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Healing Kitchen

The Magic of Shiitake Mushrooms
The ancients knew that food could function as medicine, and for almost 3,000 years people in Asia have known about the medicinal properties of shiitake mushrooms. In ancient China, herbalists utilized shiitake for a host of ailments including colds, flu, headaches, measles, gastrointestinal distress, liver problems, as well as for improving circulation and increasing vitality. Ancient physicians prescribed shiitake to boost chi, or life energy.

Once solely used by the emperor of Japan and his family, shiitake are now a subject of intense research and are engendering profound interest among health professionals. In fact, the medicinal capabilities attributed to the shiitake mushroom are so prized that the shiitake is now among the most cultivated of the world's edible mushrooms. A nutritious delicacy, shiitake are low in calories and are a good source of potassium, phosphorous, iron, selenium, protein, vitamin D (ergosterol, a plant sterol that is converted to vitamin D when exposed to ultra-violet rays), thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, as well as all essential amino acids, enzymes, fiber, and nucleic acid derivatives.

Current research is focusing on the shiitake's ability to function as an immune-boosting agent as well as its ability to fight a host of ailments including atherosclerosis, cancer, and bacterial and viral conditions. Recent scientific interest in shiitake mushrooms has focused on a number of substances in shiitake, including lentinula edodes mycelium (LEM), which has shown promise in treating people suffering from viral infections such as human immnodeficiancy virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Antiviral effects attributed to shiitake's LEM may be due to its ability to induce the production of interferon, a natural chemical substance that makes cells immune to viral infections. Shiitakes are also being investigated for their ability to reduce blood clotting; and it is important to note that if you are on blood thinners you shouldn't consume too many shiitake mushrooms over a long period because of these anti-clotting properties.

Shiitake mushrooms also contain an important compound called lentinan, a polysaccharide, which may have potential blood pressure lowering effects, cholesterol lowering effects and immune boosting effects as well as an ability to reduce cancerous tumors. Lentinan is currently being used experimentally as an anticancer agent, stimulating the production of T lymphocytes and natural killer cells. Interestingly, in Japan, lentinan has been licensed as an anticancer drug by Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry, the equivalent of our FDA. Scientists believe that lentinan inhibits cancerous tumors by stimulating certain types of white blood cells prominent in immune function. In fact, the potential for these delectable, versatile fungi to bestow health benefits is so promising that scientists at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have determined that shiitake as well as other medicinal mushrooms deserve further serious investigation for their potential to prevent or treat life-threatening health conditions.

Author: Maureen Mulhern-White
Date Published: 04/03/2000
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