Fungi do not make their own food. They rely on plants for sustenance, a characteristic they share with animals such as humans. Paul Stamets, in the book Mycomedicinals, offers that this is because “we shared a common ancestor more than 460 million years ago.” When one considers that this was shortly after the Cambrian explosion when many life forms literally appeared overnight (from the geological perspective) and many early phyla were represented by a single organism, this is not as outlandish as it sounds. If it hasn’t already, DNA evidence will undoubtedly demonstrate that this relationship can be genetically proven. The point of asserting this verisimilitude is that if fungi are similar to animals and have had to compete in a world governed by survival of the fittest, then those that have survived have done so by evolving the means to ward off predators. This would include things like microbes and viruses that also prey on animals. According to this logic, fungi should be a rich source of proven chemical combinations that ward off pathogens.
Homo sapiens have had to cope with insidious diseases throughout our shared history of some five million years. Drug therapy from naturally occurring substances was most assuredly a matter of serendipity. Through the ages, the lore of folk medicine was passed down through tribes and clans as the purview of the shamans of Asia and the medicine men of the Americas. It is well documented that Native Americans used plants for treatments of everything from menstrual cramps (spicebush) to sore throat (bloodroot). Their use of fungi is less well known, though there is evidence for the treatment of joint pain and congested organs. The only well documented use of fungi by Native Americans was as a styptic for the topical treatment of wounds. The manner in which it was applied attends to the caricature of the hardened warrior, as the fungi (typically a polypore like tinder fungus) was applied to the place affected and then set alight to burn the skin over the area of the wound. This practice was also common in China, perhaps an indication of the origins of the Native American peoples.
Fungi were also used by the early Europeans. In 1991, a Neolithic man was discovered in the Italian Alps when he emerged from ice in which he had been frozen since his death about 5,300 years ago. Named Oetzi for the Italian region in which he lived, he carried a thong with several pieces of Birch Polypore, Polyporus betulinus, threaded on it. Speculation is that he carried it as an antibiotic medicine, for it is now known that P. betulinus contains an antibiotic that acts on bacteria, resins that attack whipworms (an intestinal parasite), and agaric acid which is a carminative (causing gas to be expelled from the intestines). In that an autopsy revealed that Oetzi had worms, it is likely that this was his palliative. He also carried Fomes fomentarius, the tinder fungus; an essential for any alpine trekker in the winter. The tinder fungus, also called Amadou, was used both as a means to start a fire from a spark and as a way to transport an ember from one campfire to another. Remnants of fungal material fabricated in this manner have been found at Upper Paleolithic hominid sites dating back to 11,600 BCE. The tinder fungus was also an acknowledged curative, as the Greek Hippocrates identified it as a topical treatment for wounds over 4,000 years ago.
It is not clear why fungi never made the transition from evidently well known and practiced ancient herbalism to modern folk remedies to the extent that plants have. Historically, the identification of medicinals became a matter of the written record, necessary in order to identify the source, the manner of preparation, and the appropriate dosage for the given ailment. These listings of drugs are called pharmacopoeias; The Greek physician Dioscorides compiled one of the first pharmacopoeias called Materia Medica in 65 CE. In this book, one fungus, the “Agarikon Fungus” which most likely refers to the Fomitopsis officinalis, was listed as a panacea for ailments ranging from kidney disease to epilepsy. The Agarikon was a staple of pharmacology until at least the 18th Century, when it fell into obscurity. This is at least in part due to fact that Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, gave the generic name Agaricus to a group of gilled mushrooms, of which the pedestrian, supermarket button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) is a member. The United States Pharmacopoeia appeared in 1820 and the International Pharmacopoeia was established by the World Health Organization in 1951.
It should come as no surprise that mushrooms, or more properly fungi, have proven as well as potential medicinal attributes. In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered that the spread of the ubiquitous pus producing bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (it is gold or aurum in color) was arrested by a green mold. The organism that produced the substance was a species of Penicillium, so he named it penicillin. This marked the beginning of the antibiotic era. It wasn’t until the advent of World War II that a way of producing large quantities of the new “miracle drug” was developed. The rest of the story is that Penicillium is the genus of about 250 species of blue or green mold fungi. Interestingly, the name Penicillium, and hence penicillin, has the same etymology as pencil, as the ends of the mold’s conidiophores are tufted, like an artist’s brush from which the modern pencil is derived. So the first miracle drug was a fungus.
Of the approximately 15,000 species of mushrooms, it is estimated that about five percent are utilized for medicinal purposes somewhere in the world. There are currently more than 250 species that are known to have therapeutic properties based on accepted clinical research. The primary medicinal agents in fungi are polysaccharides, which generally act against cancers and enhance the body’s immune response. The healing and curative properties of fungi have been recognized and used for medicinal purposes in China and Japan for millennia. The earliest known pharmacopoeia in China (100 CE), Shen Noug Pen Ts’ao Jing, lists a number of mushrooms with medicinal applications. They have gained even greater import in the modern era as the fungi can in many cases be cultivated. The traditionalist medicine of the East has captured the imagination of the medical conservancy of the West. Acupuncture is one example. Fungi are and in all likelihood will continue to penetrate the pharmacopoeia of the general practitioner. Three examples will suffice to demonstrate the potential for modern medical treatments: The Trametes versicolor or Turkey Tail, the Ganoderma lucidum, or Varnish Conk, and the Lentinula edodes, or Shiitake.
Turkey Tail, known as Yun Zhi or “cloud mushroom” in China, is probably the most thoroughly studied of the medicinal fungi, as it is among the most widely used in East Asian medicines. In traditional Chinese herbalism, the fruit bodies are harvested and ground to a powder to make a tea that was used to reduce phlegm, treat pulmonary maladies, and promote a healthy liver. The Ming dynasty version of the pharmacopoeia provides that if the Yun Zhi is taken over a long period of time, “it will make one vigorous and live long.” In the modern era, T. versicolor derived protein-bound polysaccharide (PSK) has been shown clinically to be effective against human cancers, particularly when used in combination with other agents. A 1982 study of cervical cancer patients given PSK with radiation found that the 3 year survival rate was 85 percent compared to 59 percent for those given radiation without PSK.
Ganoderma lucidum is known in China as Ling Zhi which means mushroom of immortality. The Latin name lucidum refers to the coruscating, varnish-like shine of the fruiting body when it first emerges from the side of a tree. It has been used in Chinese and Japanese folk medicine for at least four millennia in the treatment of age related maladies such as heart disease, hypertension, and chronic bronchitis so as to increase longevity. It was considered so powerful that it was used as a talisman to protect individuals and homes from evil spirits. In the last 30 years, it has been used in numerous human clinical studies to treat insomnia, duodenal ulcers, progressive muscular dystrophy, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s efficacy in treating bronchitis was demonstrated in the 1970’s when 75 percent of 2,000 patients showed marked improvement after two weeks of therapy.
Shiitake mushrooms are named for their association with the Asian shiia tree; the Latin species name edodes refers to their edibility. They grow wild in Japan and China but are not indigenous to North America, their widespread availability due to facile cultivation. They are second only to the Agaricus bisporus in commercial production. The two most important medicinal derivatives or the Shiitake are LEM (Lentinula edodes mycelium extract) and lentinan. Both chemicals have strong anti-tumor properties by enhancing the body’s immune system rather than attacking the cancer directly. There have been innumerable clinical trials of the shiitake. For example, a controlled trial of 275 patients with advanced gastric cancer showed that those given lentinan with chemotherapy had statistically improved longevity and improved immune response. A group of Japanese women who ate 90 grams of shiitake mushrooms daily for one week had a 12 percent drop in serum cholesterol.
Fungus as pharmaceutical is a bit antithetical to the prevailing wisdom that wild mushrooms are deadly toadstools. Few stop to consider the source of penicillin, even as it established the idea of “miracle drug” that we have come to expect whenever we are sick. But tastes change as time proceeds. Instead of taking two aspirin and going to bed, perhaps in the future you may sit down to a meal of shiitakes with a turkey tail on the side.