Anna Marija Helt, PH.D.
Osadha Natural Health, LLC
~HERBALISM In durango or wherever you are~
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- She uses a simple, functional approach to health that is personalized and realistic.
- She brings 12 years of clinical practice, 12 years as a biomedical researcher, and a deep understanding of traditional herbalism to the table in crafting a plan to optimize your health and wellness.
- Working with her does ~not~ entail walking away with a grocery bag full of supplements. She spends as much time getting people off of expensive, unnecessary, and (often) inappropriate supplements as she does designing a streamlined, botanical plan.
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Sign up for 1-on-1 lessons whether you live in Durango, Dallas, or Delaware! Check for upcoming group classes that are in person or live-streamed. Dive into 11 years worth of articles and videos on herbalism, “mushroomism” and botanical aromatics.
For educational purposes only. This information is not meant to supplant the advice of a qualified medical practitioner.
I’ll be adding these over the coming days…
Bergamot – Citrus bergamia, aka. C. aurantium var amara , C. aurantium subsp bergamia
- Eurasian native. aka. Bitter Orange.
- Don’t confuse with “Wild Bergamot”…a mint/Monarda species (aka. Bee Balm)
Some History & Lore
- Oil 1st distilled in Bergamo, Italy. Fruit also shaped like Bergamot Pear. One or both of these is responsible for the name
- The distinctive scent of Earl Grey Tea is scented with Bergamot
- Was used for fevers and as an antiseptic at least as far back as the 16th century
- Used in spells to attract money, success in endeavors
Some uses – see safety notes regarding skin application
- Respiratory – Cold, flu, immune stimulant. Eases congestion, helps bring down fever. Good as a steam. Can dilute furanocoumarin-free Bergamot in carrier for chest/back rub5
- Genitourinary infections – Furanocoumarin-free dilute in carrier and rub over lower abdomen
- Skin – growths, herpes outbreaks (cold sores/shingles), eczema, fungal inf. Deodorant using furanocoumarin-free (good w/ Cypress)
- Muscle pain – liniment (diluted in oil or alcohol)
- Indigestion – as a belly rub diluted in carrier oil
- Mood – uplifting and calming. OCD, mood swings – inhaled in steam or inhaler, diffuser. Diluted (fc-free) & added to bath but see cautions. Great, sunny oil to promote joy
- Insomnia – diffuser, or a drop added to herbal sleep pillow (not to pillow case)
- Cognitive – focusing (blends well w/ Lavendar, Rosemary)
- Perfumery – lovely high note. Blends well w/ florals, conifers, resins (myrrh, frank, etc). Harmonizer.
- Cooling in TCM. Associated with Liver/Wood element – anger, irritability
- Get certified bergapten/furanocoumarin-free to avoid phototoxic reactions. Can cause severe skin reactions if unrectified oil (berbapten/furocoumarin-containing) is applied to skin and skin is exposed to sun or other uv sources.
- Oxidizes easily (like all citrus oils) due to ? -pinene and other monoterpenes…store in fridge. No topical application after bottle’s been open a year (I’ve had skin irritation from using an old one in the bath)
Vetiver – Andropogon zizanoides, aka Veteveria zizanoides
- Rich in sesquiterpenoids, a heavy oil
- Cooling – Used to make, window coverings. The fibers actually feel cool when wet.
- A deep-rooted grass used to reduce soil erosion and for water purification
- Traditionally used for hot conditions, whether hot/fiery anger or hot weather (as a fan or window screen that’s cooling when wetted with rain), or for heat stroke, fevers.
- Grounding, centering for when ‘knocked off base’, panic, deep fear, shock.
- Oversensitivity, insecurity, anxiety
- Burnout/exhaustion. Also, traditionally, for building sexual reserves.
- Dry skin, oily skin, acne. Wounds.
- Bug repellent
- Perfumery – great base note. Don’t need much (will overwhelm blend). Fixative (fixatives preserve a perfume blend).
- Oils sourced from China, Java, Brazil, & Mexico may contain isoeugenol. Those from India, Reunion, Haiti, Madagascar, and El Salvador don’t contain this. (Isoeugenol is considered an allergen, w/ potential to cause skin sensitization)
Juniper – Juniperus communis
- J communis North American & European native
- Junipers are sometimes called Cedars, but they’re in a different family than Cedars.
- Gin making
- Long history on multiple continents of being burned for protection, worship, ritual
- Branches burned as disinfectant in French hospitals prior to WW2
- A warming rub as eo diluted into carrier oil or as infused oil for muscle pain, joint pain or as a ‘warmup” rub for muscles prior to exercise.
- Digestive aid – Eat a berry before meals. Infused oil or diluted eo as belly rub
- Cooking – Berries great with wild boar or other wild meats. Don’t use too many…the flavor is powerful. ~ 6-10 per pound of meat.
- Chronic UTI – Infused oil/diluted eo rubbed on lower abdomen. Extract (not eo) internally. Not for acute/hot UTI, may aggravate the burn. More for low lever, recurring/persistent
- Respiratory – Spastic coughing – Steam of berries/eo, diluted eo or infused oil as chest/back rub
- Anxiety, feelings of fear or vulnerability – Great as a berry/leaf alcohol extract spray. Protection – lovely as a spray made from berry/leaf tincture
- Skin – itching, flaky skin, oily skin, acne, bug bites, boils, eczema as diluted eo or infused oil or hydrosol, depending
- Circulatory stimulant – cellulite, varicosities
- Fatigue – mental and physical – inhaled
- Sleep – insomnia, nightmares. Berries in sleep pillow. Diffuser around bedtime.
- Juniperus sabina, the source of Savin eo is toxic (as is the eo, just to be clear). It’s a commonly used ornamental shrub, so know the specific identity of the Juniper from which you’re about to harvest berries.
- Oxidizes easily. Store in fridge. Don’t use for skin applications after bottle has been open for a year in order to avoid skin irritation or sensitization.
- Older references saying that the eo is harmful to kidneys has been contradicted by more recent data.
Rose – Rosa damascena, R. gallica, R. centifolia, others
- Most chemically complex volatile oil. hundreds constituents – diff types can smell dramatically diff but w/ “rose” note there
- Res shows effects of simply sniffing on endocrine system (cortisol dec in males, T dec in females)
- Was Rose was highly esteemed in Persian medicine. Ibn-S?n? (Avicenna) thought to be earliest scientist to note benefits of the scent of Rose on brain and heart. He also used it for rapid heartbeat and for strengthening memory. Also was used in Persian medicine for inflammation, wounds, headache, GI tract issues, hemorrhoids, muscle pain
- Nostradamus used pills made from Rose petals and other plants to treat plague victims
- The volatile oil of Rose was reputedly discovered at a royal wedding, where Rose petals were floated in a water-filled canal. In the warmth of the sun, rose oil was extracted out of the petals and floated on the surface of the water.
- Dysmenorrhea – Used as alcohol extract for pain, or via inhalation, or as part of abdominal massage
- PMS – A controlled study found that sniffing 4% Rose oil just a couple times a day over 5 days during the luteal phase reduced PMS after a couple of cycles
- Aphrodisiac – Ancient link with love. May improve sexual function. Has been used to counter ED caused by SSRI usage
- Research shows that inhaling Rose aromatics may lower cortisol &, in women, lower testosterone
- Heart opening, heart health both physically and emotionally
- Communciation – To facilitate interactions, conversations/discussions
- Skin – infection, burns, dryness, aging, rashes, acne. Hydrosol or tea better for skin application than the absolute, which is reserved for perfumery
- Depression, apathy, sadness, heartbreak (Cypress 1st, then Rose later on when ready to ‘emerge’)
- Anxiety – sniffing it reduces Sympathetic Nervous System activation, serum levels of epinephrine/norepinephrine, & blood pressure
- Absolutes have the potential to irritate skin due to solvent carryover
- Many “Rose”-scented products are made with synthetic scents
Ginger – Zingiber officinale
- Cousin of Turmeric, Galanga, Cardamom
- Thick, sesquiterpene rich oil
- Originated in SE Asia.
- Ritual use for protection from spirits, used in healing ceremonies
- Used to call in money, success, luck
- Also used in love spells & to spice up one’s love life
- Diluted eo or as infused oil for foot rub for coldness, poor peripheral, neuralgia from chemo or diabetes. Or eo diluted in carrier oil or absorbed onto salt for use in foot bath.
- Muscle “warm up” rub, similar to Rosemary
- Protein/fat digestion, indigestion – as tea or liquid extract
- Nausea – Tea, liquid extract, sniffing, belly rub
- Musculoskeletal pain, achy joints – Inhibit COX2, LOX2, reduces prostaglandin synthesis
- Inflammation – musculoskel, GI, systemic – COX2, LOX2, prostaglandins, blocks pain signaling in brain as well
- Delayed type hypersensitivity
- Virsues – cold, EBV, HSV.
- Depression, irritability, overwhelm – “Eat Ginger and carry on”. Used to promote sense of capability, courage
- Panic, shock
• You’d think the eo would be really hot. It isn’t. But may irritate skin if used in warm bath.
Davana – Artemisia (misspelled in handout) pallens
- Sesquiterpene rich (eg. up to 55% davanone, a signature component) – scent lasts. (I really like these heavy oils!)
- To me has Neroli like note… Turns out it has nerol (a monoterpene alcohol also found in Neroli)
- Artemisia genus of plants named for the goddess, Artemis. Goddess of moon, hunting, wild animals, wild plants
- Blossoms offered to Shiva ad garlands on statues and as altar decoration
- Long history of use of the plant in Iraqi medicine and in india for diabetes
- Anxiety, negative thinking, anger/irritability, debility/fatigueRough dry skin chapped skin, infections, cuts
- Reproductive health – Diluted and rubbed on abdomen to bring on delayed period, to help w/ ovarian cysts, and as aphrodisiac
- Cold/flu, coughs, congestion
- Great in perfumery
- Reputation as being toxic due to ketone (davanone) content, but this may be an overgeneralization regarding ketones. Tisserand & Young don’t list it as toxic in their book on eo safety. Pure davanone was nontoxic in mice (not that this necessarily reflects what happens in people)
- Listed as non-irritant, nonsensitizing and nonphototoxic. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.506.1273&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Vanilla – Vanilla planifolia
- Native to Mexico. Now commonly grow, in Madagascar, Java, Tahiti, Java, Reunion
- Pollinated by Hummingbirds as well as bees. Hand pollinated in cultivation.
- Up to 85% vanillin
- supposedly closest natural scent to mother’s milk
- Consoling, soothing, but can be stimulating enough to cause insomnia
- Promotes feelings of confidence
- Anger, frustration
- Absolutes have the potential to irritate skin due to solvent carryover
Labdanum – Cistus ladaniferus, C. creticus
- Not to be confused w/ Cistus eo, distilled from same plant but sourced from flowering plant parts rather than isolated from the oleogumresin like Labdanum absolute is. The absolute is much darker and thicker than the eo
- Native around the Western Mediterranean
- Dating back to neolithic period ~6000 BCE – North African goat herders would collect the dark, sticky resin that was stuck to their goats. This became used in a profitable trade. Collection evolved to using a ladanesterion (a flail) to collect the resin from the shrubs
- Some historians think that the wealth from Labdanum trade was foundation of 1st Egyptian dynasty. Look at an image of a pharoah and note the crook (a tool of herders) and flail
Some uses – Absolute reserved mainly for sniffing and in perfumery.
- Calming, ‘building’ – crisis, trauma, anxiety
- Insomnia, promoting dreams
- Wounds, acne, dermatitis, boils, aging skin/sun damage
- Hemorrhoids – salve
- UTI –
- Respiratory – inf, expectorant
- Bringing on delayed period
- Valued in perfumes since antiquity (one of my favorite base notes). Scent resembles ambergris. Fixative.
- Meditation – both grounding and elevating
- Absolutes have the potential to irritate skin due to solvent carryover
- Avoid topical use with sensitive skin
- Not for use during pregnancy
Tuberose – Agave amica aka. Polianthes tuberosa
- Native to southern Mexico but spread to cultivation globally in tropics
- Some folks might not like the heavy sweetness, but to me, it’s divine!
- Aztecs used it medicinally
- After cultivation spread beyond Mexico, was used India, Malaysia, Egypt, & elsewhere to decorate religious statues/shrines, or else worn as garlands
- One of most expensive flower oils
Energy: Uplifting, energizing, calming
Uses – As scent due to it being an absolute and due to it’s expense
- Aphrodisiac – ED, ‘frigidity’
- Emotionaly balancing, harmonizing, motivating
- Absolutes have the potential to irritate skin due to solvent carryover
- May contain a low level (~1.7% of the oil) methyleugenol, a chemical that is carcingenic in rodent studies when using high doses of it purified. Based on this, Tisserand recommends dilutions of no more than 1.2% in strength if used topically
- I use only for inhalation or in small amounts in perfume blend, which itself is just dabbed (not slathered) on.
- Don’t use on sensitive or damaged skin, or on skin of young children
Helichrysum — Helichrysum italicum, H. stoechas, H. angustifolia aka. Immortelle, Everlasting
- Mediterranean & North African native
- Very popular in French aromatherapy for aging skin
- Common names reflect how long the blooms last when dried
- Also called Curry Plant due to a distinct scent of curry
- Perfumery – a little goes a long way in blends. Fixative.
- Skin care – Sun damaged, aging, skin regenerating, scars, boils, acne, growths
- Meditation – Promotes “abdominal” breathing
- Relaxing, uplifting, fortifying – Nervousness, low mood, nervous exhaustion
- Dreaming, creativity
- Respiratory – Asthma (in between attacks, not during!)
- Muscle pain – anti-inflammatory, numbs nerve endings
- Skip or be cautious if allergic to members of the Asteraceae family
- You’ll see the eo listed on many sites as a liver tonic. Traditionally, the flower tea or flower infused wine were used to stimulate liver function. Note that an isolated eo doesn’t necessarily replicate what a tea or alcohol infusion does.
- Absolutes have the potential to irritate skin due to solvent carryover
Part one of “Mushromatherapy” introduced some of the more ubiquitous scent molecules responsible for characteristic aromas of some of our (making an assumption here) favorite edible and medicinal mushrooms. The article also delved into what these volatile compounds do for the mushrooms and what they may potentially do for us.
This time, we’ll geek out a bit more on mushroom scent and perfumery and, for anyone who cares, touch on what makes certain mushrooms smell so good.
Experiments with mushroom aromatics
Mushroom aromatics can vary widely based on where a particular mushroom grows, what time of year it is, what it’s growing on, how old the fruiting body is, whether it’s raw or cooked and other factors. Along these lines, I’ve found Oyster Mushrooms in the wild with the loveliest scent of anise and almond. But growing them from kit? Zero anise, zero almond. Given that the chemicals largely responsible for the scent — anisaldehyde and benzaldehyde — may protect the mushroom from infection (1, 2) and UV radiation (3), it seems like there’s little need for them in coddled, kit-grown Oysters.
As mentioned in part one of this series, there are some commercial mushroom-based scents out there, but not many. Mandy Aftel’s Cepes and Tuberose is one, and she also offers a Bolete absolute (4). Cepes is another name for Bolete (aka Porcini), which has a big, rich, earthy scent (especially after it’s been roasted), while tuberose is sweat, creamy and strongly flora.
A note on perfumery notes before getting back to mushroom scents. The concept of a musical scale is often used in perfume blending, to make a balanced, nuanced blend. Along these lines, top or high notes are those aromatics that evaporate first from a blend, because of their smaller molecular size. One could say that they have a higher vibration. At the other end of the spectrum are the base notes that are the heaviest aromatics, molecularly speaking. These evaporate the slowest and, generally, ground the blend. In between are the middle notes that make up the body of the blend and connect top and bottom notes.
If you’ve encountered heavy base oils like Vetiver or Nutgrass, you might assume that base notes are the most intensely smelling and tend towards deep, earthy scents. In reality, some base notes aren’t super intense, like Elemi and Myrrh, and others are even sweet (Vanilla). One might also assume that top notes tend towards lighter, floral, sweet or citrusy scents. But, if you’ve smelled Eucalyptus oil, a top note, you know it’s anything but light or floral or sweet. So, along these lines, those compounds such as octenol that are largely responsible for the mushroomy, earthy scents of our fungal friends are….wait for it…..top notes! They’re small molecules and, hence, evaporate quickly. So, top notes despite the funky, earthy scent. I mentioned in the first article of this 2 part series that octenol (1-octen-3-ol for you chem nerds) is the most ubiquitous of mushroom aromatics and is an 8-carbon compound derived from linoleic acid oxidation. It and other so called “C8” compounds are found in mushrooms here, there and everywhere.
Despite all this chemistry nonsense, many mushrooms do indeed have a great, earthy scent upon which to layer sweet, floral, citrusy or even sharp scents. Like some of the really “dirty” smelling base oils out there, some mushroom scents may not be super appealing on their own but are just what’s needed to make a blend interesting. Though you still want to add in just a small amount of a true base note to help preserve the blend while not overwhelming the mushroom’s scent.
So, am initial foray into playing with mushroom aromatics…. Of course after proposing this class and getting enthused about the topic, we in the Southern Rockies proceeded to have the shittiest mushroom season. Thus, no Chanterelles, Boletes, Oyster Mushrooms, Coral Mushrooms and other yummy smelling ones for experiments. The very few of these encountered, I left alone so they could do their thing sporulating. So, conks it was for the most part. These tough, woody fruiting bodies are perennial, and so were available despite a dry (and fiery!) year.
Mushrooms don’t have nearly the volatile oil content that aromatic plants do, so the focus was not on extracting pure oils. Not set up for that, anyway. Instead the conks were used for making hydrosols and infused oils.
First, distillations. I’m not a great distiller. But did generate some mushroomy hydrosols either via a stove top set-up or with a microwave distiller. Hydrosols will contain water-soluble aromatics and, generally, very small amounts of essential oil droplets in suspension.
Then, mushroom-infused oils. In contrast to hydrosols, an infused oil will contain only the fat-soluble aromatics. So a hydrosol and an infused oil of the same mushroom won’t necessarily smell the same, though there may be similarities. Anyway, the infused oils are produced in 1 of 2 ways. One is a modified version of Michael Moore’s way of making Rosemary-infused oil. The (relatively dry) are chopped then blended on medium/high (the only functioning setting on my blender) with expeller-pressed grapeseed oil until the oil warmed up (4-5 min). (I’d prefer jojoba but I’m too cheap to buy it in enough quantity.) The mixes are then heated on low (below 110°F) in a double boiler for a half hour. They’re filtered after sitting overnight at room temperature, then after one more day of sitting, the oil is decanted from any remaining crud at the bottom of the jar. Alternatively, the oils are made via the old fashioned window sill method, with 4-6 weeks of infusion.
So, the results!
Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum) hydrosol and infused oil are woody and earthy with a note of fermentation. There’s a great report on Artist’s Conk steam distillation at Reishi and Roses, a wonderful and informative blog on mushrooms and mushroom medicine (5). The author actually obtained a lardy, aromatic substance after a couple of hours that I didn’t manage to capture for Artist’s Conk, in either my janky stove top distillation or in the microwave distiller. She mentioned that the aroma was extremely sedating. I’ll have to look more into this with mine, but I’m pretty hard to sedate!
Not surprisingly, octenol is a major aromatic component of Artist’s Conk (6). Octenol has 2 forms based on structural orientation that smell different. The form in Artist’s Conk octenol is described as “genuine mushroom”, earthy, fresh, with some fruitiness (7). Phenylacetaldehyde was another major component among the 22 aromatics identified from distillation (6), and its odor is described as slightly earthy, fermented, green, cocoa, sweet and floral. Some of the more prevalent terpenes include included ?-terpinene (woody, lemon, oily, herbal (7)) and d-limonene (citrus, (7))(6).
False Tinder Polypore/Aspen Bracket (Phellinus tremulae) – I was thrilled to recently stumble upon the name “Aspen Bracket” for this mushroom. That’s way easier to say than “False Tinder Polypore”. Plus, having “false” as part of a name kinda sucks.
Anyway, Aspen Bracket is a common conk around here in the Southern Rockies because Aspen trees are common around here. The “tremulae” part of Phellinus tremulae reflects that fact that Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) are its host. This one did not yield as strong an aroma as Artist’s Conk by distillation or oil infusion. Though sometimes when I harvested this conk for medicinal preparations, it has a faint wintergreen scent. I’ve even convinced myself that one of the hydrosol fractions had an ever-so-small touch o’ wintergreen. Though I don’t notice it in the infused oil. There is a scent of clean hamster litter (you know, the curled wood shaving-type…)
The wintergreen thing in agreement with research showing that various Phellinus species contain methyl benzoate and methyl salicylate (8). Aspen Bracket may be picking up at least one of these from its host, given that Aspens contain methyl salicylate and compounds related to methyl-benzoate (9).
Red Belted Conk (Fomitopsis sp ) – The Red Belted Conks around here generally referred to as Fomitopsis pinicola, but recent genetic analyses have found that F. pinicola is restricted to Eurasia and that we have 4 distinct species here in North America that look a hell of a lot like and are closely related to F. pinicola (10). I’m mentioning this because the studies looking into aromatics were done on European F. pinicola.
Anyways, Red Belted Conk has a more of a woody scent than mushroomy one (though, yes, it has octenol (11)). There is a sharp, juicy note that’s super noticeable especially when chopping it up. There’s a bit of funkiness to it. There was a tallow-like, whitish opaque layer that came out of the oil infusion, and the aroma is stronger in this than in the oil itself. Aside from octenol, ?-barbatene is another chemical that’s considered a main contributor to the odor of Red Belted Conk (11), though I’ve not yet found a description of how ?-barbatene itself smells. Maybe sharp, juicy and woody??? Red Belted Conk also has several terpenes, including ? – pinene and limonene (11), familiar to folks who work with Pine or Citrus oils.
The aroma of Red Belted Conk attracts wood-living beetles (11). Maybe I’ll be dive bombed by beetles if I wear my RBC blend in the woods. I’l keep you posted.
Shaggy Scalycap (Pholiotta squarrosa) Something that’s not a conk! One of the few soft mushrooms I encountered in a very dry season. The hydrosol pretty well reflects the scent of the fresh mushroom: A strong and minerally, dirt-like scent. This species sometimes has a garlic scent, but I’ve not yet noticed that in those I’ve encountered here. Of course, octenol is a major aromatic (12) as with most, if not all, mushrooms. Other volatiles include methyl 2-foroate (13), described as fruit, mushroom, fungus, tobacco and sweet (7), and geosmin (13)(earthy, freshly plowed soil (7)) Freshly-plowed soil really describes it to a T!
Almond Mushroom (Agaricus blazei) – OK, the dried Almond Mushrooms were bought online. . They have a very strong mushroom scent, but none of the strong almond scent that they’re known for. I distilled and oil extracted them anyway, both of which smell more or less the dried mushrooms. Like mushroom gravy on steroids.
On to blending… At the moment, I’m blending mushroom-infused oils with small amounts of essential oils to play around with either complementing or highlighting the mushroom aromas.
1) Artist’s Conk infused oil plus essential oils of Geranium, Bergamot and Lavandin. The result is a sweet and earthy blend with citrus notes to lighten it up a bit.
2) Red Belted Conk infused oil plus essential oils of Juniper, Cypress, Fir and Coriander. This was a woodsy blend to try and reflect the forest where the conks were found.
3) Aspen Bracket infused oil plus essential oils of Davana, Petitgrain and Lavandin. The goal here was to make an airier blend to work with the lighter scent of this conk. The airy scent also reflects that these conks are often way up in the tree.
4) Almond Mushroom (lacking the almond scent!) infused oil plus essential oils of Black Pepper, Cardamom, Mandarin, Tangerine and Ylang Ylang. This the opposite of the Aspen Bracket Blend. This one has bold spicy and citrusy scents added to complement the ridiculously-strong mushroom scent.
Characteristic aromatics in popular edible and medicinal mushrooms
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius)
Of course these are on the list. Chanterelles have a mild apricot-like aroma that matches their apricot color. The Chanterelles here in Colorado smell more or less like those I used to pick outside of Seattle, despite the fact that the habitat couldn’t be more different. (Here, they peek out from under rocks in sunny spots within mixed Aspen/Conifer woods. In Washington they like the deep duff of dense Doug Fir forests.
Although Chanterelles have very low levels of aromatics overall, there are dozens of volatile compounds that contribute to their distinctive scent (14). Those present in the highest amounts include the ever-present C8 compounds such as octenol, though there are several aromatic alcohols and aldehydes found in Chanterelles that are used, in purified form, in the perfumery industry (7). Some Chanterelle aromatics that you may even be familiar with from Lavender, Peppermint and Eucalyptus.
Here are a handful of aromatics that make Chanterelles smell good (not a comprehensive list)(7, 14-17):
Hexanal – The scent — which you may have gotten to sniff in very diluted form in class at the Good Medicine Confluence (GMC) — is described as citrusy, apple-like, woody, grassy, green, fresh, and/or vegetable-like. Chemical names that end in “al” are aldehydes, which generally have fruity, sweet scents.
Hexanol – This is another you may have smelled in class at the GMC. Hexanol is described as freshly-cut grass, fruity, apple, sweet, oily, herbal, green, wine-like, goaty(!) and ethereal. “Ethereal” means like ether, which has a sickly sweet scent. Though some folks use ethereal to mean light and airy. By the way, chemicals that end in “ol” are alcohols. The scent of alcohols can vary widely from sweet to sharp to medicinal.
Heptanal – This one is described as fruity, solvent-like and “pen”. (Sharpie pens do smell good.) Heptanal is used as source material for perfumery ingredients (18). Heptanal, like octenol, is secreted by the skin and is a mosquito attractant (19). Perfume and mosquito attractant? Hmmmmm….
Heptanol – A volatile with sweet, fruity, cucumber-like notes, and also “cellar”. Heptanol blocks signal transmission gap junctions (20), inhibiting signaling between cells. As such, it may have applications with respect to tremors and seizures (20).
(E)-2-nonenol – This one has my favorite description so far: ”Cucumber, old books, cardboard, paint, air mattress (?!?!).
? -copaene – This is one of the major contributors to the distinctive flavor of Chanterelles. It’s scent is noted as woody, spicy, honey-like. It’s also in Eucalyptus, Star Anise, Geranium Basil, Bay and a whole slew of other plants.
Alpha-humulene – Another major flavor component of Chanterelles. It smells woody, clove-like, and like ocean water. This is in many members of the Mint family, along with Valerian, Black Pepper and Pine needles.
Beta-caryophyllene – Yet another big one in Chanterelle flavor. It smells sweet, fruity, spicy, woody, clove-like, and peppery) and is also found in Carrot, Clary Sage, Lavender and multiple citruses.
Eucalpytol – This is described as minty, herbal, camphorus, eucalyptus-like, strong and/or fresh. Can you guess what plant this is in?
Matsutake (Trichloma species)
Matsutake means “Pine Mushroom” and it grows, shockingly enough, in Pine forests. (“Take” means mushroom in Japan. As in Maitake and Shiitake). Matsutake is much sought after because of its distinctive, spicy scent and strong flavor. The most notable aromatics include a variety of C8 compounds, along with an interesting collection of other aromatics only some of which I’m including here (7, 21-23):
Methyl-cinnamate – This is part of the distinctive scent of Matsutake. It’s described as balsamic, strawberry, cherry, fruity, cinnamon, spicy and sweet. Methyl-cinnamate plays a role in both mushroom metabolism and protection from predation (except from predation by us, apparently).
Phenylacetaldehyde – Slightly earthy, fermented, green, cocoa, sweet and floral. Also in Artist’s Conk (and, if memory serves, in some species of Oyster Mushroom).
?-terpineol – A major aromatic in Pine that smells like….Pine. I wonder if the mushroom picks this one up from its host?
Methional – This is pretty common mushroom aromatic, described as “baked potato”.
Acetoin – A ketone with a buttery scent. Seems like it would go well with methional.
(E)-2-decanal – Smells like orange, of all things…
Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus species)
Another prized edible with lots of medicinal uses… Yes, it’s loaded with C8 aromatics (and there’s a “C9”, nonanol, that smells like fruit). And don’t forget about the aforementioned anisealdehyde and benzaldehyde. Hexanol (see Chanterelles) is also prevalent.
Oyster Mushroom alcohol extracts are active against multiple drug resistant pathogenic bacteria, with the aromatics likely being a part of this…especially anisealdehyde (1, 24).
This is one of the best studied mushrooms in terms of aromatics, and many have been isolated from various species of Oyster Mushroom. Here are a few more (1, 7, 25, 26):
Acetaldehyde – Like many aromatics discussed here, in high enough levels, acetaldehyde is toxic, though commonly used in lower levels as flavoring in foods and in perfumery. In larger amounts in the body, it can have a corrosive effect on the tissues and has narcotic-like effects (27). Interesting that the FDA has given it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Its odor is ethereal, sharp, fruity, green and penetrating.
Gamma-butyrolactone – This one is described as creamy, sweet, caramel, peach, milky and fatty. Sounds good!
Beta-bisabolene – A sesquiterpene with a balsamic, woody scent. Sesquiterpenes are heavy scent molecules (base notes!).
2-pentylfuran – An ingredient used for flavor, it’s scent is noted as sweet, fruity, caramel, green, earthy, beany, waxy, vegetable and metallic.
2-undecanone – Another delicious sounding one, with floral, fruity, pineapple, creamy, fatty, waxy and cheesy notes. Almost sounds like a wine description…
King Bolete (Boletus edulis)
Yes, C8s. They contribute to the mushroomy, buttery and nutty flavor and scent of Boletes (aka. Porcini). As usual with mushrooms, King Boletes harvested from different regions have somewhat different scent profiles (28). They also have some level of benzaldehyde and anisaldehyde, found in either fresh or frozen fruiting bodies (29)
Some other interesting Bolete volatiles (16, 28, 29):
2-propenoic acid – This gives a tart, acrid scent to Boletes.
Vanillin – This aldehyde is a major contributor to the scent of Vanilla beans. Though I can’t say I’ve ever noticed my bolete harvest smelling remotely Vanilla-like.
Toluene – Yes, as in paint thinner. Doesn’t sound so appetizing. Toluene, a solvent, is a benzene-derivative with a sharp scent similar to that of benzene (sweet, gasoline-like).
Euganol – A terpene that is largely responsible for the scent of Cloves and is also prevalent in Cinnamon, Basil, Bay and Nutmeg. If you can think of the smell of Cloves, then you know just what eugenol smells like.
Valeric acid – Named for Valerian and described as rancid, sweaty, sour, tobacco, cheesy with slight fruit notes.
Putrescine – Can you guess how this smells, based on its name? Putrescine, charmingly enough, is a fatty acid derivative that, aside from Boletes, is found in decaying corpses as their fats decompose (30). Turn on the range, it’s time to roast some Boletes! Actually, Boletes do taste really good despite this component. I hope I haven’t put you off them….
Truffles (Tuber species)
Truffles should obviously be included here but I’ve no experience with them other than Black Truffle oil…basically olive oil that’s had a Black Truffle waved over it at some point.
Truffles are really complex, aromatically speaking, more than 200 different scent molecules identified so far (31). Some of the aromatics responsible for the distinctive Truffle scent comes from resident bacteria rather than from the truffle itself (24)!
Some of the aromatics in Truffles include (31, 32):
2-methylbutanal – Smells like chocolate. That sounds way better than rotting corpse.
Methional – Baked Potato! Here it is again!
Isobutanol – Not to be confused with rubbing alcohol (isopropanol). Described as ethereal and winey. Also as “cortex” but I don’t know what the hell that means. Maybe it’s a typo. (Can you tell I’m getting loopy tonight?)
p-cymene – Woody, fresh, citrus, spice, harsh.
Cedrol – Woody, dry, soft, sweet. You are familiar with this scent if you’ve ever worked with Cedarwood.
Hydrogen sulfide – Rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide is a big part of why farts smell like they do.
OK, I think I’ve tortured you enough mushroom aroma. Hopefully this gets you experimenting yourself with mushroom scents whether in your cooking or perfume making.
1) Shen, H-S, et al (2017) Antimicrobials from mushrooms for assuring food safely. Comp Rev Food Sci Food Safety. 16:316-329.
2) Verma, RS et al (2017) Natural benzaldehyde from Prunus persica (L.) Batsch. Int J Food Prop. 20(52):S1259-63.
3) Nitoda, T, et al (2007) Anisaldehyde, a Melanogenesis Potentiator. Z Naturforsch. 62(1-2):143-9.
5) Sitkof, A (2015) Distillations on Ganoderma applanatum. Reishi and Roses. https://reishiandrosesbotanicals.com/2015/08/10/distillations-on-ganoderma-applanatum/.
6) Campos, F, et al (2007) Volatile Metabolites From the Wood-inhabiting Fungi Bjerkandera adusta, Ganoderma applanatum, and Stereum hirsutum. J Essential Oil Res. 22(2):116-118.
7) The Good Scents Company Information System http://www.thegoodscentscompany.com/
8) Collins RP & AF Halim (1972) An analysis of the odorous constituents produced by various species of Phellinus Can J Microbiol. 18(1): 65-66
9) Ayer, WA & ER Cruz (1995) 2-Carbomethoxyoxepin: 1-Carbomethoxybenzene 1,2-Oxide and the Biosynthesis of Methyl Salicylate in Phellinus tremulae. J Nat Prod.
10) Haight, JE, et al (2016) Phylogeny of Fomitopsis pinicola: a species complex. Mycologia. 108(5):925-38.
11) Faldt, J, et al (1999) Volatiles of Bracket Fungi Fomitopsis pinicola andFomes fomentarius and Their Functions as Insect Attractants. J. Chem Ecol. 25(3):567-90.
12) Dijkstra, F (1976) Studies on mushroom flavours 3. Some flavour compounds in fresh, canned and dried edible mushrooms. Zeitschrift für Le0bensmittel-Untersuchung und -Forschung 160(4):401-5.
13) Müller, A, et al (2013) Volatile profiles of fungi – Chemotyping of species and ecological functions. Fungal Genet Biol. 54:25-33.
14) Politowicz, J, et al (2017) Volatile composition and sensory profile of Cantharellus cibarius Fr. as affected by drying method. J Sci Food Agric. 97(15):5223-5232.
15) Talou, T, et al (1997) Monoterpenes in the Aromas of Fresh Wild Mushrooms (Basidiomycetes). J Ag Food Chem. 45(3):831-836.
16) Guedes de Pinho, P, et al (2008) Aroma compounds in eleven edible mushroom species: Relationships between volatile profile and sensorial characteristics. In 12th Weurman Flavour Research Symposium. Interlaken, Switzerland. p. 467-471.
17) Aisala, H, et al (2019) Odor-contributing volatile compounds of wild edible Nordic mushrooms analyzed with HS-SPME-GC-MS and HS-SPME-GC-O/FID. Food Chem. 283:566-78.
18) Heptanal. Chemical Entities of Biological Interest. European Bioinformatics Institute. https://www.ebi.ac.uk/chebi/searchId.do?chebiId=CHEBI:34787
19) Tchouassi, DP, et al (2013) Common host-derived chemicals increase catches of disease-transmitting mosquitoes and can improve early warning systems for Rift Valley fever virus. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 7(1):e2007.
20) Juszczak, GR & AH Swiergiel (2013) Chapter 16 – Behavioral Pharmacology of Gap Junctions. Gap Junctions in the Brain. p.261-76.
21) Cho, IH, et al (2006) Characterization of Aroma-Active Compounds in Raw and Cooked Pine-Mushrooms (Tricholoma matsutake Sing.) J. Agric. Food Chem. 54 (17), pp 6332–6335.
22) Cho, IH, et al (2007) Differentiation of aroma characteristics of pine-mushrooms (Tricholoma matsutake Sing.) of different grades using gas chromatography-olfactometry (GC-O) and sensory analysis. J. Agric. Food Chem. Vol. 55: 2323-2328.
23) Cho, IH et al (2008) Food Chem. Volatiles and key odorants in the pileus and stipe of pine-mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake Sing). Food Chem. 106(1):71-6.
24) Hung, R, et al (2015) Fungal volatile organic compounds and their role in ecosystems. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2015) 99:3395–3405.
25) Auami, A, et al (2014) Chemical composition and aroma evaluation of volatile oils from edible mushrooms (Pleurotus salmoneostramineus and Pleurotus sajor-caju). J Oleo Sci. 63(12):1323-32.
26) Rapior, S, et al (2002) The anise-like odor of Clitocybe odora, Lentinellus cochleatus and Agaricus essettei. Mycologia. 94(3):373-6.
27) Acetaldehyde. PubChem. US National Library of Medicine. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/acetaldehyde
28) Bozok, F, et al (2015) Comparison of volatile compounds of fresh Boletus edulis and B pinophilus in Marmara region of Turkey. Not Bot Horti Agrobo. 43(1):192-5.
29) Rapior, S, et al (1997) Volatile aroma constituents of Agarics and Boletes. Recent Res Dev Phytochem. 1:567-84.
30) Wisman, A & I Shrira (2015) The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms. Front Psychol. 6: 1274.
31) El Enshasy, H, et al (2013) Mushrooms and Truffles: Historical Biofactories for Complementary Medicine in Africa and in the Middle East. Evid Based Comp Alt Med. Article ID 620451.
32) Vita,F, et al (2015) Volatile organic compounds in truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico): comparison of samples from different regions of Italy and from different seasons. Sci Reports. 5: Article number: 12629.
There’s a lot out there about mushroom polysaccharides as medicine. To the extent that some folks may believe that polysaccharides are the only significant medicinal bits of a mushroom. But, nope. Mushrooms have a passel of interesting components that make them useful for us humans. Crude extracts of mushrooms , and of course the whole mushrooms, will contain a wealth of nifty bioactive molecules. The fancy marketing term that folks in the cannabis world use describes it well: “full spectrum”. By crude extracts, I mean powdered concentrates, water extracts, tinctures, a combination of the 2 (“double extracts”), and even fancier combination extracts.
Let’s take a a look at what medicinal mushrooms have to offer, beyond their (admittedly very useful) polysaccharides….
Smelly stuff: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature. Many, but not all, have a scent. VOCs encompass a wide range of chemicals that may or may not be natural in origin. In this category are volatile oils produced by plants and fungi. You may more readily recognize the term “essential oil”, which is a VOC and volatile oil that, technically speaking, has been pressed or distilled from a natural source. Another clarification: When you see the word “aromatic” here, it refers to scent rather than to molecular structure. (“Aromatic” can refer to a particular type of molecular ring structure.)
On to “mushromatherapy”… Mushrooms have an aroma. Some have scents resembling things that aren’t even mushrooms; for instance, the aniseed and almond aroma of some Agaricus and Oyster Mushroom species. You folks in the PNW or in the Baltic States may be thinking of the apricot scent of your beloved Chanterelles. On a less pleasant note is the aroma of decaying flesh emitted by Stinkhorn mushrooms. (For more in depth treatment of mushroom aromatics, check out my Mushromatherapy Parts 1 & 2 here or as originally published in Plant Healer Quarterly: Volume 9, Editions 2 and 3.)
Mushroom VOCs do a lot of things for the mushroom. They regulate growth and reproduction; serve as defense molecules against predation or unwanted microbial colonization; communicate messages to nearby fungi, bacteria, plants and animals; and, promote or inhibit the growth of nearby plants depending on whether the plant is a host or a host competitor.
Some of you may be saying “Wait! Don’t mushrooms contain only tiny amounts of volatile oils compared to plants? How can they possibly have an effect on people??”. Well, I’m glad you asked. For one, if you can smell it, then it’s launched a signal directly from the scent receptors in your nose to your brain. More specifically, to your limbic system, involved in emotional regulation, the detection and response to threats (aka. stress), and many other aspects of our behavior. Which, in turn, is one of the significant ways that aromatherapy works.
Along these lines, that rich, earthy smell you may notice if you’re lucky enough to escape to the woods? That’s due in large part to octenol, a small but strongly scented molecule with an 8-carbon backbone. Octenol is a sedating, and breathing it in may be one of the multiple reasons that a walk in the woods can be so calming.
By the way, fungal VOCs aren’t all good for us. “Sick Building Syndrome” is what results when someone spends a lot of time in chronically damp buildings (again, you in the PNW). Such spaces are home to molds, and these molds produce VOCs associated with symptoms ranging from nausea and headache, to itchy skin and irritated airways, to dizziness and fatigue (1).
But back to mushromatherapy…. Hexanal is another 8-carbon compound and it’s a common aromatic in mushrooms (and plants). The scent of hexanal is variously described as fresh, grassy, citrusy, green, fruity or vegetable-like (2). Hexanal can kill pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria (3),suggesting that it may contribute partly to the anti-bacterial effects of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
There are many other “C8” compounds in mushrooms, but those aren’t the only scented things that mushrooms produce. Terpenoid compounds are the most common class of scented molecules produced by plants and are also common in mushrooms. For example, D – limonene with its citrusy scent, ? – pinene with its piney scent, and ?-terpinene with its woody/citrusy scent are commonly found aromatics in medicinal mushrooms and may contribute to their anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and many other actions of medicinal mushrooms.
A cool factoid: In some cases, a mushroom’s aroma is produced at least in part by someone other than the mushroom (4). Truffles are an example…their valued and distinctive scent comes from Truffle endophytes, microbes that live within the mushroom’s tissues. In other cases, an aromatic molecule may be derived from the mushroom’s host. In distilling Aspen Bracket (Phellinius tremulae), there’s a whiff of wintergreen. The mushroom may be picking up at least some of this from its host, given that Aspen trees contain methyl salicylate and compounds related to methyl-benzoate (5), that are responsible for the wintergreen scent.
More on mushroom terpenoids…
Terpenes are some of the most diversely bioactive molecules in mushrooms, and they come in multiple sizes with multiple chemical modifications that define how they act in the organism synthesizing them, and in organisms (well, us) using them as medicine. Medicinally-speaking, terpenes show a lot of potential benefits for us. Just a handful of random examples: (i) Kill pathogenic bacteria, (ii) inactivate pathogenic viruses, (iii) reduce severity of malarial infection, and (iv) reduce chronic inflammation in various parts of the body (or systemically)(6). I say “potential” because many of the studies are in cell culture or animal models that don’t necessarily reflect what actually happens in us.
Technically speaking, terpenes and their derivatives are polymers of a chemical unit called an isoprene. Isoprene is made by fungi, plants, and animals and, by itself, has neither color nor scent. The number of isoprene units contained and, as mentioned, the types of chemical modifications determine the properties of a particular terpene.
Monoterpenes are the smallest type of terpene, made of just 2 isoprenes as the backbone. (Yes, the “mono” part makes it confusing. Two isoprenes make one terpene “unit”.) As aromatherapists know, monoterpenes make up a huge proportion of plant aromatics. D – Limonene, mentioned earlier, is a monoterpene and is found in Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum), Red Belted Conk (Fomitopsis spp), and many other medicinal mushrooms. D – Limonene (and a slew of other monoterpenes) has broad anti-fungal activity, which may help protect the mushroom producing it from colonization by other fungi. And may contribute at least in part to the anti-fungal effects that these mushrooms have for us.
Sesquiterpenes are the next size up, with 3 isoprene units. (“Sesqui” means one and a half, reflecting that these terpenoids have 1 and a half terpene units.) Aroma-nerds may be aware of chamazulene and bisobolol, 2 sequiterpenes in German Chamomile with strong anti-inflammatory effects. that Sesquiterpenes are relatively common aromatic constituents of plants and fungi. Bisabolol and Chamazulene from German Chamomile is an example of a sesquiterpene (more properly, a “sesquiterpene alcohol”). Chamazulene is another in Chamomile and is Many sesquiterpenes have anti-inflammatory activity.
Sesquiterpenes are (like many bioactive compounds) better characterized in plants than in fungi. That said, a passel of sesquiterpenes have been found in Enoki Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) and are being investigated for their anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-tumor activities (7), which are known medicinal actions of Enoki mushrooms. If you’ve harvested Saffron Milky Cap (one of the Lactarious deliciousus group), the wild blue/green staining that develops on these lovely orangey mushrooms is due to a class of sesquiterpenes so far found only in Lactarius species. Likely, the more mushroom species examined, the more novel sesquiterpenes will be found.
Moving on, diterpenes have 4 isoprene units (2 terpene units). These larger terpenes aren’t generally volatile like mono- and sesquiterpenes. Meaning, they don’t have a scent, or much of one, at ambient temperature. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), an awesome edible and medicinal mushroom, has erinacine A, a diterpene that inhibits drug resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus (ie. MRSA) that cause dangerous opportunistic infections (7). While I’m not really a fan of “drugifying” our botanicals, this is a significant observation as current antibiotics become less and less effective. Erinacine A also stimulates the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), at least in cultured cells (6) raising the possiblity that this is part of the mushroom’s multiple benefits to the nervous system, including the ability to regenerate nerves in vivo. Along these lines, the Bitter Tooth mushroom (Sarcodon scabrosus) also synthesizes diterpenes with a nerve-related action. Namely, they cooperate with NGF to stimulate neurite outgrowth from a nerve cell lines in culture (6). (Neurites are projections on nerve cells that function in transmitting signals from one nerve cell to the next.)
The largest terpenes are the triterpenes (6 isoprenes/3 terpene units). Triterpenes dubbed “ganoderic acids” in Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) are a major part of this revered mushroom’s pleiotropic health benefits for us. An example are the multitude of triterpenes in Reishi, the ganoderic acids, that are relatively well studied contributors to the pleiotropic health benefits of this revered medicinal mushroom. In terms of extraction, triterpenes are alcohol-soluble (while the mushroom polysaccharides mainly come out in water). Thus, a double extract that is both tincture and decoction will give you triterpenes and polysaccharides. Reishi triterpenes have been a topic of study since the time when hair bands were popular. Some Reishi triterpenes inhibit HIV (8) and dengue virus replication (9) in lab studies by disrupting the activity of viral enzymes. Some play a significant role in the mushrooms liver- and kidney-protective activity (10). Reishi triterpenes also reduce blood pressure and influence blood lipid levels in preclinical studies and in people (11).
Triterpenes are made by many other well-known mushrooms, including Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Fu Ling (Poria cocos), and Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus).
Terpenes as a class usually have low solubility in water. Instead, they come out with extraction in alcohol or fat. This means that you won’t have many of them in your mushroom decoction but you will have them in your tincture. (Double extracts!)
Bioactive Proteins and Peptides
Peptides and proteins and are polymers of amino acids. Peptides are smaller and proteins are larger. Bioactive peptides and proteins have critical roles throughout the lifecycle of a mushroom: Sporulation, cell division, growth, defense, communication, and more. Some have enzymatic activity; meaning that they catalyze chemical reactions. Others bind specifically to stuff and either inhibit or promote the activity of whatever it is they’re sticking to. Still others are involved in communication. And, that’s all in the fungus. These bioactive peptides and proteins may also contribute to the effects medicinal mushrooms have on us.
Laccases are an interesting type of enzyme. Some laccases function in molecular synthesis, while others break stuff down. A number of fungal laccases break down lignin, a structural component in wood and other plant tissues. This is how mushrooms “eat” plant material, which also is a reason that some fungi, like Aspen Bracket (Phellinus tremulae), that can eat live trees are considered the bane of the forest service. That said, the ability of mushrooms to break down dead or dying trees and other plant matter (leaves, etc), is critical to forest health. This recycles nutrients back into the soil. Also, if fungi (and bacteria) didn’t do this, there’d be an ever accumulating pile of dead vegetation covering much of the planet. Along these lines, Red Belted Conk (various Fomitopsis species) is one of the most important breaker-downers and nutrient recyclers in the forests of western North America.
You’d think laccases would be found largely in mushroom mycelia because this is the part of a mushroom that does the eating. But, laccases are also found in the fruiting body (what most folks consider the “mushroom”). For example, laccases are made in high levels in the fruiting body of Lion’s Mane fruiting body (12); and, this high level of expression has folks considering Lion’s Mane as a possible agent for bioremediation of wastes from the paper and pulp industry (13). Laccases also appear to regulate the rate of growth of Lion’s Mane (13), maybe not surprising given that these enzymes are a way that fungi eat. (BTW…Fungi break us down, too. Hence the commercial availability of “mushroom coffins” in which we can be deep-sixed.)
Aside from recycling us back to the soil, mushroom laccases may have some medicinal effects for us people. For instance, King Trumpet Mushrooms (Pleurotus eryngii) and Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) produce laccases with anti-viral effects. The King Trumpet laccase inhibited an enzyme, reverse transcriptase, that is critical to HIV replication (14). Though the laccase was active mainly in acidic pH (3 to 5) so the applicability of this in a person….hmmmm. The Oyster Mushroom laccase, when incubated with hepatitis C virus (a human pathogen that can ultimately lead to liver cancer) inhibited the entry of of virus into a hepatoma cell line and into peripheral blood cells in a dish (15). Though the amount of laccase used and the length of time the virus and the laccase needed to be mixed raises the question of whether this is relevant in vivo. The laccase also inhibited HCV replication within the hepatoma cell line when added post-infection, though, again, this was at a high dose of the purified laccase (15). Other mushrooms have laccases with anti-tumor effects in cell culture (16).
Ribosome Inactivating Proteins (RIPs)
RIPs are another bioactive protein found in mushrooms (and elsewhere). By breaking down ribosome structure, many RIPs inhibit the translation of RNA into protein. This may be one way that a mushroom defends itself against invaders…if an incoming pathogen can’t make protein, it will die. Inhibiting translation could also be a way to inhibit tumor cell growth and proliferation, and indeed, some fungal RIPs display anti-tumor activity. But RIPs have multiple other biological effects beyond inhibiting protein production. An Enoki Mushroom RIP, “velutin” from Flammulina velutipes, inhibited HIV reverse transcriptase in vitro (7). Velutin also inhibited 2 enzymes involved in carbohydrate breakdown,? – and ? – glucosidase (7) in accordance with the traditional use of Enoki Mushrooms for diabetes. Another Enoki RIP, flammulin, demonstrated anti-tumor effects in rodents (17).
These sticky little buggers don’t have enzymatic activity. Instead they stick to specific carbohydrates, many of which are found on the surface of fungi, various microbes, and plants. They can even stick to carbohydrates in solution. Different lectins stick to different carbohydrates, and this specificity has been exploited in the lab for carbohydrate purification, diagnostic testing and other lab assays.
In a mushrooms, lectins may protect the fungus by being toxic to predators or inhibit their growth. They participate in interspecies recognition, allowing a fungus to identify friend or foe. Some regulate the germination of fungal spores, or mycelial development, or fungal cell wall synthesis. Others may help the fungus set up a symbiotic relationship with a host via interactions with host cells. Still others function in nutrient storage (16).
Lion’s Mane has a lectin that inhibits HIV reverse transcriptase, an enzyme critical for viral replication; stimulates white blood cell proliferation (a necessary step in fighting infections), and inhibits the proliferation of various tumor cell lines (18). Oyster Mushrooms also have lectins with potential anti-tumor effects (19). Other mushroom lectins are anti-inflammatory activity, immunomodulatory or have other activities (16) that may underlie, in part, some of the traditional uses of medicinal mushrooms.
Fungal Immunomodulatory Proteins (FIPs)
FIPs are a diverse group of proteins, structurally speaking. They’re put under the FIP heading based on function. FIPs from different mushrooms, and different FIPs from the same mushroom, have a mind boggling range of effects on the immune system. They induce or reduce the expression of cytokines such as TNF-? , interferons, interleukins and other important signaling molecules that orchestrate a multitude of immune responses…be it activating an acute response to infection, reducing inflammation in the gut, preventing cytokine storm, etc, etc, etc. FIPs stimulate the maturation and/or activity of many types of immune cell, including eosinophils, monophytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, B cells, and various kinds of T cell.
Some FIPS, such as FIP-fve from Enoki mushrooms, reduce allergic responses such as allergic asthma, food allergies, and systemic anaphylaxis in preclinical studies. This same FIP, which is found in relatively high amounts in the Enoki fruiting body, also inhibits replication of one cause of the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus (20). A FIP from Reishi, LZ-8, reduced graft versus host disease in preclinical studies, but could also reverse leukopenia, improve fatty liver disease and improve blood vessel health via anti-inflammatory mechanisms (20).
Back to Turkey Tails, which synthesize a FIP dubbed “TVC” (for “Trametes versicolor”), an immune-stimulating protein that increases the number and activity of multiple types of immune cell (21). A different Turkey Tail FIP, FIP-tvc (confusingly enough), can increase expression of multiple immune-active chemicals called cytokines (TNF-?, for example) in cell culture (22).These and other Turkey Tail FIPS may be contributors to the traditional uses of the mushroom and bring up the point that purified mushroom constituents lack the spectrum of activity of a crude extract.
Lion’s Mane mushroom has a FIP, HEP3 for “Hericeum erinaceus protein 3”, that countered colitis in a rodent model, and yet another FIP from Turkey Tails, YZP (“Yun Zhi protein”), did as well (20); and, the mechanism may be via FIP-induced alterations of the gut microbiome make up and metabolism (23). HEP3 also reduced the number and size of tumors in rodent studies (23).
ACE Inhibitors that aren’t pharmaceuticals
Yet another functional category of bioactive mushroom proteins: Those that may reduce blood pressure. Button Mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) — ubiquitous, but under-appreciated medicinally —has water-soluble proteins that inhibit angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) in vitro (24). ACE inhibitors relax blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure, though the pharm version causes a range of side effects. Button mushrooms do actually reduce blood pressure in people (25), and some of this effect may be due to mushroom proteins, though they’re also rich in potassium, which can help counter the effect of salt on blood pressure.
The prized Matsutake mushroom (Trichloma matsutake) has a tiny ACE-inhibiting peptide (TMP, for “Trichloma matsutake peptide”) that significantly and rapidly lowered systolic pressure in hypertensive rats after oral administration (26). The typical side effect of pharmaceutical ACE inhibitors, a dry cough, was not apparent during the studies. A side note…Button Mushrooms are cheaper, can be cultivated, and are thus easier to obtain than Matsutake.
A water-soluble peptide from Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa), also has ACE inhibitory activity (27). While this was examined in vitro, the use of proteases to mimic what would happen to the protein during digestion did not reduce it’s activity, suggesting the potential that it may actually do something in vivo (27). Water-soluble peptides from Branched Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus cornucopiae) that inhibits ACE and reduces blood pressure in hypertensive rats (28). A water extract reduced blood pressure in the rats shortly after oral administration, with the average systolic pressure going from 180 mm Hg down to 130 2 hours later (a huge change). In vitro studies showed that the peptides were resistant to digestion by the proteases they’d encounter in the digestive tract, suggesting that they may be resposnible for or at least contriutor to the antihypertensive effect of the extracts (28).
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), a mushroom used for centuries for hypertension, is yet another that synthesizes water-soluble ACE-inhibitory peptides (29), and lots of other mushrooms other mushroom species have them as well.
To be clear, not all ACE-inhibitory thingies in mushrooms are peptide- or protein based. Case-in-point, Reishi has a triterpene that does it.
Other nifty proteins
I did say that I wasn’t going to talk about polysaccarides. But there’s polysaccharopeptide (PSP) of the aforementioned Turkey Tails — that veritable cornucopia (oh, yes…) of biological response modifiers molecules — that improves survival and quality of life in folks with cancer, hepatitis, cardiovascular disease, and chronic respiratory issues (30). It also reduces chemotherapy side effects (30). The mechanism underlying these various benefits seems to be based largely on broad effects on immune system function. So, yes, a polysaccharide’s involved but it’s linked to a peptide….
Turkey Tails also produce a peptide SPCV (small peptide from Coriolus versicolor), that potently inhibits tumor cell division in culture (31). (Seriously…can’t scientists come up with protein names that are a bit less lame???). SPCF does this even more strongly than the famous Turkey Tail polysaccharide PSK (“polysaccharide Kureha)(31), licensed in Japan for improving disease-free survival time, reducing chemo side effects and improving quality of life in folks with cancer.
OK…that’s enough torture for you for now. If you’re relieved for the break from fungal folklore, you’ll like that the next article gets into more magnificent mushroom molecules! If you are missing the folklore articles, no worries. There is another one coming in the new year.
- Joshi, SM (2008) The sick building syndrome. Indian J Occup Environ Med. 12(2):61–4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796751/
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- Lanciotte, R, et al (2003) Application of hexanal, (E)-2-hexanal, and hexyl acetate to improve the safety of fresh-sliced apples. J Agric Food Chem. 51(10):2958-63. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10783442_Application_of_Hexanal_E_-2-Hexenal_and_Hexyl_Acetate_To_Improve_the_Safety_of_Fresh-Sliced_Apples
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Hint: It isn’t all about us people : )
Originally published in Plant Healer Quarterly
Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) – Everything you’ve wanted to know but were afraid to ask
Yamabushi, “those who sleep in the mountains”, are ascetics in Japan who live…well, in the mountains. They seek enlightenment in nature in a Buddhist tradition that has elements of Shintoism, Taoism and nature worship (1). The mushroom Hericium erinaceus is called Yamabushitake in Japan because it resembles the robes worn by these monks. “Take” means mushroom, by the way. As in Maitake, Shiitake, Matsutake, Yamabushitake, etc.
Lion’s Mane is the common name I first learned, and it stuck. Though Lion’s Mane could just as well be called “the mushroom with many names”. The botanical name Hericium erinaceus came about in 1797 and means, redundantly enough, “hedgehog hedgehog”. The mushroom looks somewhat like an albino hedgehog if you use your imagination. Or maybe a toupee for an aging punk rocker. There are over 2 dozen taxonomic synonyms for H. erinaceus (2)…have fun doing a research literature review on it! Here’s a non-comprehensive list of additional common names:
• Pom Pom Blanc – “White pom pom”, a name created by a San Francisco chef
• Bear’s Head – More rarely “Boar’s Head”…perhaps a typo that got perpetuated??
• Old Man’s Beard – Not to be confused with the lichen, Usnea
• Bearded Tooth – This is a weird one
• Igel-Stachelbart – German. Igel is “hedgehog”, stachelbart is “prickly beard”
• Hou Tou Gu – Pin Yin for “Monkey Head Mushroom” in China
Where Lion’s Mane grows
It grows in my kitchen at the moment. In the wild, Hericeum species grow in broadleaf and coniferous trees in Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Remember that what we generally see on a tree or stump and call a “mushroom” are really just the sex parts. The actual organism lives within the host.
Lion’s Mane is saprophytic, growing in dead or dying wood, though Lion’s Mane may sometimes be parasitic on live wood. There is evidence that Lion’s Mane may also grow endophytically, with the fruiting body emerging from a crack or knot hole in the bark (2). An endophyte is a fungus that lives within the host’s tissues without causing damage. Endophytes may be responsible for many of the medicinal properties that we attribute to plants. For example, Taxol, the chemo drug originally extracted from the Yew tree, is made by an endophyte within the tree rather than by the tree itself.
We were taught in herb school to look up for Lion’s Mane. It’s often high up in the crook of a tree. Some years ago in Philadelphia of all places, I found a giant Lion’s Mane mushroom growing on a downed log. (A lesson: Don’t believe everything that you’re taught.) Anyway, I’d not encountered Lion’s Mane in the wild before and jumped up and down like an idiot. Aaaannnnnd….I picked it. I now feel like a jerk for gathering it. Though not rare back east, Hericium species generally aren’t the most common shrooms out there. Kits are easy to purchase online, and now I grow my own; and grocery stores are starting to carry the cultivated version as well.
Eating Lion’s Mane
Do it. It’s good. Lion’s Mane is popular for its mild lobstery scent and flavor. It’s a delicacy when properly cooked. The mild seafood scent comes from a few volatile oil components: 2-methyl-3-furanthiol, 2-ethylpyrazine and 2,6-diethylpyrazine (that are also anti-microbial….fighting food poisoning while you eat!) (3). I thought about eating what I harvested in Philly, but it would have taken maybe 5 minutes to snarf it down. Instead, I made a double extract that lasted a couple of years.
There are a slew of Lion’s Mane recipes online. Dry sautéing is a good way to start the cooking process. Slice the mushrooms in thin, even sections, 1/2 inch thick or less if you have good knife handling prowess. Heat a pan on medium, add the slices in a single layer and sprinkle them with salt to facilitate water removal without steaming the mushrooms in the process. Steamed mushrooms have the consistency of rubber. Cook for 5 or more minutes then flip them. Continue cooking until they are starting to brown on both sides. If you have a lot of mushroom slices to get through, remove the browned ones from the pan while repeating the cooking process until all of the slices are browned. Add them all back to the pan then add whatever else you are using for your recipe. Consider keeping it simple to showcase the delicate flavor of Lion’s Mane…maybe just some butter, salt and pepper. If feeling particularly spunky, you can add a splash of manzanilla sherry. And, Lion’s Mane is nutritious! For example, it’s 20% good quality protein and 5% healthy fatty acids by dry weight (4).
Traditional uses of Lion’s Mane
Not to miss out on the obvious, Lion’s Mane has been eaten as a valued food around the globe (7). In North America, Lion’s Mane was also used as to staunch the bleeding of wounds.
Hericeum species are valued in China and Japan to nourish the Spleen, Liver, Heart, Lung and Kidneys. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Lion’s Mane is a vitality tonic, and has been used for many centuries in Eastern Asia for treating neurasthenia and debility. It’s additionally used for insomnia and other aspects of Qi deficiency (5). Lion’s Mane improves weak digestion and is a remedy for other issues in the “middle burner” in TCM (6). The middle burner corresponds, metabolically speaking, to the Stomach and Spleen. The Stomach breaks down or “ferments” foods while the Spleen is responsible for nutrient assimilation and transport.
Moving into research, Lion’s Mane is not as well-studied as, say, Shiitake and Turkey Tails, but the situation is changing with more attention being focused on this tasty and chemically interesting mushroom. As usual in the botanical world, the emerging science supports the traditional uses.
Lion’s Mane & the Digestive System
Back to digestion. Lion’s Mane is used in Japan and China for gastritis, chronic reflux, epigastric pain, ulcers in the stomach and duodenum, and for digestive system cancers and cancer prevention. The mushroom nourishes the intestines and strengthens the Spleen (5).
Lion’s Mane may heal ulcers and reduce their incidence at least in part via anti-bacterial effects against Helicobacter pylori, a significant cause of both ulcers and gastric cancer. More than one mushroom component is active here, including water-soluble polysaccharide complexes (8) and components that come out in organic solvents (9, 10). The caveat is that these studies were in vitro, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the antibacterial effect happens in people. Given that the mushroom or its extract would, presumably, come into contact with the bacteria in the digestive tract after ingestion, the above studies may have relevance in the “real world”.
I like Lion’s Mane in a dynamic duo with Meadowsweet for hot, burning digestive issues such as those noted earlier; or with the addition of Mallow for a ménage à trois of digestive goodness. Lion’s Mane has been in formulas for multiple clients with reflux or epigastric or abdominal pain. For instance, a friend/client learned that her chronic throat clearing was due to “silent” reflux that had caused significant inflammatory damage to her lower esophagus. Her formula has been 50% Lion’s Mane, and 25% each Meadowsweet and Mallow. Between this and some dietary shifts, her throat clearing has gone down significantly, though she hasn’t yet been re-scoped to assess the esophagus. All 3 botanicals are for soothing and reducing inflammation, but the Lion’s Mane in particular was included for healing and to help prevent progression of the esophageal lesions to something more serious. Given that digestive issues are probably one of the most common thing we herbalists see in our practice, even in folks coming in for other stuff, Lion’s Mane is good to have in the tool kit.
Lion’s Mane also works further down the GI tract, reducing gut inflammation in part through effects on the gut microbiome and attenuating inflammatory bowel diseases in experimental models (11, 12). An older, placebo controlled study in people found that Lion’s Mane reduced signs and symptoms of atopic gastritis (13). Atrophic gastritis is an inflammatory condition that damages the stomach lining. Lion’s mane reduced epigastric pain, signs of intestinal dysplasia and infiltration of immune cells into the stomach lining (13).
Lion’s Mane & the Nervous System
In Asia, Lion’s Mane is turned to for dementia, sleep issues and other nervous system-related stuff.
Here in the Rockies, I live in a community full of cyclists and have worked with a few head injury cases. In the aftermath of head injuries, folks may experience cognitive impairment, fatigue, seizures, depression, mood swings, insomnia and other problems. For these (including my own occasional head bopping) I usually combine Lion’s Mane in equal parts with another fantastic anti-inflammatory and tonic for the brain, Skullcap.
One client started on Keppra after having a seizure following her cycling accident. A couple months later, she seized again after having stopped the Keppra. She resumed the Keppra and came in to see me 10 months after the crash. Her goal was to use herbs to wean off of Keppa because she was experiencing depression and fatigue, known side effects of the drug. Though it was also possible that the symptoms were residual from the crash. Either way, her mood and energy improved after a couple months on the formula. Since the depression and fatigue were impoved, she decided to continue the Keppra after all, being afraid of a future seizure. I’m guessing that her symptoms may have been from the crash itself rather than the Keppra because she eventually didn’t need her formula any more despite continuing the medication.
Another client crashed her bike and hit her head, though not particularly hard. She had a history of multiple head injuries and even though this was a comparatively minor accident, it apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath, she was severely fatigued and developed visual disturbances, mood swings, headaches and insomnia. She came in 2 months after the crash and has been on a formula based mainly on Lion’s Mane and Skullcap for several months since then. She is having chiropractic work done as well. Either this, her formula, the passage of time or all of the above helped enough that she regained some energy. And then started to “overdo it”, in her words. And her energy tanked again. She’s had to slow way down, but notices a difference when she takes her formula regularly versus when she runs out and doesn’t get a refill right away.
A young client has hand tremors that have gotten worse over the years. Her father has the same issue and it has been progressive. Her paternal grandmother had MS and dementia and the client feels that her dad is now showing signs of dementia. The client was also dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. So, she wanted nervous system support. The tremors decreased significantly after about a month on Lion’s Mane/Skullcap. After a few months, the anxiety eased a bit and the panic attacks seemed to be less, but it’s hard to tell if this is related to the formula or to changes in her life. At this point, she’s has been on the Lion’s Mane/Skullcap-based formula for a while. The tremors gain in intensity when she’s off her formula for more than a week or two, then subside when back on it.
Of course, in all of these examples, the effects can’t be attributed solely to Lion’s Mane, but I feel like I see better effects using Lion’s Mane together with Skullcap instead of just Skullcap alone.
On to some studies. Cookies laced with Lion’s Mane powder reduced levels of depression and anxiety in a month long placebo-controlled study (14). One gram of Lion’s Mane taken daily in tablet form improved mild cognitive dysfunction in elderly folks after 8 weeks of use, compared to placebo (15). When supplementation ceased, the cognitive gains started to be reversed (15). Neither are powerhouse studies; the statistics aren’t great likely due to small study size. But the results jive with traditional use. There are some smaller, uncontrolled studies and case studies using various forms of Lion’s Mane that support its efficacy in reducing anxiety, improving sleep quality and improving cognitive function (16-20). Not powerful data, but, again, consistent with what those of us who use the mushroom have observed.
In more mechanistic studies, Lion’s Mane promotes myelination of cultured nerve cells (21). The myelin sheath lines nerve cells and acts as insulation, insuring that electrical signals travel properly through the nervous system. Issues such as Multiple Sclerosis involve damage to the myelin sheath and resultant disruption of central nervous system function. Whether Lion’s Mane support the myelination in people remains to be seen…it’s not the easiest thing to test. I’m not going to be the one to volunteer: ”Hey, go ahead and excise some of my nerves and look at them under a microscope…Make sure you get some from my brain while you’re at it.”. Two of Lion’s Mane constituents that induce myelination in vitro are able to cross the blood-brain barrier in vivo. So maybe support for myelination is one of the ways that Lion’s Mane truly is supporting cognitive function.
Another nifty thing that Lion’s Mane does is stimulate production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NFG promotes the survival, growth and proliferation of certain types of nerve cell. Low levels of NGF are associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, other neurodegenerative diseases and nervous system imbalances. NGF doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier, so taking exogenous NGF either orally or intravenously won’t do anything for these issues. Ethanol and water extracts of Lion’s Mane fruiting body both induce NGF production in cultured cells, along with stimulating neurite outgrowth (5). NGF is increased in the brains of “Alzheimer’s “ mice that were fed powdered fruiting body, compared to controls, and the Alzheimer’s type symptoms improved (5). Not a fan of the rodent studies, but they do suggest the possibility that one of the ways Lion’s Mane may be benefitting people is via improvement in NGF levels. As mentioned, components of Lion’s Mane cross the blood brain barrier, and this may provide a way to increase NGF levels “for real”(5, 22). There is, indeed, mechanistic evidence for nerve regeneration in vivo by Lion’s Mane, but the experiments are particularly nasty and I’m not going to detail them (6).
One last nervous system-related blurb. Erinacine E is a component of Lion’s Mane and at least one other Hericium species. A study from a couple decades ago found that erinacine E is an opioid receptor agonist (23), though I’ve not yet come across any follow up studies, at least on the databases I use.
Immunity and Cancer
It’s hard to talk about medicinal mushrooms without getting into the benefits related to cancer. Many different mushrooms improve immune system function and some even have direct tumoricidal effects. A tumor represents a failure of the immune system to keep the growth of aberrant cells in check. It’s not the immune system’s fault. Cancer actually causes immunosuppression.
Lion’s Mane influences many aspects of immunity from inflammatory responses to the reduction of tumor size (in animal models). Hot water extracts and heated hydromethanolic extracts of Lion’s Mane are able to stimulate innate immune system activity (24), and a novel polysaccharide “HEP-S” from the fruiting body was able to influence both innate immunity (in the form of macrophage activation) and adaptive immunity (T and B cell mitogenesis) (25). Lion’s Mane polysaccharides also influence the function of NK cells and may enhance mucosal immunity along the intestinal tract (26, 27).
Lion’s Mane had traditionally been used in China and Japan for prevention and treatment of cancers originating in the digestive system; for example, gastric and pancreatic cancers. It’s also been used in Asia for reducing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation (2, 5). That said, there aren’t any clinical trials that I can find. In a more sensible world, we would be studying the hell out of mushrooms with respect to cancer and other of the chronic diseases…
There are multiple studies showing cytotoxic effects of Lion’s Mane in cultured cancer cells (28-30). As I frequently mention, this doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in the body. But, it’s hopeful and cell culture can provide clues as to what may be happening mechanistically. Either water or alcohol extracts of Lion’s Mane protect DNA from damage, reducing cancer causing mutations in cells. Alcohol extracts also inhibit angiogenesis in cell culture and animal models at least in part by down-regulating the signaling molecule VEGF (Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor) (31, 32).
Lion’s Mane has promising results in animal studies, as shitty as animal studies are. For example, feeding crude mushroom extracts significantly reduced tumor burden and was more efficacious and with fewer side effects than the chemo drug 5-fluorouracil. Water or 50% alcohol extracts of the mushroom also inhibited cancer spread (metastasis) in animal models, possibly through inhibiting the activity of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). MMPs break down “tissue barriers” and allow tumor cells to pass into circulation and spread (33).
Metabolic effects of Lion’s Mane
On the metabolic side of things, Lion’s Mane reduces elevated blood sugar and lipid levels in multiple rodent studies. Both water and alcohol extracts of the mushroom are hypoglycemic, suggesting more than one mechanism at play (34, 35). Similarly, multiple mechanisms are involved in the reduction of blood lipid levels by Lion’s Mane. These include enhanced breakdown of cholesterol into bile acids, influence on the gut microbiome and inhibition of HMG-CoA (37, 38). HMG Co-A reductase is the rate-limiting enzyme in cholesterol synthesis.
Moreover, cultured Lion’s Mane mycelia excrete a polysaccharide-protein complex that reduces serum cholesterol levels in rodent models (39). The mushroom also strongly reduced the oxidation of LDL in vitro, with ergosterol and octadecanoic acid being the most active components (38). We know that cholesterol itself isn’t the problem, right? It’s the inflammatory and oxidative damage to blood vessels that are the “fire”, with increasing cholesterol levels in response to the damage being the “smoke”. That said, if the shitty diet, smoking or whatever it is causing damage to the blood vessels continues, then the cholesterol that’s trying to be a “band aid” over the damage becomes oxidized (sticky) itself. Hence, plaque formation.
Lion’s Mane also reduced levels of obesity in a rodent studies. To continue the theme of multiple mechanisms of action, both ethanol and hot water extracts of the mushroom were active and each differentially regulated metabolic gene expression (36, 37). Good to remember that there is rarely only one “active” ingredient in a mushroom or plant.
More on what’s in Lion’s Mane
Mushroom polysaccharides get a lot of attention, and rightly so given their pleiotropic effects in the body. Dried Lion’s Mane fruiting bodies are about 60% polysaccharide by weight (6). Indeed, the double extracts (combined decoction/tincture) are super slimy! Lion’s Mane contains many bioactive principles that come out in water, alcohol and other organic solvents. In addition to polysaccharides, the list includes glycoproteins, lactones, lectins, steroids, alkaloids, terpenoids and lots of other interesting stuff that mycochemists lose sleep over.
At least 35 polysaccharides have been isolated so far (6). Various of the polysaccharides result in cell cycle arrest (stopping cell division), induce apoptosis (“programmed cell death”), are antioxidant, are neuroprotective, stimulate immune cell proliferation (“mitogenesis”), inhibit a key enzyme of HIV replication, induce macrophage activity, induce dendritic cell maturation,
reduce metastases in rodent models, and sensitize drug resistant tumor cells to chemotherapeutic agents (at least in cell culture) (6).
A large focus in Lion’s Mane research has been on hericenones and erinacerins, which are terpenoid benzyl alcohol derivatives (4, 5). Both hericenones and erinacerins thus far appear to be unique to Hericium species (4). Both classes of molecule are extractable by alcohol or other organic solvents, but not by water. And, both can cross the blood-brain barrier, contributing to the neurological effects of Lion’s Mane (5).
Another interesting component of Lion’s Mane is dilinoleoyl-phosphatidylethanolamine (DLPE…thank goodness for acronyms), which is not water soluble. DLPE reduces ER (endoplasmic reticulum) stress in cultured nerve cells (41). ER stress is a pathway that can lead to cell death and is associated with neurodegeneration. DLPE also protected the cells from death caused by the addition of?-amyloid peptide (a culprit in Alzheimer’s Disease). So yet another way that Lion’s Mane may be protecting that big blob of nerve tissue in our skulls.
Amycenone is another neat chemical found in Lion’s Mane. It’s a fat-soluble molecule with anti-inflammatory activity that may improve cognitive ability and sleep (42) and is active when used orally (43-45). Promising results, but from very small and/or uncontrolled studies.
HEG-5 is another interesting component. It’s a hemagglutinating glycoprotein that can be obtained from cultured mycelia (46). HEG-5 induces cell cycle arrest and cell death in cultured gastric cancer cells. As I endlessly say, the significance of this in vivo is not yet known but it’s a hopeful result (47).
Finally, the chemical composition of Lion’s Mane differs between mycelia and fruiting body and also differs based on developmental stage of the fruiting body. For example, polysaccharide content changes as the fruiting body grows and total levels increase while protein levels are lower in the mature fruiting body (40). Polysaccharides from mature fruiting bodies had the highest immune stimulating activity with respect to macrophage function (40). Polysaccharide levels are lower in the mycelia (2). Maybe this is why the double extracts I’ve made from cultured mycelia aren’t remotely as slimy as from the fruiting body! Also, the fruiting body contains hericenones but the cultured mycelia do not (2). Conversely, mycelia have a much higher level of erinacines than the fruiting body (2). Things to keep in mind when mushroom medicine making…
Aside from the fact that Lion’s Mane is a veritable cornucopia (sorry, I had to use that) of interesting mycochemicals, another point of this section is that relying solely on one form of extract means missing out on a lot of the chemistry.
In my practice, I use 20 drops to a teaspoon of double extract 3 to 4 times a day, depending on what’s going on. Start low…some folks get digestive upset from mushrooms or their extracts. In studies, 1 mg daily of powder (pressed into tablets) has shown effects neurologically, as has 3-5 grams of dry powder. Don’t forget simply to eat the mushrooms!
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