The Frisbee-sized maitake mushroom was once a rare find in the mountains of northern Japan. Its name means "dancing mushroom," but it's also been dubbed "hen of the woods" for the feathery appearance of its overlapping caps. Today, the mushroom is cultivated throughout Europe and North America for its purported medicinal powers. Maitake's cell walls contain powerful carbohydrate compounds called polysaccharides, which help spur the body's immune cells into action.
Uses: Maitake supplements are most commonly used as an immune booster, particularly against cancer and HIV. They're also sometimes taken in attempts to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, lose weight and manage diabetes.
Dose: Recommended doses vary from 1 to 7 grams a day. Maitake supplements are sold as powders, pills and liquid extracts. The mushrooms can also be eaten as food or made into a tea. Maitake products are sometimes labeled with the mushroom's scientific name, Grifola frondosa.
Precautions: Maitake supplements are a relatively new subject of study, but so far they appear to be safe and side-effect free.
Research: In test-tube experiments, maitake extracts have displayed antibacterial, antiviral and anti-tumor activity. In fact, lab studies have shown that the mushroom's components activate several different types of immune-system cells, including white blood cells and so-called natural killer cells. In animal studies, the mushroom has shown promise against cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. In humans, research has focused mainly on maitake's ability to help treat cancer. Researchers in Japan have shown that maitake extracts can boost immune cell function and slow the spread of disease in patients with different types of cancer. Researchers at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are studying the mushroom's effects on the immune system and its usefulness in treating breast cancer.
Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.
-- Elena Conis