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The plague of modern humankind has been the common cold. In current times, however, more serious viral infections, some leading to certain death, have plagued society, including hepatitis B (a liver disease transmitted through transfusions, the use of unsterile needles, or other blood-to-blood contact) and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). Whether shiitake can cure the common cold is doubtful, but an extract of it, called LEM (Lentinula edodes mycelium) shows promise as a treatment for more serious viral infections, including hepatitis B and HIV.
You may have encountered mushroom mycelium while digging in rich soil; it is a stringy, weblike material that looks like a rotted root system. When temperature, moisture, and other conditions are right, the mycelium develops fruiting bodies, or the portions we call mushrooms. In Japan LENI has been the focus of many studies.
HIV: Test-tube studies in Japan have shown that LEM was less toxic to normal cells and more toxic to cells infected with HIV than AZT, a drug that slows the progress of AIDS.
Researchers also found that LEM contained substances that increased cell formation in bone marrow, the site where most immune system cells are born; other researchers discovered that lignins (a main constituent of dietary fiber) in LEM were causing the increases.
In test tubes, LEM lignins have been shown to prevent HIV cells from proliferating and damaging T cells, as well as preventing cell damage from herpes simplex I and II, two viral infections that often accompany HIV infection. The test-tube studies are promising, but clinical studies are needed to determine the effect of the LEM lignins on HIV in the body.
As for lentinan, the shiitake polysaccharide drug, it alone has shown no effect against HIV in test-tube experiments, but a combination of lentinan and AZT has been shown to be 24 times as effective at inhibiting HIV as AZT alone. Trials of lentinan in combination with anti-HIV drugs were approved in Japan in the late 1980s and have shown positive results. A long-term, carefully controlled study at several hospitals in the United States used a similar strategy of giving AIDS patients lentinan in combination with an anti-HIV drug and found the therapy superior to the anti-HIV drug alone.
- Reprinted from Herbs for Health, 1996.