Mycotherapy is an integrative healthcare practice that uses plants from the fungus family and their derivatives – or, in simple terms, medicinal mushrooms. This term was coined by researchers at biotech Hifas da Terra in 2006, and since, it has become the recognised term for mushroom therapies globally. These fungi and their fractions have various preventative and integrative therapeutic applications, providing support for various pathologies.
Medicinal mushrooms have been prized for their benefits by diverse cultures for centuries. For instance, Ganoderma has been used as a tonic and treatment for various pathologies, including chronic hepatopathy, hypertension, neurasthenia, anxiety, insomnia, bronchitis, gastric ulcer, diabetes, and cancer in China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries for over 2,000 years . Meanwhile, Ayurvedic practices similarly revere mushrooms for their holistic nutrition and health benefits.
Today, an increasing amount of scientific evidence is emerging about the efficacy of these traditional medicines which are, in fact, natural nutrients. These studies are demonstrating that mushrooms are indeed potent producers of bioactive substances that can support health and well-being. A single species of medicinal fungus can contain hundreds of bioactive compounds, with hypolipidemic, immunomodulatory and even antitumor activities.
Certainly, mycotherapy presents exciting prospects for a move towards patient-centred, preventative healthcare. Here, we give an overview of the evidence and discuss why mycotherapy is one of the most innovative tools in integrative therapy today.
Integrative and Innovative Protocols are Changing Healthcare
Until relatively recently, many healthcare professionals in the Western world subscribed to a reductive view of the body. That is, medicine focussed on disease in its constituent parts, as opposed to the health of the whole. Now, healthcare practitioners are increasingly recognising the benefits of a holistic approach to health, which focus on preventative care and well-being as much as treatment. Taking inspiration from ancient disciplines such as Traditional and Ayurveda, this shift signals a more pluralistic, patient-centred approach to care.
Equally, these disciplines can help to alleviate the side effects triggered by conventional medical treatments. These approaches – captured under the term integrative medicine – neither reject conventional medicine nor adopt alternative methods uncritically. Instead, it acknowledges that medicine should always be open to new research, no matter its biological, cultural, or philosophical basis. This opens healthcare practice to new paradigms of wellness, improving patients’ quality of life.
Broadly speaking, integrative therapy is divided into two main disciplines: mind-body therapies and natural products. Mind-body therapies include manipulative techniques like massage and chiropractors and spiritual practices like yoga or tai chi. Meanwhile, natural products are dietary supplements and nutritional programmes. Mycotherapy falls into this second category to promote overall health and well-being.
In contrast to traditional phytotherapy or vitamin-mineral supplementation, mycotherapy offers naturally-occurring phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals from a sole source. This is especially beneficial for patients undergoing intensive medical treatments such as chemo- or radiotherapy, who need non-toxic, inert solutions for managing secondarisms.
Emerging Evidence for the Efficacy of Mycotherapy
Now, an increasing amount of research is emerging to support the case for mycotherapy. This is particularly relevant to patients living with chronic conditions. For example, scientists at the Beijing Normal and Hong Kong Baptist Universities conducted a large scale study on the effect of Ganoderma, Chaga, Coriolus and Maitake mushrooms on patients with chronic bowel complaints. The results were remarkable: there was a marked increase in microbial diversity in the gut and a localised anti-inflammatory response .
Furthermore, these benefits extend far beyond the digestive tract. For example, a recent study presented compelling evidence that mycotherapy has significant benefits for patients living with chronic fatigue. In a study related to athletic performance, Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms were shown to protect athletes from nonfunctional overreaching (NFO) and overtraining syndrome (OTS). This was measured via salivary cortisol and testosterone levels in cyclists .
However, perhaps the most compelling evidence for the holistic health benefits of mycotherapy is its immunomodulatory action provided by medicinal mushrooms and their bioactive immunoregulatory products . Unlike other immunological strategies, immunomodulation consists of providing “soldiers and generals” to our immune system so that it can organize to fight against viruses or cancer cells. In this sense, nutritional supplements based on medicinal mushrooms are different from drugs because they help the body give an orderly response. In addition, the bioactive potential of these compounds has been demonstrated in some remarkable contexts, including oncology.
One such example is a phase 1 clinical trial conducted on women with breast cancer. In the study, researchers applied a fraction of Trametes versicolor, or the Turkey Tail mushroom. After, researchers recorded increased lymphocyte counts, increased natural killer cell functional activity and dose-related increases in CD8(+) T cells and CD19(+) B cells, suggesting this mycotherapy protocol could have significant benefits for immunocompromised breast cancer patients .
However, perhaps most relevant to our current moment is research on the immunomodulatory action of mycotherapy in COVID-19. In an ongoing study conducted by Hifas da Terra at a Madrid care home on residents with an average age of 87.2 years diagnosed with COVID-19, fatality rates plummeted from 24.1% to 1.4% after receiving a supplementation based on mushroom nutraceuticals. Equally, more than 88% of the patients who followed the prescribed protocol did not manifest complications associated with COVID-19 and none required admission to the ICU (hospital admission dropped from 27% to 12.3%). These are the first results of a study which is now being extended to other nursing care homes to confirm the efficacy of mycotherapy in a wider population .
The Overall Mind and Body Benefits
These immunological properties of medicinal mushrooms mean that mycotherapy isn’t only useful for supporting treatment – it also has substantial benefits for overall health. For instance, varieties such as Royal Sun Agaricus are rich in proteoglycans, a type of protein important for immune health. Along with beta-glucans and lipids, including linoleic acid and phospholipids, this variety has anti-allergic and immunostimulatory properties .
A further example is the Ganoderma or Reishi mushroom. Referred to as ‘the mushroom of immortality’ in Eastern medicinal practices, certain unique compounds of Reishi have impressive anti-inflammatory properties. Moreover, they are thought to be one of the most powerful natural antioxidants in existence, acting on the primary cause of cellular oxidation and ageing . Equally, they are known to have significant antidepressant effects, with various studies demonstrating mood-lifting action .
The mental and emotional health benefits of mycotherapy have also been demonstrated with other species. For instance, Hericium erinaceus, a well known edible mushroom, has various biological activities. In a recent study on female patients with depression and sleep disorders, an extract of H. erinaceus was shown to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis, which affects brain function and the nervous system. Results showed that H. erinaceus intake had the possibility to reduce depression and anxiety via its NGF-enhancing action .
Selecting Quality Mycotherapy Products
Certainly, there is a wealth of compelling evidence emerging to support the use of mycotherapy in mainstream medicine. However, it is essential that healthcare professionals select quality products. Practitioners should choose ecological, safe and effective supplements developed by experts that are invested in research. As mycotherapy is primarily evidence-based, professionals should trust biotechs that are constantly innovating.
Biotechs should select strains for their quality, which are further optimised via ecological, organic farming methods. The formulas should contain all of their natural active compounds in their purest form, concentrated and unchanged. Equally, professionals should look for brands with quality assurance standards, where production is uniform, controlled, and regulated by an external organisation such as Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) for pharmaceuticals.
Third party verification is critical across a number of factors; this is especially the case regarding supplements interaction with other medications. Healthcare professionals should preferably look for biotechnology centers that collaborate with external laboratories to verify their safety. Equally, patented formulas and endorsements from regulatory bodies are a hallmark of quality.
Perhaps the most important thing to look for in a mycotherapy product is the manufacturer’s commitment to R&D. As new developments emerge, products should be continually tested and optimised via controlled, clinical trials – this is, after all, the best practice for any medicinal substance. Before selecting a mycotherapy product, explore the biotech’s portfolio of research projects – this will be a good indicator as to their investment in innovation.
The Future of Mycotherapy
Evidence about the benefits of mycotherapy is proliferating. Now, there is growing acceptance in the medical community that integrative protocols like mycotherapy have substantial benefits. This is reflected in the growing availability of training in medical schools; according to a survey conducted in 2013, there were 13 American medical schools offering fellowships in integrative medicine.
This is because the evidence is undoubtedly compelling. When it comes to managing the effects of chronic conditions and secondarisms, research has shown that mycotherapy protocols can improve patients’ quality of life. Moreover, patients appreciate this renewed attention to overall well-being; instead of being treated merely as a symptom, integrative therapies position the body as a whole system. In this context, patients feel their unique needs are addressed.
As interest in the field grows, researchers are continuing to innovate. New discoveries are emerging all the time, with far-reaching R&D projects covering everything from anti-ageing ingredients to antiproliferative action on tumours. Looking to the future, mycotherapy could form the basis of innovative bio-pharmaceutical treatments – signalling a natural, integrative, and pluralistic future for modern medicine and complementary therapy.
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