Editor’s Note: This article is part one of a two-part series.
In 1993, a Chinese runner named Wan Jun-Sha shattered the world record in the 10,000-meter event. Her teammates also broke records in the 1,500 and 3,000. Naturally, the women were hauled off and tested for illegal substances, but they came out cleaner than Lance after a Tour win. Their secret, as is turns out, was eating a fungus called cordyceps.
In the wild, cordyceps grows as a parasite on caterpillars in the high mountains of Asia. If that doesn’t gross you out, this will: when the caterpillars die, the mushrooms sprout from their heads. Thankfully, cordyceps is now cultivated on different types of grains, and you can find it in a number of reputable products at New Moon Natural Foods.
While cordyceps may not help you break any world records, chances are it could help you improve your aerobic capacity and endurance, speed up recovery after workouts, and even help you avoid catching a cold or flu. Sounds like the ticket for a fun winter.But before you rush out to buy cordyceps, you might want to learn about a group of other mushrooms and herbs that offer similar benefits. These fungi and plants belong to a class of potent, densely nutritious botanicals called adaptogens – substances that help the body normalize out-of-balance systems and adapt to environmental, physical and emotional stress.
The term “adaptogen” was coined in 1947 by Russian scientists who were studying the effects of ginseng on human performance. Their findings were so positive that Russian cosmonauts, athletes and workers began taking adaptogens to improve their physical stamina, mental alertness and productivity. And, remarkably, the power of adaptogens doesn’t stop there. These amazing multi-taskers help the body recover from chronic illness, surgery, hormonal imbalances, altitude sickness, and a number of heart, lung and digestive problems. How can adaptogens have such a widespread effect? Adaptogens bind to receptor sites on cells in the gut, triggering the release of chemicals that stimulate and balance the hormonal, immune and nervous systems. Adaptogens increase numbers and activity of immune cells (including natural killer cells, T-cells, macrophages and white blood cells) enabling you to better combat viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. Adaptogens also counteract the damaging effects of stress hormones like cortisol.
And here’s the icing on the cake: adaptogens improve your mitochondria’s ability to produce energy (ATP) and deliver oxygen to your cells. This makes adaptogens ideal not only for the hardcore athlete, but also for the senior citizen recovering from hip surgery, or the exhausted mother of twin toddlers.
Adaptogens are safe to take on a daily basis. Depending on your individual constitution, you could notice a change in as little as two weeks. However, the longer you use an adaptogen, the more benefits you’re likely to experience. Please consult your MD before using any of these herbs if you are being treated for a medical condition, taking prescription drugs, or if you are pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive.
Though all adaptogens balance and fortify the body, each one has a particular strength due to its unique mix of phytochemicals. This month’s article highlights the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. My November article will cover the ginsengs (Chinese, American and Eleuthero) and other powerful plants.
Pharmacy in a FungusMedicinal mushrooms produce potent chemical defenses against many of the same pathogens that attack humans. Of special interest to researchers are the complex sugars called polysaccharides. A subgroup of these, known as beta glucans, has shown particular strength in fighting viral, bacterial and cancer cells. Many also exhibit anti-tumor activity. Medicinal mushrooms are currently being researched for possible defenses against SARS, smallpox and West Nile viruses.
When taken in combination, medicinal mushrooms appear to have a synergistic effect, enhancing immunity more than if taken individually. New Moon carries a number of mushroom combinations and extracts.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) Known as the “elixir of life,” Reishi is taken in China and Japan to increase longevity. Thanks to its natural anti-inflammatories and antihistamines, Reishi can ease symptoms of arthritis and allergies. Reishi is widely known for its ability to inhibit the growth of some malignant tumors.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) In a 2001 double-blind study, athletes taking cordyceps for six weeks doubled their oxygen intake without changing their exercise routine. In another study, elderly people increased their aerobic capacity nine percent and boosted their energy levels after taking cordyceps for six weeks. This mushroom may improve heart and lung function and can help people recovering from chronic illness.
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa) Japanese researchers have found that maitake is a strong immune booster with significant anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. It may also lower blood pressure and blood sugar. Research shows that a beta glucan in maitake called D-fraction can inhibit cancer development and, in test tubes, induce apoptosis (death of cancer cells.)
- Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) This culinary mushroom stimulates production of T-lymphocytes and macrophages, which destroy viral as well as cancer cells. It is used in Asian hospitals to reduce tumor activity and ease side effects of cancer treatments. A compound in shiitake called eritandenine has been shown to lower cholesterol.
Tips for buying medicinal mushrooms
- Always buy mushrooms from a reputable source. Look for standardized, whole mushroom products (in caps or liquid) rather than isolated beta glucans.
- Mushrooms tend to concentrate pesticides and heavy metals from the soil, so buy organic products when possible. Be aware that mushrooms sold in Chinese markets are frequently tainted with lead or other contaminants.
- Many medicinal mushrooms are available in grocery stores for culinary uses. Dried versions are as potent as fresh. (White button mushrooms, unfortunately, do not contain immune-boosting polysaccharides.) Culinary uses are generally considered safe during pregnancy.
- Though not considered adaptogens, enoki (a culinary species), royal sun agaricus, and zhu ling are medicinal mushrooms valued for their anti-cancer properties. A species called ‘lion’s mane’ appears to stimulate the growth of nerve cells, and may help people with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease,) MS and other nerve disorders.