The use of mushrooms in traditional ancient therapies dates back at least to the Neolithic age. For millennia, mushrooms have been valued as edible and medical provisions for humankind. Contemporary research has validated and documented much of the ancient knowledge on medicinal mushrooms (MM). The interdisciplinary field of science that studies MMs has been developed and increasingly demonstrates potent and unique properties of compounds extracted from a range of mushroom species in the last three decades.

Nowadays, MMs are used as: a) dietary food (world mushroom production was 33 million tons in 2014); b) dietary supplement (DS) products (the market of MM DS products is rapidly growing; c) a new class of drugs called “Mushroom Pharmaceuticals”; d) natural bio-control agents in plant protection demonstrating insecticidal, fungicidal, bactericidal, herbicidal, nematocidal, and antiphytoviral activities; and e) cosmeceuticals – different compounds of MMs including polysaccharides, such as soluble β-glucans, GXM, sacchachitin, tyrosinase, and other enzymes are used by cosmetic companies for their film-forming capability, activation of epidermal growth factor, antioxidative, antiallergic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activities, stimulation of collagen activity, inhibition of autoimmune vitiligo, and treating acne.

Medicinal mushrooms are comparable to “medicinal plants” and can be defined as macroscopic fungi, mostly higher Basidiomycetes and some Ascomycetes, which are used in the form of extracts or powder for prevention, alleviation or healing multiple diseases, and/or in balancing a healthy diet. According to the definition of “herbal drugs”, dried fruit bodies, mycelia, or spores are considered “mushroom drugs” or “fungal drugs”. Analogous to “phytopharmaceuticals” or “herbal preparations”, the resulting mushrooms preparations should be considered as “mushroom pharmaceuticals” or “mushroom preparations”. The clear advantages of using mushroom-based products with regard to safety (as opposed to herbal preparations) are the following:

  1. The overwhelming majority of mushrooms used for production are cultivated commercially, and not gathered in the wild. This guarantees proper identification and pure, unadulterated products. In many cases, it also means genetic uniformity.
  2. Mushrooms are easily propagated vegetatively and thus keep to one clone. The mycelium can be stored for a long time, and the genetic and biochemical consistency may be checked after considerable time.
  3. The main advantage might be the fact that many mushrooms are capable of growing in the form of mycelial biomass in submerged cultures.

Mushrooms are currently evaluated for their nutritional value. They are rich in proteins, chitin (dietary fibers), vitamins, and minerals, low in total fat but with a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, and have no cholesterols. As for the characteristics of taste, mushrooms serve as a delicious foodstuff and also as a source of food flavoring substances (because of their unique flavors). In addition to the volatile eight-carbon compounds, the typical mushroom flavor consists of water-soluble taste components such as soluble sugars, polyols, organic acids, free amino acids, and 5‑nucleotides.

Regarding the beneficial nutritional effects of mushrooms, the following facts should be noted:

  1. Mushrooms are low in calories, which is beneficial for weight reduction.
  2. Mushrooms have a significant level of purine, which is beneficial for the diet of people suffering from metabolic diseases.
  3. Mushrooms have a low glucose level, and more mannitol, which makes them highly suitable for diabetics.
  4. Mushrooms have a very low sodium concentration, which is beneficial for the diet of people suffering from high blood pressure.
  5. Mushrooms have a high content of several key vitamins, which is an important orthomolecular aspect. This means that a significant part of the daily requirement in different essential vitamins can be covered by consuming mushrooms.
  6. Mushrooms have a high content of potassium and phosphorus, which is an important orthomolecular aspect as well.
  7. Finally, mushrooms have a high content of selenium, which is regarded as an excellent antioxidant.

Pharmacological properties of mushrooms are currently widely recognized. They make up a vast and yet largely untapped source of powerfully new pharmaceutical products. In particular, and most importantly for modern medicine, MMs present an unlimited source of polysaccharides (especially β-glucans) and polysaccharide-protein complexes with anticancer and immunostimulating properties. Many, if not all, higher Basidiomycetes mushrooms contain different types of biologically active high-molecular-weight and low-molecular-weight compounds (triterpens, lectins, steroids, phenols, polyphenols, lactones, statins, alkaloids, and antibiotics) in fruit bodies, cultured mycelia, and cultured broth.

There are a total more than 130 medicinal functions produced by MMs and fungi. Recently studied medicinal actions of mushrooms included antitumor, immunomodulating, antioxidant, radical scavenging, cardiovascular, cholesterol-lowering, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-parasitic, antifungal, detoxicative, hepatoprotective, anti-diabetic, anti-obesity, neuroprotective, neuroregenerative, and some others effects. Also, substances derived from MMs can be used as painkillers and analgetics. The best implementation of MMs drugs and MM DSs has been in preventing immune disorders and maintaining good quality of life, especially in immunodeficient and immunodepressed patients, patients under chemotherapy or radiotherapy, patients with different types of cancers, chronic blood-borne viral infections of Hepatitis B, C, and D, different types of anemia, thehuman immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), Herpes simplex virus (HSV), chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein Bar virus, patients with chronic  gastritis and  gastric ulcers caused by Helicobacter pylori, and people suffering from dementia (especially Alzheimer’s disease).

Reference

Gargano M.L., van Griensven L.J.L.D.,, Isikhuemhen O.S., Lindequist U., Venturella G.,, Wasser S.P.,, Zervakis G.I., 2017 – Medicinal mushrooms: Valuable biological resources of high exploitation potential (Review). Pl. Biosyst. 151(3): 548-565. DOI: 10.1080/11263504.2017.1301590

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