An old tradition rediscovered
Who would have thought this: only a few years ago, medicinal mushrooms were regarded as being exotic, and those who took them or the experts who prescribed them to patients would often receive a frown and scepticism. Mushrooms are one of the oldest known natural remedies of humanity. 5300 years ago, the famous glacier mummy “Ötzi” had a leather bag on his belt with a dried, walnut-sized piece of birch pout (Piptoporus betulinus), which he used as laxans and anti-dormouse to fight his annoying intestinal parasites, and a piece of dried mushroom, the tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), for hemostasis in injuries and as a tool for firing.
In Asia, mushrooms have always been valued and used as food and for remedies. Chinese medicine has been cultivating the detailed knowledge of the therapeutic use of fungal ingredients for more than 2,500 years and describes the effect of more than 300 medicinal mushrooms, which are predominantly native to Asia. Many are still used in far eastern medicine to cure various diseases, to strengthen the immune system, and to regulate and detoxify the body. One of the most famous of these is the Ling Zhi, which is called Reishi in Japan and glossy ganoderma in English (Ganoderma lucidum). It is considered a “divine mushroom of immortality” in China and is described in detail in the Materia Medica classic Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (206 BC – 220 AD). To this day, the Ling Zhi is considered the most important natural remedy and is highly revered throughout Asia because of its numerous effects.
Let us remember that there has not been any decisive transmission losses of insights and knowledge in the history of Chinese medicine. This unique cultivation of medical culture explains why the therapeutic use of medicinal mushrooms is still an integral part of medical art in the eastern world, especially in China, Japan and Korea. That’s why most of the literature and sources come from this part of the world. We may rightly speak of the accumulated knowledge of the longest clinical trial that has ever taken place. Millennia-old experiences that have been made and led to conclusions about the effects of fungal ingredients and energetics can now be understood and confirmed thanks to modern pharmacological analysis.
It seems that this knowledge has slowly found its way to us. In Germany, being interested in the remarkable medicinal mushrooms was not very common until now. To promote the application and therapy using medicinal mushrooms and to describe them as an independent area in naturopathy, the term “mycotherapy” was coined a few years ago. Since then, informational events and training seminars have been held, especially in Switzerland and Germany, with the aim of further publicizing mycotherapy. Medicinal mushrooms, with their specific energetic and biochemical effects, are of great interest to doctors and therapists, as they open up new and interesting options for treatment.
The seminars entitled “Mycotherapy in TCM” describe medicinal mushrooms not only from the point of view of TCM energetics and signature, but also from a conventional medical and biochemical point of view. The seminar participant thus gets a deep understanding of basic relationships in mycotherapy and its potential applications in practice. In addition to basic knowledge of TCM, no special prerequisites are required for the training as a TCM mycotherapist.
Medicinal mushrooms in Chinese medicine
The use of mushrooms as medicines and food presumably dates back to prehistoric times. In China, the first descriptions of medicinal mushrooms date back to the second and third century BC. It is the work Wu Shi Er Bing Fang,”52 formulas for diseases”, which already mentioned mushrooms for the treatment of diseases. In the vicinity of the city of Chang Sha, the pharmacopoeia written down on silk scrolls was discovered in 1993 when Ma Wang Dui opened one of the burial mounds. The list of 52 diseases contains 283 formulas, made up of a total of 247 herbs and mushrooms. Most of the substances could be identified and assigned later in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), in the already mentioned classic of the Materia Medica Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. Here we find a description of the Zhu Ling (Polyporus umbellatus, oak hare) but also special treatises on mushrooms such as Mu Er (Auricularia polytricha, Judas ear) and Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum or glossy ganoderma).
There is historical evidence that the Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum) was extremely popular at the imperial court and with the Taoist monks and was highly revered as the “herb of God”. Whoever carried it as a talisman was to be very lucky. It is also reported that around the third century BC, Ling Zhi was taken and praised as part of an elixir of “immortality”, or extension and maintenance of life. It turns out that this medicinal mushroom is already present in the earliest records of Chinese alchemy and plays an important role in the care and support of health (Yangsheng) and also to improve mental strength and clarity.
To date, numerous reports have been written on the use of medicinal mushrooms. For example, the famous doctor Tao Hong Jing writes about the Mao Tou Gui San (Coprinus Comatus, shaggymane) for digestive problems and diabetes in the Materia Medica Ming Yi Bie Lu. The work Ben Cao Yao Bie Yao reports on the use of Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps sinensis, Chinese caterpillar fungus) against impotence and senility, and Hou Tou Jun (Hericium erinaceus, bearded tooth) is reported to be used for treating cancer in the digestive tract in the work Zhong Guo De Zhen Jun by Liu Po. However, this fungus is highly revered as food much earlier, especially in the southwest and north of China.
Modern China has been intensively researching the pharmacological effects of fungi for the last 40 years and has published many interesting clinical studies. At this time some interesting mushroom monographies have been written. For example, the large collection of medicinal mushroom recipes Xun Jun Yi Fang Ji Cheng published in 1999 by the researchers Chen Shi Yu and Chen Hai Ying, in which up to 300 mushrooms are described in detail.
Medicinal mushrooms in the monastery medicine
Not only the East is familiar with the healing power of mushrooms, also the traditional European medicine (TEM) knows and uses medicinal mushrooms as therapeutical means. It has always been the monasteries of St. Benedict in which the concern for the holistic welfare of the people is regarded as essential. So it is not surprising that the healing treatment with mushrooms in European monastic medicine was known and appreciated since centuries. For example, a recommendation of the well-known abbess and physician Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century, who describes in her work Physika the revitalizing power of the Ganoderma lucidum (Ling Zhi). In addition to the information on the specific effects of various medicinal mushrooms, there are also instructions on methods of extraction, dosages and, interestingly, also on the timing of applying them to optimize antibiotic effects and the specific effects on the immune system. The monks in the European monasteries knew that extraction-derived cellular and molecular components of mushrooms are definitely capable of profoundly improving people’s quality of life and health in many situations.
Unfortunately, the traditions of the people about the specific fungus and health-effects of medicinal mushrooms in Europe have simply “ebbed” in the course of industrialization. Thereafter, mushrooms have been either seen as dietary supplements due to their high fiber content and low caloric nutritional value or avoided as being optionally toxic. Only in the monasteries of Europe, the knowledge of the healing power of mushrooms was carefully preserved further on, but the experience and knowledge were by no means passed on to the outside. At times one feared abuses – especially the shamanic activities with intoxicating drugs from mushrooms for an expansion of consciousness was rejected as particularly questionable.
Only science, represented by biologists, mycologists and physicians has confirmed in recent years what ancient cultures in China but also in Egypt and Europe for millennia knew: mushrooms carry the most effective and healing substances which can be found in nature for humans and animals. Today, mycotherapy is a modern science, which is located between mycology and medicine and which intensively researches the effect of various medicinal mushrooms.
Biochemical effect of medicinal mushrooms
The far-reaching medicinal effects of the mushroom substances in big mushrooms result from acquired, intelligent survival strategies. In the course of a longer common path with the animals, the evolution of the fungi was marked in the deepest “social layer” of the ecological environment compared to the plants. Thus, the fungi could survive and remain as the largest “recyclers” of organic material on this planet and as the primary provider of vital substrates to the plants.
For example, they have learned to make antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal ingredients – which have led to the discovery of penicillin or cyclosporins. The common evolutionary range of animals and fungi also had the effect that for both almost the same microbial “enemy picture” exists – so the fungus substances also act against all human pathogens, while the plants must have a distinctly different defence spectrum.
The main active ingredient groups of fungi, the large-molecular beta-D-glucans and the triterpenes, have a broad, complementary spectrum of clinical effects that range from natural anti-inflammatory agents to biological radiation protection, detoxification at the cellular level and anti-oxidation, immune-modulating and anti-tumoral properties.
An intelligent material fine-tuning of amino acids, provitamins, vitamins, enzymes, minerals and trace elements with specially complex active components, created by nature, leads to positive-balancing processes in the body and to “homeostasis”, so that mushroom preparations can also be called “biological response termed modifiers” (BRM) which can be used therapeutically. In Korea, the BRM is therefore used as the fourth pillar in cancer treatment in almost 80% of the cases adjuvantly today. (In comparison: mushrooms 67%, herbs 54.1%, ginseng 46.5%).
Mushrooms are (as well as animal and human) chemosynthetic, which can synthesize vital nutrients required, complicated enzymes, vitamins and large-molecular secondary substances. Mushrooms account for about 25% of biomass on Earth – without them our world would be a huge garbage dump of organic waste.
Signature of the medicinal mushrooms from the Western point of view
Let us be aware that the distinction between animal and plant could also be considered as a nutritional grouping. Nutritional physiology ultimately determines the physique and lifestyle of the organisms. The vast majority of fungi are site-bound as well as the plants, but they differ in their diet, they are heterotrophic: they live on enzymes using organic material and they are redundant, so they break down these organic substances into the smallest chemical compounds. There are no organic compounds that cannot be reduced (transformed) by fungi!
An important feature of mushrooms is their incredibly strong power to break down and transform organic material to provide new nutrients for rebuilding – this needs to be well understood. This is probably the most important property, i.e., “signature” before us: an enormously revitalizing force that stands for the strengthening and nourishing principle. By providing valuable nutrients, many organisms are supported and can in turn grow and thrive. Although the habitat of many mushrooms is at the most difficult part of the natural cycle – namely, where spoilage and rot and organic waste is created, the work is the strongest – here they do their full transformation work and are energy suppliers.
Symbiosis partner of plants and animals
Mushrooms not only transform substances, they also have the ability to transport nutrients providing the necessary energy to other forms of life. Understanding of the mushroom energetics is also a very important aspect.
Mushrooms enter into a symbiosis with many plants and animals. Up to 90% of all plants are promoted and supported by fungi in their growth. The roots of many higher plants are “infected” by fungi, resulting in mushroom roots, the so-called mycorrhizas. The fungus supplies water and nutrient salts to the plant, its mycelium acts as a prolonged root network. The ingested nutrients are transferred to the plant and climb up. Living with the plants is also an advantage for mushrooms: they are directly supplied with usable organic substances that the fungus needs for its own metabolism. Some fungi only form their fruiting bodies in symbiosis with plants, e.g., the truffle.
The selective taking in of metal compounds by the earth mycelium of different fungi is noteworthy. This mushroom property is of great benefit to the nature, as otherwise only a few other organisms, e.g., algae, absorb or degrade toxins.
Mushrooms are ancient organisms, they carry the primordial power of creation in themselves. Studies suggest that mushrooms inhabited the mainland more than 600 million years ago. The first mushrooms are said to have developed between 800 and 1,200 million years ago. Accordingly, one can assume that mushrooms are among the earliest organisms on our planet.
Mushrooms are earthbound. Many of the mushrooms grow on the ground and the mycelium, hidden in the earth, carries the knowledge of our planet as experience (pair core mycelium with two different genomes). But fungi also connect many life forms with the earth and root and nourish them. Mushrooms are a very stabilizing element in nature – they are a link between the growth and decomposition processes and adapt their growth to the local conditions.
Even the world’s largest creature is a fungus. In 2004, scientists discovered a honey fungus in the National Park of the Lower Engadine whose subterranean network populated an area of 35 hectares. An even larger specimen stands in the woods of Oregon in the USA. It is 120 hectares in size, weighs about 600 tons and its age is estimated to be 2,400 years.
The success story of mushrooms can be attributed to their enormous capacity of self-protection and adaptability. For millions of years, mushrooms have learned to adapt to the ever-changing environmental conditions and protect themselves against attacks by viruses, bacteria and parasites with natural substances. Mushrooms, therefore, have a sheer unimaginable knowledge of stored and successful survival strategies.
In summary, fungi have nourishing, detoxifying, regulating and protective properties. By eating edible mushrooms or taking mushroom supplements, a positive effect on people’s health takes place.
Energetics of the medicinal mushrooms from the Chinese point of view
The affinity to the earth
As described above, one of the strongest principles of mushroom energy is the ability to transform biomaterials, transform them into nutrients and transport them for the distribution and supply of life processes. One can derive a first basic statement: transforming and transporting are the primary faculties of the mushrooms.
This essentially corresponds to the functions of spleen and stomach, the earth element of the five transformation phases. Spleen and stomach are collectively referred to as the root of the after-heaven Qi, because the source of all Qi and blood after birth is produced there. In the spleen, the food Qi “Gu Qi” is extracted from the ingested food and liquid. The spleen then distributes the food Qi upwards (heart blood and pulmonary Qi) and to the tissues (whole body and four extremities). Here you can see similar acting energetic qualities, which allow the assumption that mushrooms and the element earth have analogies. The common qualities are responsible for the transformation and transport of biofuels to supply life processes.
By ingesting the mushrooms, the inherent powers (Qi quality or energetic property) can have a positive effect on the body. These support the entire organism through a general strengthening and regulation of bodily functions and through the supply of valuable ingredients.
Thus, a second basic statement can be derived: mushrooms strengthen and nourish.
In TCM, the spleen and stomach control the various transformations and movements in the body, forming a very important Qi mechanism in the body. Together with the liver, they are one of the most fundamental axes for regulation and movement of Qi needs in the organism. This manifests itself in a good digestion and in a sufficient formation and distribution of Qi and blood.
Since these processes are very complex, this can quickly lead to problems, which can affect the normal Qi process. For example, a spleen Qi weakness can lead to the accumulation of moisture, which in turn blocks the free flow of liver Qi in the middle San Qiao, which can lead to decreased appetite, poor digestion, bloated abdomen, and loose stools. This means that everything that harmonizes, regulates, and balances has a positive impact on the Qi mechanism and thus, supports normal physiological processes. Balancing, stabilizing, neutralizing, and harmonizing life phenomena are considered in TCM to be attributes of the earth element of the Five Transformation Phases.
Mushrooms can thus be attributed primarily to the earth element from the energetics point of view. In nature, the development and spread of entire ecosystems is controlled and regulated by fungi. The underground mycelium (actual fungus) acts as an intelligent network for stabilization and compensation. From this, we can derive the third basic statement: fungi equalizes, regulates and harmonizes.
Fungi can pick up toxins and break them down into less toxic compounds. A great skill that is rare in nature. For the ecosystem, this detoxification work is enormously important and of correspondingly great benefit. By binding and breaking down toxins, the environment can be significantly relieved and regenerated better, which significantly supports stability and growth in the fragile ecosystem.
For the health of the human organism, it is of great importance that as few as possible toxic and / or otherwise polluting substances enter or be absorbed into the body. Once burdened, the liver, kidneys, skin, intestine and lymphatic system are primarily responsible for detoxification and excretory processes. Above all, the liver can often be in contact with toxins and be burdened.
In TCM, the liver plays an important role in detoxification. For example, let us think of its task of taking up blood, which is subsequently cooled and regenerated, which basically is a detoxification. If the liver blood is contaminated with heat toxins, it can lead to skin problems with severe redness and itching. Here, especially the energetically slightly bitter medicinal mushrooms like the Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum) or the Yun Zhi (Trametes versicolor, Schmetterlingstramete), which have excellent detoxification properties can be used to treat skin diseases resulting from liver-blood intoxication. In addition to the strong relation to the earth element, mushrooms also have a connection to the element wood. This is not surprising, as most medicinal mushrooms grow on trees or live in symbiosis with them. So, mushrooms support the detoxification work of the liver, but can also bind and discharge toxins in the intestine. The work of detoxification is not limited to purely chemical processes; fungi also detoxify the psycho-emotionally burdened and cause a kind of “psycho-hygiene”. By detoxifying the mind, plagued and burdened by constant stress, noise and irritation, calmness, presence and clarity come in, expressing serenity and flexibility. From this, we can derive the fourth basic statement: fungi detoxifies and drains off.
The fourth basic statement describes the psycho-emotional effect of the mushrooms very nicely. Mushrooms have regularly been used in rituals and religious rites, where they sometimes still have their place. Although the fungi used for this are among the psychotropic mushrooms, shamans and alchemists saw the place of the medicinal mushrooms also near the gods. Thus, the Ling Zhi was described by Taoist monks as a divine mushroom of immortality and gladly took them before meditation exercises. The medicinal mushroom provides an increased level of concentration, which should help to release the spirit from the heaviness and tarnish.
A possible biochemical explanation for these effects could be the so-called adaptogenic, secondary active ingredients in the medicinal mushrooms. These increase our adaptability and resilience and thus increase our internal stability. Rich in these substances are the Ling Zhi and also the Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps sinensis, caterpillar fungus). Worth mentioning here is the Hou Tou Jun (Hericium erinaceus, hedgehog mushroom), which contains substances such as erinacins, which can promote nerve growth. This medicinal mushroom has a balancing effect on the psyche and is recommended, for example, for depression or nervous weakness. From this, we can deduce the fifth basic statement: mushrooms have a Shen effect.
Vital mushrooms have unique, energetic properties. A special feature is a very wide range of applications, even in complex diseases, such as cancer. In the next section, the Ling Zhi will be presented in a mushroom portrait, showing its important role in Chinese medicine.
Ling Zhi, a vital mushroom as an elixir of immortality
The famous Yellow Emperor Huang Ti spared no effort to search the Ling Zhi and make an elixir of “immortality” from it. Under the leadership of a Taoist priest, the emperor sent a fleet of 3,000 men to search for the fungus on the islands of the eastern seas. Apparently, the search as well as later expeditions had no success. Only about 340-278 BC the poet Qu Yuan mentioned the Ling Zhi in the poetry collection Chu Zi. In 109 BC, in the imperial palace, the first pictures of Ling Zhi appeared, a sign that the search had finally been successful. The elixir made of it became increasingly important, and in 1004 AD, the ruling Emperor Chen Sung ordered that all Ling Zhi mushrooms found in the kingdom be handed over to the imperial court. Within three years, 10,000 copies were handed out. At that time, the medicinal mushroom with its beneficial effects was reserved exclusively for the imperial family and the most important court officials.
A true saprophyte
The Ling Zhi prefers dead wood of alluvial, oak and hornbeam forests as habitat. His roundish to kidney-shaped hat with wrinkled skin grows laterally stalked and initially has a pale yellow color, which later turns reddish brown and shiny. The medicinal mushroom lignifies completely with time and is therefore no longer eatable. In natural medicine, fruiting bodies derived from cultivation and the powders and extracts produced therefrom are used.
Nomenclature Materia Medica
The herbal manual “The Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica” speaks of six different Ganoderma species, which differ in their color and effect. Secured today is the “Ganoderma japonicum”, which has a very dark, bluish-green color and resemblance to the purple Ganoderma “Zi Zhi”, while Ganoderma lucidum , the “Ling Zhi”, varies in color from yellow to reddish-brown which corresponds to the purple Ganoderma “Chi Zhi”. Synonymous with the well-known “Ling Zhi” are the red Ganoderma “Hong Zhi” and the vermilion Ganoderma “Dan Zhi”. Furthermore, a distinction is made between the black Ganoderma “Hei Zhi” and the dark Ganoderma “Xuan Zhi”, which, however, is not yet considered a certain fact.
A “divine” mushroom
According to Chinese tradition, the Ling Zhi belongs to the highest category of natural healing substances, the “herbs of God”. By this is meant that Ling Zhi has preventive and healing effects and can be taken without restriction or side effects even over a long period of time. In TCM, there are no comparable substances that have such good properties.
Characterization of Ling Zhi according to TCM terminology
- Sweet to neutral, slightly bitter
- Heart, liver, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach
- Strengthens the Qi of the heart, liver, lungs, spleen and kidneys,
- Harmonizes the functions of spleen and stomach, nourishes the blood,
- Calms and strengthens the spirit Shen, strengthens the Zheng Qi and
- Regulates the Wei Qi (immune stimulating and regulating).
- Heart: the heart Qi, the heart nourishes blood, cardiovasculaProblems, high blood pressure, nervousness, sleep disorders, fatigue;
- Liver: ensures the free flow of liver Qi, detoxifies the liver, nourishes the liver-blood, tightness, headache, digestive problems, allergies, restlessness, sleep discorders;
- Lungs: tonifies the lung Qi, converts mucus in the lungs, cough, bronchitis, asthma, cold-headedness, shortness of breath;
- Spleen: tonifies spleen Qi, regulates digestion, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal distress, gastritis, fatigue;
- Kidney: tonifies the kidney Qi, supports the kidney essence, menopausal symptoms, prostate protection, early aging.
Summary Ling Zhi
In Pen Tsao Kang Mu, published in 1578 by Li Shih-Chen, it says: “Consuming Ling Zhi over a longer period of time increases your intelligence and obliviousness disappears. The agility of the body will not end, and the years will extend to those of immortal fairies. ”
In general, the Ling Zhi has a strong revitalizing and regulating power, which has a positive effect on the Zhang / Fu organs and functions, and thus explaining the extremely broad effectiveness and support for a long life. In China, the fungus is considered to be the most effective means of strengthening health. Above all, the Ling Zhi affects the heart, liver, and lungs and supports them in their relationships and functions to Qi and blood. The Ling Zhi, like any other vital mushroom, has a detoxifying and adaptogenic effect. This happens in a natural and gentle way, therefore, the medicinal mushroom is also suitable for long term use without any problems.
Anyone who takes medicinal mushrooms does more than just generally do something good for his health. The medicinal mushrooms contain excellent active ingredients that are unique in nature and are available to us. Therefore, many mushrooms have been highly revered and appreciated by many cultures for over 2500 years.
Vital mushrooms open up interesting, new therapeutic options. Integrating them is an enrichment for our daily practice. In this way, we can experience a lot of new and exciting things, but also wonder at what remains unexplainable. In this sense, I wish you much joy to rediscover an old tradition.