Mushrooms are often talked about as a treatment for cancer. There is currently no evidence that any type of mushroom can prevent or cure cancer.
- There are many different species of mushroom.
- Chinese medicine practitioners use mushrooms as a treatment for illness.
- There is no evidence that mushrooms or mushroom extract can prevent or cure cancer.
What are medicinal mushrooms?
Mushrooms are part of the fungus family and there are hundreds of different species. They have been a part of traditional chinese medicine for centuries and are used to treat illness. They are also known as medicinal mushrooms.
Some species of mushroom are not edible.
Research has looked at different types of mushroom and mushroom extracts or compounds to see if they can prevent or stop the growth of cancer cells.
Why people with cancer use it
Mushrooms are used in Japan and China to treat lung diseases and are sometimes given alongside cancer treatment. Research is looking at whether mushrooms can help the immune system.
It is thought that some of the chemical compounds in mushrooms might strengthen the immune system. If they do, researchers wonder if this could help fight cancer cells.
Button mushrooms and flat mushrooms are commonly eaten in the UK. They contain all the essential amino acids and are a good source of vitamins. So they can be used as part of a healthy diet. But there is no evidence that they can treat cancer.
In the UK, powdered shiitake, maitaki and reishi (also called ganoderma) mushrooms are available. You can also sometimes get preparations of their juices. These are sold in health food shops.
As far as we know, there is nothing in the mushrooms or compounds that would be harmful but we don't currently know how helpful they are in cancer care.
How you have it
Mushrooms can be eaten fresh or dried or taken as an extract in food supplements.
Research into mushrooms as a cancer treatment
Research has looked at some particular mushrooms and their extracts. This includes:
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia but are grown worldwide for their supposed health benefits. They are valued in some cultures as an anti cancer agent.
The fresh and dried forms of the mushroom are commonly used in East Asian cooking. Extracts from the mushroom, and sometimes the whole dried mushroom, are used in herbal remedies.
One shiitake extract called lentinan is a beta glucan. This is a type of complex sugar compound. Beta glucan is believed to stimulate the immune system and trigger certain cells and proteins in the body to attack cancer cells. In laboratory studies, it seems to slow the growth of some cancer cells.
In mice, lentinan has been shown to stop bowel cancer cells growing. In laboratory tests, the protein part of lentinan (lentin) can stop some fungal cells growing. It can also stop leukaemia cells dividing. Some Japanese researchers give lentinan along with chemotherapy to treat patients with lung, nose, throat, and stomach cancers.
In China a literature review of 12 studies looked at lentinan when given with chemotherapy for lung cancer. They found that lentinan worked on the immune system and improved quality of life in lung cancer patients.
We need larger scale studies before we will know how shiitake extracts can help people with cancer.
Maitake mushrooms are used in Japan and China to treat diabetes and hypertension. They contain a complex sugar called beta-glucan.
Studies in the laboratory have shown that maitake extract can stimulate the immune system, lower blood sugar levels and slow the growth of certain tumours.
A Brazilian study gave patients agaricus sylvaticus mushrooms as part of their diet after bowel cancer surgery.
It found that patients who had the mushrooms had a better quality of life compared to patients who didn't have the mushrooms.
The benefits included:
- more ability to do physical exercise
- less feeling sick
- better mood
- fewer aches and pains
- better sleep
- better appetite
- less abdominal pain, especially after eating
- fewer bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, and wind
Used for centuries in Eastern Ancient medicine, this extract is believed to refresh bodies and extend life.
Phellinus linteus is known as song gen in Chinese medicine, sang-hwang in Korean and meshimakobu in Japanese.
Studies have shown that this type of mushroom extract slows the growth of breast cancer cells in the laboratory. It has also been shown to have anti cancer effects on skin, lung and prostate cancer cells.
We have to be cautious about such early research. Substances that can kill cells in laboratory conditions don't necessarily turn out to be useful treatments in people.
Safety of mushroom and mushroom extracts
There are no known side effects from eating normal amounts of mushrooms in our diet. Mushroom extracts are classed as dietary supplements.
Most of these supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements.
Shiitake mushroom extracts are generally considered safe, although there are some reports of diarrhoea or bloating.
With other types of mushroom there are some reports of allergic reactions affecting the skin, nose, throat, or lungs.