Shiitake mushrooms were used medicinally in China over 6000 years ago. According to legend, around 200 A.D., the emperor of Japan, Emperor Chuai, received Shiitake mushrooms from the indigenous people of Japan. It is widely thought that these mushrooms have been growing wildly since prehistoric times, although cultivation is estimated to have begun around 1100 A.D. during the Song Dynasty.

Once a symbol of longevity in Asia, it has always been promoted for its health redeeming qualities. The colors range from amber to brown, and their telling characteristic is their curled, umbrella-like rim. There are two types of this mushroom, however, and they are not quite created equally.

The donko Shiitake mushroom is more round with a thick flesh, while the koshin has an open cap and a thinner skin.  Because the cap is not fully open and more of the spores are retained, the donko Shiitake mushroom is considered to have higher medicinal value. Second only to the button mushroom, Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most consumed mushrooms in the entire world.

While they have been cooked in meals for centuries, they have been used medicinally in both raw and dried forms. Their high levels of B vitamins and Vitamin D make it an ideal choice for the immune system, as well as for inflammation and stress. Donko Shiitake mushrooms in particular have high concentrations of the Lentinan compound, which is actually considered an anti-cancer drug.

Because its flavor is both earthy and pleasant to most, they can be boiled, grilled, skewered, sautéed or even roasted and enjoyed with a meal, often eliminating the need to purchase separate supplements. Because they are also very common in supermarkets, it is an easy supplemental choice to add to almost any diet.

It is interesting to note that to the United States, the Shiitake mushrooms are fairly new, as the result of a ban that was placed on importing live Shiitake cultures until 1972. Because they were not native to the United States, they were not grown in the area until this time.

What Shiitake Does

Shiitake mushrooms are known for their antiviral properties and their ability to boost the immune system. They can also be used to lower cholesterol, prevent thrombosis, treat and prevent genital warts, regulate blood pressure, treat AIDS, control diabetes, help heal fibrocystic breast disease, fight chronic fatigue and also cancer. They provide an excellent source of potassium, niacin, calcium, B vitamins, phosphorus, protein and magnesium.

As mentioned previously, the donko Shiitake mushroom provide the most medicinal effects, and raw mushrooms also are more effective than those that are cooked. Care should be taken with raw mushrooms, however, as contaminants may be present in the wild that need to be removed, sometimes by boiling. In addition, the method of growth has been scientifically shown to impact the performance of the mushroom. Log grown mushrooms are much harder to find and are often more expensive, but those grown in sawdust are dramatically cheaper with very comparable benefits. In the supermarket, one is likely to find sawdust grown Shiitake mushrooms, which often sell for more than $40 less per pound than those grown on logs. To test, those grown on logs will vibrate when shaken. If a mushroom does not vibrate and has a less meaty texture, it is likely sawdust grown.

Regardless of where they are grown, a hallmark to an excellent mushroom is having a gill that is not broken, and is pure white. One should stay away from any that appear yellow or have an ammonia like odor.

Scientific Studies

In 2011, the UF Food Science and Human Nutrition Professor, Sue Percival, studied a group of 52 adults with good health, between the ages of 21 and 41. Findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2011. Participants cleaned and cooked Shiitake mushrooms after undergoing a blood test. After consumption, the new blood tests revealed reductions in inflammatory proteins as well as healthier functioning gamma delta T-cells. This means not only was inflammation reduced, but the immune system was boosted as well.

Several years prior to these findings, David Brauer, an Agriculture Research Service agronomist, studied the mushroom’s production at Dale Bumpers Small Farm Research Center in Booneville, Arkansas, working with nearby mushroom producers in Shirley as well. This was in an effort to determine whether shiitake mushrooms grown on logs had higher levels of HMWP (higher molecular-weight polysaccharides) than those grown in commercial environments. HMWP has been shown to improve the immune system, so higher levels of this would indicate more potential for benefit. Brauer concluded that the shiitake mushrooms grown on logs showed up to 70% of HMWP than those commercially grown, reaffirming that not only did the mushroom improve immunity, but at different levels based on its growth environment. These findings were published with the help of the USDA/Agricultural Research Service on Science Daily’s website, in 2008.

Penn State researchers found even more fascinating results concerning mushrooms in general, back in 2005. Another antioxidant, ergothioneine, was found to be heavily concentrated in mushrooms, up to 12 times that found in wheat germ. Shiitake, however, was found to have some of the heaviest concentrations among mushrooms, with about 40 times the amount of ergothioneine found in wheat germ. Furthermore, the amounts did not decrease after cooking, meaning consumption of shiitake mushrooms in almost any fashion is a giant boost to the immune system.

Suggested Usage

If fighting serious ailments: If using a whole dried Shiitake mushroom, the recommended daily dose is 6-26 grams. If the mushroom is not dried, the recommendation is 90 grams. It is recommended that these suggestions be divided into two or three doses daily. These doses may be used in teas, meals or simply consumed.

For those looking for a maintenance regimen, a half or one gram a day is likely sufficient. If digestive upset occurs, lower the recommended dosage until side effects subside, or consult a physician or naturopath.

Shiitake mushroom is also found as an ingredient in many supplements, and the manufacturer’s directions should be followed in these cases.

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