What if a pharmaceutical company developed a drug for veterinary (or human) use that powerfully improved immune function, acted as a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic, promoted liver detoxification, enhanced brain function, lowered blood pressure and improved blood glucose regulation? That would be a very useful and popular drug indeed. But because pharmaceutical drugs almost always act by a singular and focused effect on the body, no such drug exists. There is, however, a medicine from the natural world that has all these benefits and more: medicinal mushrooms.
While some enjoy them more than others, most people are familiar with mushrooms used for food. From the simple white button mushrooms you’d find at any grocery store to the more exotic shiitakes used in many Asian dishes, mushrooms are used in cuisines throughout the world. Many people don’t realize, however, that mushrooms have also been used as medicines by certain cultures for thousands of years. The oldest human mummy, more than 4,000 years old, was found to have a type of medicinal mushroom in his medicine kit. The ancient Chinese so highly valued the reishi mushroom that it was reserved for use by nobles only. More recently, especially in Japan, highly concentrated extracts of particular mushrooms are used for their potent anti-cancer effects.
One of the most highly studied chemical components common to most medicinal mushrooms is B-glucan. This large polysaccharide (complex sugar molecule) is responsible for stimulating a weakened immune system or balancing a overactive one. Although not completely understood, B-glucans are thought to influence the complex system of immune cells in the lining of the intestinal tract. Because of these immune-enhancing effects, medicinal mushrooms have been used with good effect in veterinary and human medicine for treating viral diseases, recurrent bacterial infections and even cancer. Their ability to rebalance a disordered immune system makes them invaluable for treating autoimmune diseases, where the body’s immune cases attack it own organs or blood cells.
One particular type of medicinal mushroom, cordyceps, has been found to be beneficial in cases of impaired kidney and respiratory function, as well as overall strength and stamina. (The Russian Olympic weightlifting team made cordyceps famous in the 1980s.) Once only found growing wild in the high plateaus of Nepal and Tibet, these mushrooms are now mass-produced in laboratories and are readily available. Another mushroom known as Lion’s Mane has been historically used in China to boost cognitive function (I’m taking it myself right now!), and I have found it particularly useful in older dogs with senility issues. The mushroom known as Turkey Tail (which can be spotted growing on decaying logs in the Pacific Northwest) has been found to contain certain unique chemical compounds that inhibit growth of cancer cells. Reishi mushrooms are known to assist the liver in its job of detoxification as well as help normalize blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. The list of potential health benefits of the amazing fungi are seemingly endless.
Medicinal mushrooms have become an essential part of my veterinary practice over the years. They all seem to have a broad range of health benefits, many of which overlap from species to species. They have virtually no toxic side effects, even at high doses, and can be used in patients ranging from pocket pets to dogs, cats, birds and even horses. A medicine found in nature that has so much capacity to heal in so many ways, for so many different animals with virtually no side effects… I’d definitely call that amazing.