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Reishi - Ancient Herb For Modern Times

​​​​​​​

by Kenneth Jones

Introducing the Reishi Mushroom

Emerging from the very roots of Oriental Medicine, the Reishi mushroom is an herb of historic significance found endlessly depicted in Chinese art. In the Orient, few plants are so highly regarded and to this day Reishi is taken as a longevity herb to preserve youth and maintain health. The late Prof. Hiroshi Hikino, one of the world's foremost authorities on the chemistry of Oriental plants, designated Reishi and Ginseng as the two most "important elixirs" of traditional Oriental medicine. Yet the scientific study of this mushroom in medicine has only occurred during the last 20 years. As Hikino explained, until recent cultivation methods were developed it was fairly scarce.1 Scientists have found that various uses of the mushroom in folk-medicine have some basis in fact, sometimes remarkably so. But before we look into their findings, just what is the Reishi mushroom?

A Mushroom of Many Names:

  • Ten-thousand Year Mushroom
  • Herb of Spiritual Potency
  • Ambrosia Polypore
  • Good Omen Plant
  • Miraculous Chi
  • Auspicious Herb
  • Holy Mushroom
  • Chih Ling chi
  • Ling chih
  • Ling zhi
  • Ch'i chi
  • Reishi

The Japanese name "Reishi" ('Ray-she' or 'Ree-she') is ascribed by Japanese herbalists to the same mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) that Chinese herbalists call "Ling zhi" ('Ling-zee'), a name with profound meaning. Loosely translated. Ling zhi means spirit, spiritual or shaman's tree fungus. Reishi is the Japanese name of "Ling zhi." The character Ling (see back cover) is a composite of rain, shaman , and praying/or, but taken together has the meaning of "spiritual potency."2

Even by itself, zhi came to be defined as "divine herb."3 In the late 1800s, the character for this term often adorned the apothecary stores in Beijing. Here the mushroom was available as "ling chi," described by European explorers as an orange-colored branched object of a wood- or coral-like structure.3'5

Reishi are called shelf or bracket mushrooms because they often grow horizontally from the sides of trees, especially fallen deadwood.6 Otherwise, they can grow vertically from the middle of a stump or buried deadwood, in which case they develop a stem and cap in the more familiar 'mushroom' shape. The full-grown or mature Reishi is often seen in photos as a shiny, as if lacquered object, usually burnt orange to dark red with a long or short stem and a furrowed, lotus pad-shaped cap.

Chih, an Elixir of Long-life

In tracing the origins of Reishi as a medicinal plant, particularly a divine one, we eventually arrive at the foot-worn doorstep of the alchemists, whose relentless pursuit of an elixir to prolong life, cure the ills of the body and confer immortality, spanned centuries of experiment. By the 3rd century or even earlier, the concept of an immortality elixir and the taking of medicines to extend life was an accepted idea that had grown to cult proportions.

A fungus named "chih" appears in the earliest records of alchemy in China.7 According to the alchemist Ko Hung, the Book of Immortals (Hsien Ching) clearly states that the chih fungus, although a 'natural growth... may be cultivated by means of the five stones and five plants. The resulting plant will be exactly like that found in nature in the power of giving long life when eaten.8 how the alchemists accomplished this cultivation either remains a secret or the technology was lost long ago. The Emperor Shin Huang Ti (259-210 B.C.) made every effort to obtain such an elixir. Perhaps best known for his Great Wall, his exploits to capture an "herb of deathlessness" are no less renowned.

Once he dispatched an entire fleet of ships manned by 3,000 young people, scores of laborers, and a Taoist priest named Hsu Fu as admiral, to search for the plant on islands in the Eastern Sea. Whether they ever found the herb is doubtful. One account has it that they never returned.9 In another, Hsu Fu does return, although empty-handed and with a fabulous story of having reached one of the fairy isles where palaces built of "chih" brightly lit the sky and where copper-colored servants with the appearance of dragons reside.2

Yet this would not be the Emperor's first attempt to secure the plant. He had sent more than one servant off into the mountains, the other location of the plant called "chih," but obviously any description they had of it was hopelessly incomplete or cleverly disguised. Eventually, his servants insisted the very gods couldn't easily locate it and suggested that he go to the mountains and see for himself.2

Over 100 years later, the Emperor Wu sent ships east to search for the isles of the immortals and their chih plant. He too apparently failed. Wu finally succeeded when in 109 B.C. the fungus appeared in his palace, of all places. The Imperial records state that 'a fungus of immortality sprang up' having nine stalks and leaves interconnected.10

The Emperor was so pleased at the event that he commemorated the growth for all time with a poem.

My secluded dwelling produces an herb,
Nine stems with twin leaves1.

The palace pages Busy themselves with this miracle;
They lay out pictures and consult records!
The essence of the 'Mysterious 'Breath,
There it is, returned again to this residence,
day after day this superb growth.

The chih, which unfolds its beauties most marvellously'. '2

Half a century after the first chih sprang up at the palace, at a nearby hall "a golden fungus of immortality with nine stalks grew in a copper basin"10. The golden color is typical of the earlier growth stages of the Reishi mushroom; only in maturity do they turn a full orange or blood red. Just as the first immortality fungus at the palace, this was an auspicious occasion marked with a commemorative verse ending, 'Long life, thousands and ten thousands of years to the "Emperor.' To this very day, the Japanese people often use the name "Mannentake" for reishi, which means ten thousand year mushroom.

Return of a Legend

Long before the character chih adorned the drug stores of Beijing, to the Taoists it meant fungi, Nature12, and animals, minerals, or plants deliberately used to concoct "Elixirs" primarily for the purpose of producing longevity. Because of a connection between the term ch'i (or Qi) as the color red14, the "curative" force15, and as "elixir"16, and chi, chih, or Z/H both as the color red and as tree fungi3, any red tree fungi became obvious in the search for a Chinese elixir or longevity mushroom. By the year A.D. 1004, the Emperor Chen Sung had figured this out. Issuing an Imperial edict, he ordered his subjects to bring any Reishi mushrooms found to his palace. He did well: his Imperial agents recorded that within three years there was 10,000 Reishi mushrooms handed in.17

In herbals of the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), the corresponding plant is "ch'i chi"life energy tree fungus" or "tan chi," meaning red fungus. From drawings depicting the Ch'i chi described as a bitter-tasting, non-poisonous fungus, Japanese botanists eventually identified the fungoid form as Reishi (known by the Latin name Ganoderma lucidum) an event that would effectively rescue the mushroom forever from obscurity.

By this time (1934), Japanese herbalists were enlisting Reishi for an amazing array of problems; among them bronchitis, gastric ulcers, liver diseases, kidney inflammation, high blood pressure, insomnia and even poisoning.19 In China "Ling zhi" held a similar reputation among herbalists and to this day includes a variety of applications. It is applied as a non-toxic tonic of a "warm" nature, an "aphrodisiac," and found useful in the treatment of anorexia, insomnia, debility (fatigue) from prolonged illness, neurasthenia, and for nourishing and improving "body resistance."20

The Great Pharmacopoeia

Reishi appears in the Pen t'sao Kang Mu or Great Pharmacopoeia, compiled by Li Shih-chen in 1578. Li wrote that the various chih or medicinal tree fungi were "difficult to obtain." From the instructions of the ancients, any successful "quest" for these mushrooms depended upon a considerable amount of ritual. The mushrooms had to be collected in the forest on foot, never on horseback; a knife made of bone, not metal, was required to cut and then quarter the mushroom; and sex had to be abstained from. Finally, in order to ensure success, the whole affair had to be kept secret.18

Li described the chih fungi as having a coating "smooth and, brilliant, with the surface and its cavities resembling solid ice."18 If you cut a Reishi mushroom open, the inside does have an inner grain like that of ice, and today the Latin name for Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) means "glossy Ganoderma"21, while Ganoderma means lustrous skin. In the following passage from Li Shih-chen, translated and published here in English for the first time, the medicinal fungus called "chi zhi" is the famous Ling zhi or Reishi mushroom we know today.

"Red fungus (chi zhi) is the same as Red/Pill Fungus (Dan zhi). Its sensation of taste is bitter, not adverse, and never toxic. The prescription benefits symptoms of a knotted and tight chest. It effects in a positive fashion the heart Qi, and mends the chest. It also increases intellectual capacity and banishes forgetfulness. Eaten over a long period of time, agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened to those of the Immortal Fairies (hsien or geniis)."18

The more obvious inferences here are to cardiac and neurological diseases, indications avidly pursued by Chinese and Japanese scientists during the last 20 years. Li's writings on the closely related "Purple fungus" {Ganoderma sinense) tell of similar actions undoubtedly common to both mushrooms:

"The flavor is sweet and the overall effect is one of warmth. This fungus is used to treat deafness. It is also related to afflictions of the joints. It strengthens the Spirit and gives one a fine complexion. With long-term usage, this fungus also has a positive effect upon the limberness of the body and the life span is increased... effects a cure upon lack of stamina and work energy. It is a sure remedy for piles".18

This mushroom was prescribed when "the chest or the ribs have a bitter pain, the hands and feet are adversely cold, or often the patient is in a fretful state of nerves. The mouth cannot operate properly for normal speech, and the eyesight is obscured. The abdomen is always sore and painful. The patient becomes listless and hasn't any desire to eat or drink."18

Li went on to report that present day uses had remained the same as those some 2,000 years earlier, for example, in the contemporary (16th century) form of pills used to "cure lack of stamina and work energy, and strengthen the Qi (life energy) related to those areas."18

From Folklore to Pharmacology

A saying of Western medical origin sure to be applied to Reishi goes, 'The more conditions an herbal medicine is said to remedy, the less likely it will remedy any of them.' However, in the traditional medicine of China, an herb, even one with the reputation of an elixir, would be more likely to conform with the concept of fu hang": a medicine that improves the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis (balance) by strengthening natural resistance (to pathogens or chronic disease) and by improving the general state of health Fu zheng therapy uses herbs that are believed to act as tonics to support the life energy or Qi (ch'i) of the body. Pharmacologists have found that many Qi tonics show enhancing effects upon the immune system and that they serve to enhance bodily repair.23

At the Department of Pharmacology at Beijing Medical College, Drs. G. Zheng and Lin Zhi-bin followed up on Reishi's purported ability to strengthen a patient's resistance and improve the constitution.21'22 After several years' research, they concluded that from the remarkably wide array of activities apparent from assorted preparations of the mushroom, Reishi lived up to its traditional reputation as SLJU zheng tonic. These effects, all of which are "of great advantage to the maintenance or restoration of homeostasis of the body,"22 were given as follows:

  • Reishi enhances protective mechanisms of the central nervous system (inhibiting central nervous system over-excitation).
  • Reishi improves heart-related functions.
  • Reishi improves functioning of the liver and protects if from chemical injury.
  • Reishi alleviates radiation-induced injuries.
  • Reishi inhibits oxygen-deprivation-induced injuries.
  • Reishi augments the ability of immune cells to scavenge foreign cells.
  • Reishi inhibits allergic reactions.22

Taken together, these activities may serve to place Reishi among the better-known herbs classified as "adaptogens," such as the Qi tonic herb Ginseng. An adaptogen is a substance that, while causing only a minimum interference with bodily functions, enhances resistance to health-endangering influences. Adaptogens are noted for their ability to enhance immune system functions.24

A Mushroom for the Nerves

Chinese and Japanese herbalists have long recommended the mushroom for insomnia.19'20 Some people soak the mushroom for a month and more in wine for a bed-time aperitif.25 But apart from the wine, is there anything to it? A study in Japan recently showed there is. After noticing that people who made a habit of taking a tea of Reishi had sometimes reported sleepiness. Dr. Shojiro Inoue at Tokyo Medical Dental University decided to investigate. Basically, he boiled up a bunch of Reishi mushrooms and fed the extract to rats. It turned out that the mushroom held some "sleep-promoting factor," that it's effects were significant, and although mild-acting, Reishi's sleep-promoting action lasted for a time after the extract was stopped. Long-term application of the mushroom caused obvious promotion of slow wave sleep, but short-term high doses, did not.26

In addition to insomnia, today the mushroom is prescribed in China for some neurological afflictions, especially when the muscles are involved. For example, Reishi is given to anorexics and to treat debility following lengthy illness.20 Reishi is also applied to treat neurasthenia20, a kind of neurosis of "unknown" origin in which lassitude weakens various parts of the body. More commonly, this is experienced as a constricted sensation in the throat and a dull pressure on the lobes of the brain as so-called cotton-wool sensations. Neurasthenia is common in depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.27'28 In Japan, studies of Reishi in the treatment of neuroses caused by "environmental stress" found that patients experienced significant benefit from taking the freeze-dried "mycelium" of Reishi29 -the root-like body that produces mushrooms. It was reported that an eight-month study of Alzheimer's disease patients taking the same product also demonstrated significant results.30

These neurological studies coincide with centuries-old uses of Reishi where it was prescribed by herbalists to increase "intellectual capacity and banish forgetfulness," and when the patient displayed "lack of stamina" or "listlessness." In Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, cold extremities, "a fretful state of nerves," obscured eyesight, sore abdomen, improper speech, a tight chest, memory difficulties, hearing problems, heart problems, muscle weakness, joint pains, poor appetite17 and insomnia are all found31'32, indicating that Reishi may have been used for this disease in the distant past and that the syndrome is actually centuries old. A oncentrated extract of Reishi mycelium produced an increased tolerance in animals to low oxygen environments. This led scientists in China to study Reishi's effect on people who suffer from high altitude sickness in which adjusting to low levels of oxygen is a problem.20 The symptoms are commonly experienced as nausea, palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, weariness, headaches, poor appetite, and insomnia.

According to the Chinese Academy of Army Medicine, a study of 238 soldiers on Reishi extract tablets (3 tablets twice daily) found a preventive rate of 97.5 against high altitude sickness. An expanded study found that of 976 soldiers on the tablets, 83.7 experienced no headaches and had no vomiting. For comparison, part of the study found that in those without the Reishi tablets, as many as 80.31 experienced reactions to high altitudes, whereas in the medicated groups only 16.2 to 27.8 had any symptoms.33 Studies in China found Reishi produced muscle relaxation34 and an analgesic (pain-inhibiting) effect.20'34 Reishi calmed nervous system excitability in 18 of 20 patients after four months on the mushroom.20 Yet Reishi is neither narcotic nor hypnotic. It was concluded that the mushroom has an essentially "calmative function."21

Reishi as a Cardiotonic

Herbalists of the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) and earlier periods had observed the effects of the mushroom in 'heart disease' patients and prescribed it to those with a "knotted and tight chest," apparently because the mushroom was noted for having a positive effect upon the "heart Qi." Reishi also had a reputation as an herb that "mends the chest."18

Many centuries later, the potential of this ancient herb as a cardiotonic became apparent. Researchers in China watched in amazement as the erratic electro-cardiogram readings normally expected from animals with heart attacks had abruptly changed to normal after an injection of Reishi extract.35 Reishi had improved the circulation of the innermost muscle of the heart, increased blood flow and lowered oxygen consumption in the heart muscle.20 During the 1980s, Japanese scientists confirmed the earlier work of the Chinese. They found the mushroom produces a number of actions beneficial to the sick heart.36'39 For example, they found that Reishi contains "ganoderic acids" that lower high blood pressure.39

At least one ganoderic acid inhibits the clumping together of blood cells (platelet aggregation) which can lead to heart attacks and other circulation problems. Collectively, ganoderic acids in the mushroom are the substances that lower cholesterol.40'41 In Reishi, many of them are rich in oxygen and account for Reishi's high resistance to attack by fungal and bacterial infections in the wild. Because there are very few parasitic fungi that can affect the mushroom, Reishi can grow for many years.40

Ganoderic acids belong to a group of natural substances called "triterpenes." Well over 100 triterpenoids have been found in Reishi. Reishi's triterpenes are so important that in Japan they are used to determine Reishi quality and authenticity. Terpenes were named after the "turp" in turpentine. They occur in oily substances (essential oils), resins and plant saps. Terpenes are responsible for the familiar aroma of pine and of citrus. Pinene and limonene are common terpenes. Those in Reishi, Ginseng and other longevity plants of the Orient are less well known.

Reishi can substantially lower high blood pressure (hypertension). Taking six Reishi extract tablets a day (240 mg each), 53 patients at a university hospital in Tokyo were divided into two groups consisting of (I) essential (genetically inherited) high blood pressure patients and (II), mildly hypertensive patients.42

At the end of the trial it was found that Reishi had lowered the blood pressure of group I patients, was without side effects, and had lowered the total cholesterol of the patients. Even before the six-month trial ended, the essential hypertensives showed normal blood pressure readings in both systolic and diastolic readings. Nearly half (47.5) gained drops in blood pressure of 10-19 mmHg (millimeters of mercury), and in 10 there were drops of 20-29 mmHg.42 Similar clinical tests in China found the mushroom can be taken as a cardiotonic supplement on a daily basis - without side-effects43

In one study, 70 patients with elevated concentrations of fats and cholesterol in their blood (hyperlipidemia) ingested two to three tablets of Reishi extract three times daily for three months. These tablets contained one gram of Reishi extract and two grams of mandarin orange peel extract, a rich source of the bioflavonoid "hesperidin." 43 This was probably added to reduce the formation of cholesterol-containing plaque in the arteries.44

On average, 74.2 of patients showed cholesterol levels restored to normal in only three months. Optimal results were seen in those who exercised and limited their daily consumption of animal fats. Yet even for some who didn't there were definite improvements in cholesterol levels.43 Another of the larger Reishi studies in China found "low density lipoprotein" (LDL, the harmful cholesterol) levels dropped in 68 of patients following but one to four months on the mushroom. Patients with the higher levels of cholesterol had comparatively greater improvements. Reishi seemed to provide the most for those who needed it the most. This study was conducted in seven hospitals where Western medications, except for nitroglycerin if needed, were not used at all.45

The 90 who completed the study had all presented a history of coronary heart disease of over one years' duration. In order to be "effective," Reishi had either to completely resolve or "markedly" alleviate symptoms, while simultaneously improving electrocardiogram readings. The results with Reishi proved dramatic: On average, the treatment was found effective in 81.77 of the patients. The lowest level of effectiveness in any group was still 66.7 of cases.45

Chest pains (angina) were reduced by 84.5. Weariness or fatigue44, or what Li Shih-chen would call "lack of stamina"18, was reduced by 77.8. Cold extremeties45, or Li's "hands and feet are adversely cold"18, was effectively treated in 73.9. In addition, Reishi was effective in alleviating still other symptoms: insomnia in 77.8; irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) in 60; difficulty breathing in 72.5; and in 90.4 Reishi remedied the sensation of fullness in the chest.45 We are reminded here that the ancients regarded Reishi as a mushroom that essentially "mends the chest." 18

The general effectiveness of Reishi was determined following seven years of testing in China's hospitals: 20 to 48 in high cholesterol and coronary heart disease where patients showed significant improvements, and from 56 to 86 effective in providing improvements of one kind and another for these patients.20

More recently, Russian scientists have taken an interest in the mushroom.46-48 Looking for herbs with beneficial effects on the heart, the Cardiology Research Center at the Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow followed up48 on earlier work with herbs in which a single dose had produced a very noticeable activity in human serum. Of 21 herbs, Reishi was among a handful of Chinese medicinal plants that had shown the most activity.46

Their own study was conducted solely with edible mushrooms, 20 in all. They went after the same activity, an anti-atherosclerotic one: stopping the build-up of fatty deposits or "plaques" on the walls of arteries. These waxy plaques are largely made up of cholesterol. When they get big enough they can restrict blood low by narrowing the passage in arteries. A blood clot on the plaque can build up the deposit by accumulating platelets. Soon, a platelet-trapping substance called "fibrin" comes into play, and as the process accelerates the artery becomes blocked off.

Knowing that a mass of plaque (an atheroma) can be lethal, the Russian scientists tested mushrooms that might prevent plaques. Remarkably, nine of the 20 mushrooms showed both a preventive and a therapeutic action against plaque build-up. The two with the most significant, even "marked" activity, were the Reishi and Shiitake mushrooms.48

Reishi and Shiitake went on to more advanced tests of the same kind used to test drugs. In one experiment, coronary heart disease patients aged 40 to 60 ate the mushrooms after a fast. Following a single dose of Reishi as a dietary supplement (1.5 grams of powdered extract), their blood serum lost 30 to 40 of its cholesterol-accumulating ability. Now, even their blood was active against plaque build-up.48 What does this suggest for the treatment of heart disease? As the Russian cardiologists explained, it means that some edible mushrooms have great value as "food supplements" with the potential of preventing and, to a degree, of treating atherosclerosis.48

Reishi in Cancer Research

Many are the accounts of cancer patients who tried Reishi and found their cancers gone.49 Studies of Reishi in cancer research have been largely conducted in Japan, where Reishi was scientifically proven to hold action against tumors. This research has continued in Korea, Japan and China.50-52

Reishi and related mushrooms, called "polypores," have been traditionally regarded as useful against cancer in Japan for hundreds of years.53 A recent account of this ancient use was reported by Dr.Fukumi Morishige, M.D., Ph.D., a renowned Japanese surgeon54 and a member of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine55, famous for its research of vitamin C.

In the Summer of 1986, a woman approached him for help in treating her lung cancer. It was a complicated case and she had been refused an operation by several hospitals. Hopeless, she returned home where she found her husband had collected Reishi in the forests. He boiled the mushroom and gave it to her to drink as a tea.54

While this was going on, she begged Dr. Morishige to do something for her cancer, regardless of its very advanced stage. From what was evident six months earlier, Morishige was surprised when he found no increase in the swelling. Then he looked at her X-rays. Something wasn't right: her tumor showed but a trace on the photo. When she told him she had been drinking Reishi tea, Morishige operated with even greater curiosity. He was "astonished" to find only scar tissue, and although cancerous cells remained, they were now benign.54

With that he began to study Reishi as a treatment for cases given up as hopeless. 250 patients later, he had some very intriguing findings. Even more promising, he believes Reishi is an effective cancer preventive.54 Here are a few of his findings:

  • Patients on large doses of Reishi extract (2-10 grams daily) developed diarrhea, but not when they took vitamin C in combination.
  • Patients on Reishi showed fewer complications with infections.
  • Those with low levels of antibodies had their levels restored and those with high levels had them lowered. This was found with "immunoglobulin A," IgE, IgG, and IgM. (Immunoglobulins are specific types of antibodies.)
  • Vitamin C (10 grams a day) seems to greatly increase the availability of Reishi within the system.
  • Cancers of the lung, brain, breast, rectum, liver, pancreas and kidney are amendable with Reishi when surgery precedes and vitamin C (6 -12 grams daily) is taken in combination with the extract.54

While Dr. Morishige and colleagues in Japan continue to research the effects of Reishi combined with vitamin C, during a lecture he told the world basically how this combination works. The active constituents against cancer in Reishi are called "polysaccharides," which are basically huge sugars made up of many little sugar molecules chained together. The antitumor sugars in Reishi usually occur in the form known as "Beta-D-glucans," bound to amino acids. These intricate sugars stimulate or modulate the immune system to produce a heightened response to foreign cells, whether bacteria, viruses, or tumor cells.

Polysaccharides from the Reishi mushroom and other types of folk-medicinal fungi are patented in Japan for use as immunopotentiators in the treatment of cancer.56-59 They are usually combined with other types of therapies, such as radiation, surgery and chemotherapies, to increase the effectiveness, reduce the side-effects and accelerate recovery from disease. What Dr. Morishige found is that the various polysaccharides derived from medicinal mushrooms don't have the same degree of action against cancers in humans that they do in animals. But when vitamin C is taken in combination, the results are much better. The reason, he tells us, is that animals produce their own supply of the vitamin and we don't. And that seems to be making all the difference.54

This might be telling us something more: other herbs may potentiate the mushroom in a similar manner to vitamin C. Perhaps in their own way, the ancients observed this too, and through trial and error discovered which herbs to combine with Reishi for optimal results. Vitamin C, he explained, reduces the high molecular weight of the polysaccharides. As the vitamin breaks up these sugars, their viscosity or stickiness drops and their bio-availability increase. He also found this to be true of a medical polysaccharide known as "Lentinan," which is derived from the edible gourmet mushroom called Shiitake.54

Once the polysaccharides are reduced, Morishige believes they are rendered more accessible to the immune system cell called the "macrophage." These are 'Pac Man'-like immune cells that literally gobble-up intruder cells. When this immune cell becomes activated, an array of other defenders are signaled to go into battle to protect the body against disease.54 From research in China, Korea and Japan, the immune cells being activated by Reishi to kill tumor cells are primarily the cell-gobblers and "helper T cells."20'60-62

But Morishige's report of Reishi normalizing antibody levels54 could be significant here too. For example, immunoglobulin G is a major class of antibodies that neutralize toxins and enhance the cell-gobbling activity of macrophages. A deficiency of IgG is associated with recurrent infections of the upper respiratory tract, as well as endocrine gland abnormalities.63

Anti-Allergic/Anti-Inflammation Actions

From interviews with Chinese herbalists in Vancouver, B.C., Reishi is primarily used for the upper respiratory tract. This area of use is believed centuries old. In recent times, chronic bronchitis in the elderly has responded well to Reishi, and asthma is reported to respond to the mushroom inside of 14 days.20

A Reishi mushroom syrup was made up and tabletted for testing in Chinese hospitals during 197 3 -4. In over 2,000 chronic bronchitis patients, it was found effective, overall, in 60 to 91.6 of cases. Following several months' treatment there was a general increase in the amount of immunoglobulin A (IgA) detected in their spit.20 IgA is the main immunoglobulin found in the respiratory tract. A deficiency is linked to severe allergies.63

During the 1980s, Reishi's anti-allergic action became the subject of ongoing research in Japan.64-66 Studies at the Dept. of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Kinki University found Reishi so active that in animals a water extract inhibited all four types of allergic reactions. This included positive effects against the more familiar subjects of asthma and contact dermatitis.66

Workers at Kinki University expressed their concern about the need at this time for such a broad-spectrum anti-allergic agent, specifically for the treatment of an increasing number of allergy syndromes. To this end they hope to begin clinical testing of the mushroom.66

The anti-inflammatory action of Reishi also caught the attention of U.S. researchers. In 1990 more evidence was presented of Reishi's anti-inflammatory action by scientists from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.67

At a presentation in Sapporo, Japan, the Texas scientists discussed the problems of present drug treatments for inflammatory diseases. They explained that whether the drugs are steroidal or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, they have "serious" side- effects: 2,600 people die every year in the U.S. just from taking the non-steroidals for rheumatoid arthritis! They emphasized the need for mild-acting anti-inflammatories is great, especially those without side-effects.67

Digging deep into Chinese medical history, they found Reishi used in the Orient ,000 years earlier. Among its various uses, they found stiff neck, stiff shoulders, conjunctivitis (inflammation of the fine membrane lining the eyelids), bronchitis, rheumatism, and improving "competence" of the immune system.67

Using Reishi cultivated in the U.S. from Oriental strains, they found a water extract not to be active as an anti-inflammatory when it was applied to the skin; however, taken orally by mice in high doses (380 mg per kilo of body weight), it reduced inflammation by 47. An extract of Reishi made with a solvent to release its properties more fully was "very active" when applied to the skin. It was similar in strength to hydrocortisone at 5 mg. And there were no side-effects.61

In Japan, efforts to determine the active anti-allergic compounds in Reishi have been fairly fruitful. "Ganoderic acids" in Reishi named ganoderic acid A, ganoderic acid B, ganoderic acid D68 and ganoderic acid C,, the most active of the bunch69, have been shown at least partly if not largely responsible for the activity. Ganoderic acids B and D also lower high blood pressure.39 Most ganoderic acid C^ is found in the mushroom cap (3.4 mg per gram).68

Part of the anti-inflammatory action of Reishi may be attributable to a free radical scavenging effect. Both the polysaccharides70 from Reishi mushrooms and the mushroom extract itself have shown protection against toxic and lethal doses of radiation in animals, a sure demonstration of this action.

As many are now aware, free radical scavengers or "antioxidants" include vitamins C and E and certain amino acids, such as L-cysteine. A great amount of literature is available explaining their benefits in retarding damage to the skin and other cells of the body, as well as their possible role as cancer inhibitors in our diet. After they discovered that Reishi improved the function of human red blood cells in transferring oxygen, scientists at the Beijing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine undertook a study of Reishi' s effect on scavenging free radicals in blood. What they found is that large doses significantly enhanced (by 50.4) the free radical scavenging action of the blood against a particularly harmful type of free radical called the "hydroxyl." And the hydroxyl radical scavenging effect continued, even after the Reishi extract was absorbed and metabolized.71

Healing the Liver

Reishi is commonly prescribed in China for the treatment of chronic hepatitis.72 Reports tell of better results being achieved in acute hepatitis where liver function is less severely impaired. In treatments lasting 2 to 15 weeks, the overall rate of efficiency is 70.7 to 98.0. In treating hepatitis, a syrup of Reishi is taken two times daily (20 ml), usually for 4 to 12 weeks.

In Japan, the underground part or mycelium of Reishi is reported effective in treating patients with liver failure. Taken during six months as a food supplement (50 grams in water three times a day), the effects were therapeutically significant.73 Using the mycelium, scientists in Tokyo and Osaka isolated two "strongly" anti-toxic substances for the liver. Once again, these were ganoderic acids; this time "R" and "S," as well as the less active ganoderic acid T.74

Other researchers in China and Japan have pursued this work.75'76 A Japanese team found a liver function stimulant with the name "ganodosterone" and determined that ganoderic acids R, S and T from the mycelium are liver function stimulants too.77

Recent Applications of Ganoderma

One Japanese patent specifies a freeze-dried Reishi product for external use in a mushroom bath preparation. It includes at least four other medicinal mushrooms.78 We are reminded here of Li Shih-chen's recordings in which the mushroom was used to produce "a fine complexion."18 This may be due to polysaccharides78 of the "Beta-glucan" type. Some are already used in skin creams said to enhance the immunological function of the skin.79

Reishi is believed to be good for the hair80'83 and also figures in a number of beverages.84"86 There are several "tonics" from China in which the bottles contain a whole mushroom and a whole Ginseng root. In Japan, Reishi and culinary herbs are steeped in a mixture of fermented vinegar to prepare a "health drink."84 And in New York candies made from Reishi "essence" may still be found. Research in China continues with some new discoveries and better under standings of previous ones. No doubt we'll be hearing more about them soon. In the meantime, a sneak preview of the work with Reishi may be helpful.

Several researchers are currently using injections of Reishi extracts, sometimes in combination with Western drugs. Some connective tissue diseases, such as one (dermatomyositis) that causes muscle fibers to decay with inflammation of muscles, subcutaneous tissue and skin, are now treated in China using the mushroom extract. After 3 to 6 months' treatment, a mushroom extract was effective in 96.4 of 55 patients, 34 of whom were treated with a combination of the extract injections and steroids from Western medicine. Another connective tissue disease is lupus erythematosus. Of 84 patients, the mushroom injections were effective in 82.1 after 12 weeks of treatment.87

At a national scientific conference on Reishi in Beijing in the Fall of 1991, researchers presented some of their latest findings. Beijing Medical University scientists are studying polysaccharides in Reishi related to an "anti-aging" mechanism. Others have found an increased production of interferon from Reishi. A handful of the highlights from the conference follow:

  • A water extract of Reishi clears free radicals.
  • Reishi polysaccharides markedly inhibit the powerful "super oxide" free radical in red blood cells.
  • Another clinical trial finds a significant lowering of high fat levels in the blood and a lowering of high blood pressure from Reishi extract.
  • 196 medal athletes in China using a Reishi (80) and Ginseng (20) extract preparation had less fatigue and improved sleep during games at high altitude under cold conditions.
  • A water extract of Reishi mixed with other medicinal mushroom extracts (Shiitake fruit body and Cordyceps mycelium) produces significant antitumor effects in animals and enhances macrophage activity.
  • Reishi polysaccharides increase T-cells and the immunological function of body fluids.
  • Clinical research proves that Reishi markedly increases the function of macrophages in the abdomen of people.
  • Reishi polysaccharides promote protein synthesis in the liver and bone marrow.
  • A traditional Chinese medical doctor explains that he uses the mushroom for uterine diseases and bronchitis. Against liver diseases such as cirrhosis, he believes the mushroom is the best medicinal plant available in Chinese medicine.88

Recent North American uses include some traditional ones and some innovative applications within the context of traditional Chinese medical diagnoses. Naturopaths are prescribing Reishi for symptomatic relief of arthritis and of menopausal anxiety. Reishi is also used in treating allergic asthma, hypertension, hypothyroidism, bronchitis, insomnia, general anxiety and stress, and cardiovascular problems. Finally, Reishi figures as the main ingredient in herbal formulas for immune dysfunction syndromes, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome89, and some AIDS patients are using it too.90

For a more detailed view of the Reishi mushroom, see Reishi Mushroom: Herb of Spiritual Potency and Medical Wonder, by Terry Willard, Ph.D. with research by Kenneth Jones (Sylvan Press, 1990).

The Safety of Reishi

A number of tests to find toxicity from the mushroom found none.20-91-92 Although few, there are some cases where minor reactions, such as a loose stool, dry mouth, slightly upset digestion and skin rash have occurred. Digestive upsets are easily eliminated by taking Reishi with meals instead of between them. The other reactions are eliminated by simply ceasing use of the mushroom92 for a week or less. A loose stool is reportedly common from taking over two grams of the extract a day. But when large doses of vitamin C (6-12 grams a day) were combined, a loose stool was avoided.54

How Much Reishi?

Traditionally, Chinese medical texts call for using 1.5 to 9 grams of dry mushroom per day. The mushrooms are simmered in water for 4 to 6 hours to make a decoction or tea. For a more powerful extract, the mushrooms can be simmered in an equal volume of water and alcohol, such as rice wine. The mushrooms should be discarded after they fail to impart any more color to the liquid.

Nearly all research on Reishi has been conducted with mushroom or mycelium extracts. For serious problems, Dr. Morishige adjusted the extract dosage to anywhere from 2 to 10 grams per day. The amount of dry mushroom that goes into an extract can be as much as 15 times the amount of the final extract. Therefore, the 1.5 to 9 grams of dry mushroom prescribed in traditional texts93-94 would approximate 150 to 900 mg of extract. For dosages required in specific illnesses one should consult an herbalist or a naturopathic physician.

Active Constituents of Reishi

ACTIVE COMPOUNDTYPE ACTIONPARTREF.
PolysaccharidesAntitumor/ImmunoactiveFruit-Body1-3 (Beta-D-glucans)
PolysaccharidesAntitumor/ImmunoactiveMycelium 4..
SteroidAnti-hepatotoxicMycelium 5.Ganodosterone - liver protectant
TriterpenesAnti-allergicFruit-body 6.histamine release-inhibiting
TriterpenesAnti-hypertensiveFruit-body 7.high blood pressure-lowering
Protein-bound PolysaccharideAnti-hypertensiveMycelium 8..
TriterpeneCholesterolFruit-body 9.(synthesis inhibitor)

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