Book Review
From Our March 2008 Issue

Healing Mushrooms
by Georges M.Halpern, MD, PhD

Cover: Healing Mushrooms

This is a new edition of a book Halpern published several years ago. The major change is that the material is updated with cited studies that are generally less than six years old. The book starts with introductory material that stresses the need to focus on the real effects of ingesting mushrooms rather than exaggerated claims that often surround medicinal mushrooms. Nonetheless, Halpern isn't beyond stretching speculation to weak conclusions. For example he mentions the Piptoporus betulinus that the Iceman, discovered in 1991 high in the Tyrolean Alps, was carrying. He notes the antibiotic and laxative properties of the species and links that to the finding that the Iceman had intestinal parasites to conclude that the Iceman was "probably" using the mushroom as a worm killer and laxative. That would be a "maybe" to us. In the next sentence Halpern uses a time honored technique of weak logic to proclaim: "If the Iceman is any proof, Neolithic Europeans used mushrooms for their medicinal properties." While the conclusion may, or may not, be true, speculation about the Iceman's use of mushrooms isn't any kind of "proof." The point is that, as you read this book, you will need to watch for weak logic and the same exaggerated claims Halpern warns us about.

Halpern categorizes the known medicinal effects of mushrooms as follows:

After this introductory material, Halpern launches into the details with eight chapters that address maitake, shiitake, reishi, Cordyceps sinensis, Agaricus blazei, Phellinus linteus, Trametes versicolor, and Hericium erinaceus. An additional chapter addresses Agaricus bisporus, Antrodia camphorata, Dictyophora indusiata, Fomitopsis Officinalis, Poria cocos, Rozites caperata, and Tremella fuciformis. Color plates depict each of these mushrooms.

Each chapter discusses several pertinent studies and what they suggest about the use of mushrooms in human health. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, the studies were done on rats or in vitro (in a test tube). The bottom line conclusion remains that medicinal mushrooms are really good for a variety of ailments in mice. The implication is, of course, that these mushrooms can be equally good for humans. Fortunately there are a number of legitimate studies under way that should soon begin to reveal the actual effects upon humans.

There are some human studies noted in the book. For example a purified MD-Fraction extracted from maitake was given to a group of 35 HIV-positive patients over the course of a year. It was found to inhibit HIV, stimulate the immune system against HIV and reduce vulnerability to other diseases. The brief description suggests the study was not double-blind or placebo-controlled. Probably the most definitive example is research on lentinan, extracted from the shiitake, that has led to it becoming the third most widely prescribed cancer drug in the world. The drug doesn't directly affect cancer, but has been shown to stimulate the body's immune system to fight the disease. Unfortunately lentinan has not been approved by the FDA and is not generally available in the U.S. One well-controlled 2004 study on reishi is noted. Researchers were looking for anti-oxidant effects, immune status, DNA damage and inflammation. They found "no significant change in any of the variables." On a positive note, the study showed no evidence of liver, kidney or DNA toxicity from the reishi.

Overall, Halpern provides enough information for the reader to decide whether the mentioned studies are definitive or merely suggestive. There are lots of suggestive studies and a few definitive studies noted in the book. There are significant medicinal markets for a lot of herbals and food supplements that have significantly less support than that available for these mushrooms. We recommend this book as a good overview of the the medicinal properties of various mushrooms. See page 8 for a table that links various mushrooms to benefits associated with organs and diseases as suggested by this book.