Mushrooms are often talked about as a treatment for cancer. There is currently not enough evidence to say 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. There is early research showing it may strengthen the immune system. So, researchers are looking at whether mushrooms might affect cancer cells too.
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 and other traditional medicines 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. This research was 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. They 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. An early phase 1 trial looked at white button mushroom powder and prostate cancer. But more trials are needed and with larger numbers of people. There is no evidence that they can treat cancer.
In the UK, powdered mushrooms are available. This includes shiitake, maitaki and reishi (also called ganoderma). 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. It is not currently known 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. There are so many different types of mushroom that we can't include them all on this page.
A Cochrane review in 2016 looked at reishi mushrooms as a cancer treatment. These are also called Ganoderma lucidum or G.lucidum. The review included 5
They found that when G.lucidum was given with standard treatment there was a small benefit. The standard treatment was chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It led to an increase in the activity of immune cells. G.lucidum seemed to be well tolerated when given with conventional cancer treatment.
But the authors state that the trials had limitations. They say we need more trials of better quality. They conclude there is not enough evidence to say reishi mushrooms can be used as a cancer treatment.
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia. They 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. There are herbal medicines that use:
- extracts from the mushroom
- sometimes the whole dried mushroom
One shiitake extract called lentinan is a beta glucan. This is a type of complex sugar compound.
Beta glucan may stimulate the immune system. It may do this by triggering 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 China a literature review of 12 studies looked at lentinan. They looked at studies where people had it with chemotherapy for lung cancer. They found that lentinan worked on the immune system. It also 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
There is no evidence from clinical trials that maitake extracts can cure cancer.
A Brazilian study looked at Agaricus sylvaticus mushrooms. People taking part had the mushroom as part of their diet after bowel cancer surgery.
It found that people who had the mushrooms had a better quality of life. This was compared to people 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.
Researchers have looked at these extracts in the laboratory. This lab research showed that this type of mushroom extract may slow the growth of breast cancer cells. 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.
There have been reports of other types of mushroom causing allergic reactions affecting:
- the skin
Avoid taking mushroom extracts if you have a mushroom allergy.