SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Vital to life on earth, mushrooms are magical. But not necessarily in the way most people think.
“There are gazillions, and most of them are not psychedelic mushrooms," said Dr. Gordon Saxe, a preventative medicine physician and epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego and director of the Krupps Center of Integrative Research. “Most have no mind-altering effect whatsoever but may be really helpful for our health.”
While used medicinally for thousands of years, researchers say there's been a lag in modern science to study their potential today. But a first-of-its-kind study assesses whether medicinal mushrooms and Chinese herbs provide therapeutic benefit in treating acute COVID-19 infection.
“Often, these things would be dismissed as quackery, even though there’s such a long history of their use by folks like Hippocrates and his contemporaries," said Dr. Saxe. "Some of our best Western medicines are derived from fungi. Think penicillin.”
From fending off viruses to boosting our immune systems, Dr. Saxe is among researchers trying to harness the potential of medicinal mushrooms.
MACH-19 (Mushrooms and Chinese Herbs for COVID-19) — a multi-center study led by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and UCLA — is among the first to evaluate these specific integrative medicine approaches using the gold standard of Western medicine: the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
Working with two mushroom species, turkey tail, and agarikon, Dr. Saxe says they're also studying whether medicinal mushrooms can bolster immune response after vaccination.
To understand science, you must go way back in time.
“We co-developed for over a billion years together. Much of our genetics is very similar to that of fungi and mushrooms," said Dr. Saxe. “The same things that would prey on us – viruses, bacteria – preyed on fungi. And so a billion or more years, they evolved all kinds of exquisite defenses against those pathogens.”
Medicine created by Mother Nature that can benefit humans.
“Many of the substances they produce, will bind, have specificity for cells in our immune system, for receptors on those cells, and so when we ingest them, they can activate or enhance our own immune responses.”
Their rigorous clinical trials are supported by the Krupp Endowed Fund.
“Very few natural products undergo FDA-approved research, and even fewer make it to the point that they receive FDA approval for use," said Dr. Saxe. “Unfortunately, natural products don’t have the same level of patent protection that pharmaceuticals do, so the financial incentives are less.”
Receiving FDA approval would be historic for fungi, which are already having a moment in today’s wellness culture. Varieties like reishi, chaga, and lion’s mane can be found in fancy lattes today and are available over the counter as health supplements.
“And we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can use pharmaceuticals but also, when appropriate, use natural approaches,” said Dr. Saxe.
Relatively dirt cheap and easy to produce, Dr. Saxe believes unearthing their superpowers could be a critical tool for the world.
“COVID and other diseases are global problems. We have to be thinking globally, not just locally, about these things. It makes sense to use things such as mushrooms to help in this fight.”