds in Reishi are polysaccharides (6-branched Beta- 1,3 glucan); triterpenoids (ganoderic acids); alkaloids; glucosides; steroids; amino acids; enzymes; lipids; carbohydrates; volatile oils; trace minerals; and vitamins (ergosterol, riboflavin, ascorbic acid). Polysaccharides are a key component to the immunological enhancing activities of Reishi. Beta-Glucan is a complex sugar (polysaccharide) derived from the cell wall of bakers yeast, oat and barley fiber, and medicinal mushrooms. Current research gives attention to Beta-Glucan as a primary active ingredient in immune stimulation.

Beta Glucan stimulates leukocyte activity. Leukocytes are able to penetrate tissue and then return to the blood stream. They function to destroy bacteria, fungi, and viruses and clean up debris left in the body from allergic reactions and cell death. They are the primary effector cells against infection and tissue damage. Leukocyte movement in the body is governed by chemicals released by dead cells, a process called chemotaxis. Increased leukocyte activity stimulates macrophages, large cells that surround and phagocytize or engulf foreign substances in the body. Macrophages are basic and powerful components in our immune systems. Macrophages exist in primitive invertebrates that have no other immunological effector cells.

Polysaccarides are naturally occurring macrophage activators. Beta-1, 3 glucan binds to receptors on macrophages and other white blood cells and activate them. When activated, macrophages acts powerfully against disease; they can recognize and kill tumor cells non-specifically, remove foreign debris, produce a number of essential cytokines stimulating to the immune system, and boost bone marrow production, creating a positive immune strengthening cycle. Bone marrow is the soft tissue from which red (erythrocytes) and white (leukocytes) blood cells originate.

This type of far reaching clean up on a cellular level further stimulates immune response and increases total resistance to foreign pathogens. In addition to activating immune effector cells, the glucans found in medicinal mushrooms potentiate the activities of immune regulators including lymphokines, interleukin-1 and interleukin-2. These mediators are found in white blood cells. Interleukin regulate lymphocytes such as killer T cells. Interferon modulates cellular function and prevents viral replication in newly infected cells.

Another major class of compounds the tripernes are said to have adaptogenic and antihypertensive properties. Oleic acid is known to inhibit the release of histamine, helping to prevent allergic reactions and inflammations.

This information takes some of the mystery out of the incredibly profound effects of this amazing mushroom. It explains how Reishi has earned its reputation as the immortality herb. Free radicals and other cellular poisons are, in part, responsible for speeding the aging process. Reishi polysaccharides markedly inhibit the powerful free radicals in red blood cells and eliminate or slow the process of these invaders.

Immunity

The immune system works in both specific and non-specific ways. Specific immunity, also called humoral or cell-mediated immunity, must be introduced, learned and remembered by our cells. Specific cells respond to specific antigens. There is a lag time between the initial introductions of the antigen and of the active immune response. Vaccinations provide us with this type of immunity.

Non-specific immunity is present at birth and does not require a learning process at a cellular level. It is broad based, is not antigen specific and there is no immunological memory involved. These cells are called monocytes, eosiniphils, basophils, neutrophils and killer cells. Killer cells do not need to recognize a dangerous foreign substance in order to attack it. These are responsible for attaching to and fighting against tumor cells quickly and without recognition.

Monocytes are white blood cells that eventually develop into macrophages. In the presence of infection, these cells move from the blood stream into the tissues, enlarge and produce enzymes that digest foreign substances.

Reishi is particularly useful in chronic disease, its adaptogenic quality, by enhancing resistance to health-endangering influences, demonstrates immuno- modulating properties. Reishi positively effects several body systems by increasing non-specific resistance to illness. Reishi improves heart functions, increases blood flow and lowers oxygen consumption of the heart muscle.

Reishi is an immune stimulant that increases non-specific immunity, accelerating the body's response to a wide variety of stimulants. As mentioned earlier, it does this, primarily through the action of polysaccharides, activating macrophage function and by increasing the activity of the immune mediators.

Experimentally, preparations of Reihsi signifigantly increased the phagocytosis of chicken blood cells, induced the lymphocitic proliferation of both normal and hydrocortisone suppressed spleen cells in mice and immunodeficiency in aged mice.

Nervous System

Clinical investigations show that Reishi improves sleep and soothes the nerves. Dr. Shojiro Inoue, at Tokyo Medical Dental University, boiled Reishi mushrooms and fed the water extract to rats. The results indicated significant sleep promotion. When administered long term slow wave sleep was increased. High doses did not seem to elicit the same efficacy. The effect with respect to dose is interesting and worthy of further research. A similar result is found in a study that revealed the positive effect of Reishi polysaccharides on restoring the immune response to aging mice. More was not necessarily better. Slow and steady makes the mark. In both cases higher doses resulted in less remarkable results.

The therapeutic effect of Reishi on neurasthenia and insomnia is more or less related to its sedative and tonic effects. This finding corresponds to the concept of "soothing the nerves" in Chinese medicine. In one study, Reishi was found to calm the nervous system excitability in 18 of 20 patients after ingesting the mushroom for 4 months, without narcotic or hypnotic effect.

Reishi is useful in the treatment of neurasthenia, a kind of neurosis in which lassitude weakens various parts of the body, a pattern common in depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers.

In Japan, studies of Reishi in the treatment of neuroses caused by "environmental stress" found that patients experienced significant benefit from taking the "mycelium" of Reishi, the root like body that produces mushrooms.

Hepatic System

Studies of the active constituents in Reishi show promise in the treatment of liver disorders, such as Hepatitis B.

In Japan, research was conducted with the mycelium part of the plant; patients took 50 grams of the mushroom orally for a period of six months. Effects were therapeutically significant in improving liver functions.

Respiratory System

Reishi has also been reported in China to have significant beneficial effects in the treatment of chronic bronchitis. Patients showed marked improvements within 2 weeks of treatment, with symptoms such as coughing, expectoration and asthma improving markedly. Tonic effects were usually demonstrated in patients receiving Reishi preparations, and sleep, appetite and resistance to cold weather either returned to normal or were improved.

Cardiovascular System

Reishi improves blood flow and lowers oxygen consumption of the heart muscle. It has been reported to help in improving symptoms such as palpitations, pain and edema. Reishi has been found to help reduce blood cholesterol and the ganoderic acids found in this mushroom have been shown to lower high blood pressure. At least one ganoderic acid inhibits the clumping together of blood cells (platelet aggregation), which can lead to heart attacks and other circulation problems. Reishi has also been found to be useful in alleviating high altitude sickness by oxigenating the blood.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Reishi tonifies the Blood and Qi, and removes accumulations and phlegm. Reishi strenghtens all five viscera, especially Liver and Heart. It also soothes and elevates the Shen.

Reishi can be used daily to improve or maintain overall resistance, mental tranquility and physical vitality.

Bibliography

Chang S.T. and P.G. Miles. 1930. Mushrooms Cultivation, Nutritional Value, Medicinal Effect, and Environmental Impact 2nd Edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press LLC.

Halpern, G.M. and A.H. Miller. 2002. Medicinal Mushrooms Ancient Remedies for Modern Ailments. New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc.

Hobbs, C.1986. Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, & Culture. Santa Cruz, CA: Botanica Press.

Jones, K. Reishi Ancient Herb for Modern Times. Seattle, WA: Sylvan Press.

Ley, B.M. 2001. Medicinal Mushrooms for Immune Enhancement: Agaricus Blazei Murill. Detroit Lakes, MN: BL Publications.

Matsumoto, K. 1979. The Mysterious Reishi Mushroom. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press Publishing Company.

Zhou, J., G. Liu, and J. Chen. 1991. Recent Advances In Chinese Herbal Drugs-Actions and Uses. Beijing, China: Science Press.

 
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