Do you know about the powerful healing properties of the reishi mushroom? If not, it's time to get acquainted, because reishi just might be the most dynamic superfood yet.

Dubbed “the mushroom of immortality”, this woody fungus is known as Ling Zhi in China, where it has been used medicinally for 2000 years. Found in remote mountain forests in Asia, reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) also grows wild in a variety of natural environments around the world. Possibly the most revered herb in Asia, reishi is used as a tonic herb to promote health, longevity and a more centred state of mind. It’s highly protective, providing immunological, neurological, metabolic, hepatic and vascular protection.

Reishi is loaded with biologically active constituents that potentially benefit virtually every cell of the human body. Major constituents include: sterols, which may act as precursors to hormones in the body; ganoderic acids, or triterpenoids, which possibly have blood pressure-lowering and antiallergy/antihistamine effects, and decrease LDL cholesterol and reduce blood platelet stickiness; and beta-glucans, complex sugars that may halt the growth and spread of cancer cells - immune system cells become more active in animals given beta-glucans.

Numerous claims abound about reishi’s healing abilities, but many are based on promising but limited early research. For this reason, Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence, classifies the use of reishi for the following conditions as “insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness”: noncancerous tumours in the colon and rectum, clogged arteries, type 1 diabetes, hepatitis B, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, lung cancer, and shingles-related pain.

One claim made about reishi relates to its role in treating cancer. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners may prescribe reishi extract as an immune system support supplement for cancer patients, and one clinical trial revealed that reishi can enhance immune response in advanced-stage cancer patients. However, reishi can also cause toxicity in some immune cells, so more studies are needed. Laboratory research and preclinical trials show promising results of reishi’s anti-tumour activity. A systematic review was undertaken to provide a more accurate picture for health-care consumers. Five relevant, but small, randomised controlled trials involving 373 people were identified, and a meta‐analysis was performed to pool available data. The results showed patients taking reishi extract in their anti-cancer regimen were 1.27 times more likely to respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy than those who did not use it. However, the data failed to demonstrate significant effects on tumour shrinkage when the extract was used alone. In addition, reishi could stimulate immune function by considerably increasing key lymphocyte percentages. Natural killer‐cell activity, which is an indicator of self‐defence against tumour cells, was elevated. Patients taking reishi also had a relatively better quality of life after treatment than those in the control group, although some reported minor side effects, including nausea and insomnia.

If you’re considering taking reishi as an adjunctive therapy to cancer treatment, consult a qualified natural therapist – indeed, the number of contraindications make this imperative if you take reishi for any reason. For example, it may lessen the effect of some chemotherapy drugs in those undergoing cancer treatment, while people taking immunosuppressant drugs may find it actually stimulates immune responses, and it may increase the risk of bleeding in people taking blood thinners, such as warfarin.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc(CompMed) MHSc (HumNut) AdvDipNat is a member of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society.