These slimy forest-floor dwellers won’t win any beauty contests, but they get an A+ when it comes to boosting the body’s ability to kick cancer. ‘Mushrooms increase the body’s natural killer activity, creating antibodies that aid in attacking foreign bodies,’ says Dave Grotto, director of nutrition at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois.
Among the top contenders for the cancer-fighting title are shiitake, maitake and reishi. Of the three, shiitake is the most common in both the kitchen and the research laboratory; its active ingredient, lentinan, has been the subject of more than 300 studies. Lentinan appears to lengthen the lifespan of people with cancer, especially when they are compared with people who receive chemotherapy alone.
A strong immune system is vital for patients undergoing cancer therapy, and mushrooms may also help keep the body’s guard up by increasing T-cell function.
Look for a supplement containing both standardised extracts and active ingredients derived from the fruiting body. Shiitake supplements have no major side-effects. Maitake may lower blood sugar levels, so they’re not good for people who are hypoglycaemic. And reishi mushrooms act as mild blood thinners and so may increase the risk of bleeding, especially when paired with certain drug therapies, such as aspirin or warfarin. If you have any surgery planned, you need to stop taking them ahead of time to cut that risk.