Mushrooms are not typically thought of as medicinal, but in ancient times, this food source was highly prized for its healing properties. A significant number of modern prescription medications have been derived from mushrooms.

Multiple bioactive compounds have been identified in mushrooms, and researchers continue to refine and use these compounds—which range from complex polysaccharides to proteins with a wide variety of actions in human physiology—to fight numerous diseases.


The term “mushroom” describes a variety of gilled fungi that fall into two general categories: Ascomycota and Basidiomycota.1 The use of medicinal mushrooms is documented to have occurred as early as the 29th century b.c. in the Chinese catalog known as the Shennong Bencao Jing, which contained an official list of some 365 medicinal plant substances.2

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A review of the literature yields hundreds of studies describing the medicinal uses of a wide range of mushroom subspecies. One of the more prominent and clinically significant uses studied was the effect of mushroom extracts on cancer. The breadth of the data and specific subspecies makes individual reporting in this forum impractical, so general study data will be reported.


The ravages of cancer are known to be largely attributable to blockage of the normal immune-system protection, altered cell-signaling (inducing abnormal cell proliferation), and accelerated oxidative damage impacting normal DNA. Multiple trials using both animal and human cell models have shown promising effects of mushroom extracts on these areas of vulnerability.3

Researchers studying mushroom extracts from Cordyceps sinensis and C. militaris verified immune system up-regulation and significant induction of cellular apoptosis in human cancer cells.3 Another observed phenomenon was a unique “Trojan horse” activity in which the extract molecule mimics the cancerous RNA and causes cell death by preventing replication.3

A laboratory trial tested the action of Tricholoma matsutake in human cells to determine metabolic effects in nondiseased cell lines.4 The results showed strong increased production of nitric oxide and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha.

A human trial studying the effect of dietary supplementation with the mushroom extract Agaricus blazei Murill Kyowa on patients with cervical, ovarian or endometrial cancer showed statistically significant increases in natural killer cell activity and a marked improvement in typical chemotherapy-associated side effects.5

Chronic myeloid leukemia is known for causing abnormally high levels of a specific enzyme (BCR-ABL kinase). A recent trial examined the effect of the mushroom Daedalea gibbosa on mouse cells implanted with BCR-ABL kinase cells.6 The extract showed statistically significant in vivo antitumor activity by blocking the kinase activity. When tested against an active control of the FDA-approved drug imatinib (Gleevec), the mushroom extract’s tumor-inhibitory effect was stronger. 

Another mechanism of cancer-cell proliferation is the increase in healthy-cell injury and death. A study of the effect of extract from the fungus Cyathus stercoreus examined its protective action on the cell by blocking the attacks of highly reactive oxidative processes.7

The cell lines studied showed a dramatic reduction in oxidative damage and death and preservation of the normal DNA when compared with the untreated cells. Extracts of the Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) have also been shown to be hepato-protective against both oxidative damage and multiple chemical insults.8,9 

Safety, interactions

Allergic reactions to any alternative medication are always a concern, and the area of drug and herb interactions has yet to be sufficiently researched. However, multiple specific substances derived from mushrooms have been approved for placement on the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list. 

How supplied, dose, cost

Most commercially available mushroom-based formulations are powder-filled capsules. Depending on the vendor, these formulations are often part of a multi-ingredient product. The actual dose of mushroom extracts is difficult to determine, but most product labels recommend one or two capsules daily. The price varies widely by brand but averages around $30 for a one-month supply. 


A number of mushroom-based compounds are recommended for increasing energy, reducing levels of blood glucose, losing weight and boosting the immune system. However, reliable data from actual human clinical trials is still relatively lacking.

Sherril Sego, FNP-C, DNP, is a staff clinician at the VA Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where she practices adult medicine and women’s health. She also teaches at the nursing schools of the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas.


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. Mushroom. Available at

  2. Wong HS, Chen N, Leong PK, Ko KM. β-sitosterol enhances cellular glutathione redox cycling by reactive oxygen species generated from mitochondrial respiration: protection against oxidant injury in H9c2 cells and rat hearts. Phytother Res. 2013 Nov 26. [Epub ahead of print.]

  3. Patel S, Goyal A. Recent developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: a review. 3 Biotech. 2012;2:1-15. Available at

  4. Byeon SE, Lee J, Lee E, et al. Functional activation of macrophages, monocytes and splenic lymphocytes by polysaccharide fraction from Tricholoma matsutake. Arch Pharm Res. 2009;32:1565-1572.

  5. Ahn WS, Kim DJ, Chae GT, et al. Natural killer 
cell activity and quality of life were improved by 
consumption of mushroom extract, Agaricus blazei 
Murill Kyowa, in gynecological cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2004;14: 589-594.

  6. Khamaisie H, Sussan S, Tal M, et al. Oleic acid is the active component in the mushroom Daedalea gibbosa inhibiting Bcr-Abl kinase autophosphorylation activity. Anticancer Res. 2011;31:177-183. Available at

  7. Kang HS, Kim KR, Jun EM, et al. Cyathuscavins A, B, and C, new free radical scavengers with DNA protection activity from the Basidiomycete Cyathus stercoreus. Bioorg Med Chem Lett. 2008;18:4047-4050.

  8. Shi Y, Sun J, He H, et al. Hepatoprotective effects of Ganoderma lucidum peptides against D-galactosamine-induced liver injury in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2008;117:415-419.

  9. Kim DH, Shim SB, Kim NJ, Jang IS. Beta-glucuronidase-inhibitory activity and hepatoprotective effect of Ganoderma lucidum. Biol Pharm Bull. 1999;22:162-164

All electronic documents accessed February 15, 2014.