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Fungi that save lives: 3 fungi cultivated by multinational pharmaceutical companies

Insulin, which is essential for certain types of diabetics, medicines taken not to reject a transplanted organ, cholesterol reducers ... Do you know that these medications and many others come from fungi cultivation?




Yes, these and other molecules fundamental for people's health come from growing fungi originally collected in nature. To do this, they isolate the fungi and start growing it in bioreactors, which are nothing else but sterile tanks filled with water and adequate food for the species to grow. Men give them food and the mushrooms give us many molecules useful for our health, which are processed later, purified and sold in capsules, tablets, injections, etc.

This is the day-to-day in many medicine factories. In some cases the medicinal fungus is grown as it was collected and isolated, just like the anamorph of the fungus Cordiceps subsessilis used to produce Ciclosporin A. This fungus is found in nature parasitizing wood boring beetles and curiously produces this molecule indispensable for patients who have had a transplant not to reject the transplanted organ.

In other cases, a fungus from nature is forced to mutate in the lab in order to generate a higher amount of active substance, as in the case of penicillin. Thus, the fungus Penicillium notatum accidentally discovered by Pasteur in 1941 remains a source of penicillins.

The difference with respect to the original organism is that, by techniques of accelerating mutations and selecting strains, the final Penicillium is one million times more productive than the starting organism. A fact that reflects the importance of these fungi is that it is estimated that one out of 10 people on the planet is still alive thanks to them.

And another fungus: the insulin that is currently sold for diabetics also comes from fungi cultivations. In this case, genetically modified beer yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is cultivated. A gene producer of insulin is introduced into its DNA and, when expressed, produces this protein which is later purified and sold.

Saint John’s wort. Studies show that it is as effective as some medications.

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum L.) is a plant very common in the peninsula and acclimatized in numerous temperate zones around the world: China, America, Australia, Europe, North of Asia. It is located at the edge of arable lands, roadsides, ditches and edges of forests.



The generic name Hypericum derives from the Greek word "hyperikon", which means something like everything above images, alluding to the property attributed to Hypericum perforatum of "scaring away evil spirits."

It is a medium-sized plant with hairless and branched stems. It has triangular and opposit leaves, with rounded edges. These leaves, looking at them against the light, seem perforated, which gives them the name of their specific epithet: perforatum. Actually, they are not perforated but have a lot of oily glands in those areas.

It has a very characteristic flower, with five yellow petals and smaller sepals. The sepals are striped and covered with black glands.

St. John's wort is the most consumed medicinal plant on the planet. It is sold in almost all drugstores and herbalists’ shops as a plant to prepare infusions with or, most frequently, in capsules, as an extract. The useful part is the flowery ends and its main medicinal use is to treat mild or moderate depressions. The "scaring evil spirits" comes probably from that.

Despite its extensive use around the planet, this plant should not be taken lightly, but rather must be consumed in a controlled and precise manner. The European Medicines Agency (EMA)’s monograph indicates a well-established medical use in the treatment of mild to moderate depressive episodes with this plant. Its efficacy is similar to conventional antidepressants.

The major constituents of St John's wort include naphtodiantrones, hypericin, hyperforin, pseudohypericin, isohypericin and protohypericin; however, the substance responsible for the main medicinal activity has not been identified yet. The hyperforin present in St John's wort has shown to result in cognitive enhancement, memory enhancement, neuroprotective effect, and inhibition of the reuptake of different neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline), which could explain the plant’s antidepressant activity.


Hypericum perforatum or St. John's wort’s flower. It is a very characteristic flower.

One must be careful with St. John's wort because it can cause photo sensitivity, ie reactions similar to sunburns in parts of the body exposed to intense sunlight, especially in people with white skin. Gastrointestinal disorders, allergic reactions (redness, itching and rash), tiredness, or restlessness may occur on rare occasions. The medicinal plant can interfere in numerous medications such as antivirals, antibiotics, blood coagulation inhibitors, sleep inducers, oral contraceptives... so one should consult a specialist before consuming it.

Another application of St. John's wort is its oil. This oil is obtained by macerating the flowering tops in a bottle of olive oil, leaving it out in the sun for about 40 days, and afterwards filtering the oil and keeping it, if possible, in opaque bottles. This oil is used as an analgesic for muscle and joint pains, it also has antiseptic properties, so it is commonly used to treat wounds and burns.

After its use one should not sunbathe, as spots on the skin difficult to remove might appear. So a piece of advice is to use it only in winter or at night. Each time the bottle is opened, active substances react with the oxygen of the air and are lost, so it is convenient to collect it in several small containers and use one at a time.

The English Plantain, humble plant full of properties.

english-plantainThe English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is an herb that can be found during most part of the year. Its leaves form a basal rosette on the ground, they join in a central point forming a circle, and their length is five times bigger than their width. They have a lanceolate figure, that give name to the species, a flat edge or barely toothed, and they may have many hairs on their surface or be almost hairless, since its hair is very variable. All along the leaf, there are 3 to 5 veins. The petiole of the leaf is as long as the leaf itself.
The flowers form short spikes of less than 3 cm at the end of a kind of stem, the “scape”, which measures approximately twice the length of the leaves of the plant.

The English plantain likes moderate rich soils, such as pastures, it also appears in mown meadows, but it is scarce in highly fertilized soils. It is usually considered as an indicative of moderate dryness of the ground. It doesn’t like late frosts or extreme temperatures. It has a preference for slightly acidic soils.


The English plantain, due to its multiple and effective uses, is very appreciated by Central European popular medicine and therefore already has a monograph in the European Medicines Agency (2014). It is collected as a traditional herbal remedy and is indicated as a demulcent for the symptomatic treatment of oral or pharyngeal irritations and the associated dry cough: it helps to reduce irritation and discomfort caused by the cough. Consequently, they recommended to brew the aerial part of the plants. The amount to use is 2 g of ground English plantain in 150 ml of water and have it as a tea, 2-3 times a day.

Plantain leaves can be used to soothe and protect skin during inflammatory symptoms. Both the English plantain we are explaining and the greater plantain, Plantago major, will work. The mucilages that the leaves have cover the skin and lubricate it so that it does not irritate and besides, iridoids, flavonoids, and phenolic acids act to reduce the inflammation. To use like that, you can use compresses soaked in a 2% brewing, 2 to 3 times a day.


Another use of the English plantains is its antidiarrheal properties. These are due to mucilages, which retain water in the intestine so it is not evacuated. At the same time these mucilages have a protective effect on the intestinal mucosa. Since plantain mucilages are not digested, they are also highly recommended for the treatment of occasional constipation, as they increase the size of the fecal bolus. Their seeds are mainly used for this, as they contain the highest concentration of mucilages (up to 20%). They must be taken always with plenty of water. As it is very difficult to obtain large amounts of wild plantain’s seeds, we can always go to a herbalist's shop and buy the seeds of a cultivated congener that shares this properties: Plantago ovata.

It is important to note that mucilages can make it difficult to absorb medicines, as they hold them in their viscous matrix, and that plantains should be used with caution by diabetics.

Once in the kitchen, you can use the fresh leaves of the plantain, which must be collected before the flowering of the plant. First wash them well and then discard the thick nerves that are annoying to the palate, just like the nerves of green beans. The leaves cut into small pieces can be used for salads or soups. I leave here a "very wild" recipe:

Plantain Green: Ingredients: 50g of plantain, 50g of carrots, 25 g of sorrel, 25g of malvas, 10g of onion, 10g of butter, 10 of flour. Pepper and salt.

After washing and chopping the plantain, the malvas and the carrots, cook everything for 20 minutes. Chop the onions finely, cook them apart until they are transparent and add them to the previous preparation along with the chopped sorrels. Finally heat it all again and when everything is cooked add the flour dissolved in water, salt and pepper.

Watch out, people who are prone to form kidney stones, since the recipe includes sorrel and it contains quite a lot of oxalic acid, which can enlarge the size of the stones that have the same composition.

Reishi protects the pancreas from damage that can lead to diabetes and obesity.

The pancreas is the organ responsible for producing insulin for cells. Insulin is a protein that allows blood sugar to pass into the muscle. Therefore damage to the pancreas causes problems in the sugar management system of the body and can trigger obesity and diabetes.


Reishi consumption protects from damage in the pancreas occasioned by the toxic molecule named “alloxan”. This molecule is residually present in refined white flours: it is produced by the oxidation of the pigments called xanthophylls with chlorinated compounds that are used during bleaching (but don’t worry, because it is found in negligible quantities!).

Alloxan causes selective destruction of the beta cells of the pancreas, causing a loss of functioning of the pancreatic islets and therefore causing hyperglycemia (diabetes) and ketoacidosis in laboratory animals.

In this research, they study the influence of reishi on the protection of pancreatic islets, both in vitro and in animals (in vivo). Pure reishi polysaccharides were exposed for 12 h and 24 h to pancreatic cells and these molecules significantly reversed the loss of viability of the islets when affected by alloxan.

Animal tests: Reishi polysaccharides were given to mice for 10 days, prior to alloxan poisoning. The reishi consumers found their blood sugar reduced and their serum insulin increased, compared to those who did not consume reishi.

These results suggest that pure reishi protects the pancreas of animals from damage caused by alloxan, a molecule present in some foods. One of the mechanisms of action is the protection of the organ through reishi polysaccharides with high antioxidant power that prevents the oxidation induced by alloxan in the pancreatic islets.
Remember that reishi extracts in the market may not concentrate the polysaccharides that act to protect the pancreas. Only pure quality reishi, which was used in this research, surely contains the active molecules. Read the differences between pure reishi and reishi extracts here.

How does reishi regulate body defenses?

The immune system is that group of biological structures and processes inside an organism that protects it against pathogens and cancerous agents.

reishi-defensesTo date, different substances from reishi with immunomodulatory properties have been isolated. These ones include polysaccharides (in particular B-D-glucans), proteins (in particular LZ-8) and triterpenoids1. These compounds are capable of modulating the regulatory mechanisms involved in the activation, differentiation and proliferation of T and B lymphocytes.

This has been confirmed in a study carried out in soccer players 2. The suppressive effects in the immune system caused by overtraining, were inhibited by the consumption of pure reishi. Thus the group of players who took a larger amount of reishi mushroom had a CD4 / CD8 lymphocyte ratio, higher than those who had not taken reishi or took a lower quantity ofit. The lower CD4 / CD8 ratio is an indicator of immune suppression.

This case has confirmed the ability of pure reishi (know the differences between pure reishi and reishi extracts here) to inhibit immune suppression caused by high level overtraining, typical of numerous sports activities. However, there is scientific evidence about how it can help in processes where the defenses decrease to a greater extent, such as during chemo and radiotherapy treatments, but we will discuss that later in another article of the blog.

1. Gao Y, Zhou S. The Immunomodulating Effects of Ganoderma lucidum (Curt.: Fr.) P. Karst. (Ling Zhi, Reishi Mushroom) (Aphyllophoromycetideae). 2002; 4(1): 11.

2. Zhang, Y., Z. Lin, Y. Hu and F. Wang (2008). "Effect of Ganoderma lucidum capsules on T lymphocyte subsets in football players on "living high-training low"." British Journal of Sports Medicine 42(10): 519-522.

You can find many other research articles on reishi and defense modulation in this link.

Reishi extracts in the market can be very good, if you know the "kind and origin"

Practically all the shops in the market that sell reishi are selling reishi extracts. Unfortunately they do not know what kind of extract they are selling and its origin, because this information is not included in the label. Here we clarify the issue and the implications of all this.


1- The kind of extract:

At any pharmacy, herbalist's or shop, ask what kind of reishi extract they have: Is it a methanoic extract? Is it hydroalcoholic? Is it an extract in ether?... We know that each extract is different! (link)

Each of these extracts concentrates certain things and therefore will only have the virtues of that that it is concentrating! Tip: Do not consume an extract that does not indicate its origin, that is, which solvent has been used to produce it. I will give a real example:

A person who gets colds regularly and has low defenses goes to the herbalist's shop in his neighborhood to ask the specialist who provides consultation there. He recommends him reishi and echinacea, echinacea no longer than 3 months, because it can cause dependence, he can have reishi continuously. According to what the specialist said, he goes to the area where he can buy products and the shop assistant sells him an reishi extract 1:20, considering it is the most effective because it is very concentrated. As it usually happens, the product label does not say anything about this, but he is taking a reishi extract in ether.

The specialist has advised him well, the shop assistant has sold him the most concentrated extract they have, considering it to be the most effective and, big mistake! Because of the ignorance of the origin of the extract, which is not indicated on the label, the result of the reishi consumption will be just as a placebo, that is, it will affect practically nothing in your immune system. And I will explain why:

A reishi extract in ether concentrates mainly fatty acids (oils) and polar molecules that dissolve in them. It is a great extract for external use, added to skin creams, to nourish and moisturize, but the solvent used for the extraction does not concentrate the substances considered active on the immune system: betaglucans and immunomodulatory proteins. It will not be effective for the patient's problem (if it worked, it would be due to the 15% efficacy attributed to placebo effects on the whole).

In a nutshell: the extracts are enormously different depending on which solvent has been used in their production. If the label does not indicate the origin of the extract, we do not advise its consumption, because its properties are unknown.

In another post we will discuss the types of commercial extracts and their virtues in more detail.


2- Origin of reishi extracts:

The origin of reishi extracts in the market can be:

  1. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum mushrooms)
  2. Ganoderma lucidum (mycelium).

As we can see, the label of both products will include the text: extract of Ganoderma lucidum. If it does not clarify if it comes from mushroom or mycelium, it will probably come from mycelium, which is much cheaper to cultivate (it feeds on water with sugar, basically), and therefore is more present in the market.

The difference between one and another lies in the initial raw material used to produce the extract. In one case it is fungus, mycelium (Ganoderma lucidum), and in the other case, it is mushroom (mushrooms of Ganoderma lucidum).

The differences in composition and properties between them are enormous. For example, taking into account the content of polyphenols, that concentrate most of the antioxidant virtues of the product, when comparing Ganoderma extracts coming from mycelium and from mushrooms, the amount of polyphenols vary from undetectable in the first case to 7.82% in the second, while the quantity of polysaccharides, where immunoglobulin beta-glucans are found, range from 1.1% to 29.7% respectively, according to Chang’s research in 2010.

Another research team compared them too (Bhardwaj et al, 2016) 2. He studied dozens of different chemical molecules by using a technique called ultra-pressure liquid chromatography together with a 4-pole tandem mass spectrometry analyzer, and concluded that they are products with big chemical differences, totally differentiated. In consequence, both extracts have different properties and are not comparable.

To sum up: mycelium extracts are enormously different from mushroom extracts. If on the label of the product it is not indicated that it is a mushroom extract (from reishi), we do not recommend its acquisition, because it may be mycelium extract. Also, a pure mushroom extract can be an excellent product, but we must take into account what we discussed in point 1: it depends on the kind of extract (solvent used for extraction).

1- Chang STB, J.A. Safety, quality control and regulational aspects relating to mushroom nutriceuticals. 2010.

2- Bhardwaj, A., et al., Screening of Indian Lingzhi or Reishi Medicinal Mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum (Agaricomycetes): A UPC2-SQD-MS Approach. J Pharmacopuncture, 2016. 18(2): p. 177-89