FICTION OR FACT ? Do Probiotics really help?
MUSHROOMS: REISHI, AGARICUS, CORIOLUS, MAITAKE, SHITAKE, AND KOMBUCHA
These are the mushrooms that seem to have been most studied. Because they are part of their traditional medicines, most studies have been done by the Japanese and Chinese, on species that grow there. Kombucha is not technically a mushroom, but included as it’s sometimes called that.
Here in Alaska, we have many edible and delicious mushrooms. One species of puffball contains a substance being studied for cancer treatment. Traditionally, puffballs and bear’s head fungus (found south of here on old cottonwood trees) have been bound to wounds to stop bleeding.
Shitake is, of course, eaten frequently as a food. It has very low levels of pharmacologically active substances, insufficient to be active when consumed as food. Larger quantities consumed daily for months caused an allergic-type reaction in half the patients taking it. No activity against prostate cancer was shown.
Kombucha is a mixture of black tea and sugar that is fermented with a symbiot of yeasts and bacteria. It contains caffeine, and up to 1.5% alcohol. Several studies have not found any medical benefit, and consumption has caused poisoning from toxic substances leached from the walls of the storage containers, or anthrax from toxic bacteria that also grew in the brew.
Claims are made for support of the immune system for most mushrooms; studies support this for coriolus and agaricus. Poria and cordyceps may support kidney function. The only two studies of cordyceps to improve athletic performance found no benefit. Preliminary studies show the presence of anti tumor compounds in reishi, maitake and coriolus mushrooms. Agaricus extract has shown benefit in controlling blood sugars; maitake may also. Many other claims are made but not substantiated. Allergic reactions are the most frequently reported side effect of all the mushrooms. Higher doses and longer term use have the potential to adversely affect different systems.
Sources: Discovering Wild Plants, Janice Schofield. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
Review of Natural Medicines Database 9/10/13 reveals possible benefit from maitake mushrooms on ovulation. There are no other changes noted in this reference.
Mental Health Supplements
The practitioners at the health center have become aware of some students taking various supplements for anxiety. One of these is kava, a plant traditionally used by Pacific Islanders. There is some evidence that kava has mild antianxiety activity; however, it has been connected to liver failure even in standard doses for short durations. It has been banned in Switzerland, Germany and Canada, countries that traditionally use herbs extensively. There is speculation that liver damage occurs in people who more slowly metabolize certain compounds; currently there is no lab test to detect this.
Another potentially toxic compound is 5-HTP (5-hydroxyltryptophan). This is a substance formed in humans from the amino acid L-tryptophan; it is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is low in many people with depression, insomnia, obesity, headaches and other conditions, and 5-HTP does seem to help. However, it (and l-tryptophan, too) has been linked to the initially asymptomatic eosinophilia myalgia syndrome which can cause irreversible damage and severe muscle pain. Some, but not all cases of this syndrome have been linked to impurities present in minute quantities; toxicity from it, too, may be caused by genetic susceptibility. It is often produced from an African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia.
GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. It is used for anxiety, ADHD, increasing lean muscle mass, and several other conditions. In the 1990s it was studied in single doses of several grams, which seem to produce minimal benefits but can cause elevated blood pressure, unpleasant mood, and could have unpredictable effects on growth hormone. There are no reports of studies of smaller doses, use longer than 4 days, nor more recent studies referenced in my sources.
Theanine is the major amino acid found in green tea, historically used for its relaxing and anti-anxiety effects. Interestingly, one report indicates very small doses of theanine without caffeine are excitatory in rats, with larger doses inhibiting the stimulation of caffeine. One dose used is 200 mg daily; at a concentration in green tea of 1-3 percent, the average tea drinker would get a significantly lower dose, perhaps 20 mg daily. Although no adverse reactions have been reported from consumption of theanine, no large scale studies have been done on humans at doses higher than that obtained by drinking tea. Another column in this series addressed green tea benefits.
As reported in Scientific American Mind in March, 2013, a new drug is being researched for those who want to stop their drug addiction. N-acetyl cysteine(NAC) is a substance naturally found in human cells. It has been used for years for many varied situations, including as an antidote to acetaminophen poisoning and to loosen thick mucus in people with cystic fibrosis. It is rapidly absorbed into the body, but can cause nausea and other GI symptoms, worsen asthma, and even cause strong allergic reactions. However, a study last August, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, demonstrated decreased consumption of marijuana in teenage users, and a 2009 study showed decreased compulsive hair pulling after 9 weeks of treatment. Another study looked at cocaine use over three days of NAC administration, and found users reported half as strong cravings. It seems likely that a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy with long-term NAC will help significantly larger numbers of people to follow through on their desire to stop at least nicotine, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and likely alcohol use, and probably other drugs. The 2009 study used 1200-2400 mg daily over 12 weeks. More studies are proceeding.
Be sure to check with your medical provider if you take any prescription medications and plan to take any of these substances; there can significant interactions.
The uses of valerian and rhodiola (for anxiety), and SAMe (for depression) were addressed in previous columns. Saint John’s wort will be covered in the next column.
Natural Medicines Database accessed 3/5/2013
Scientific American Mind, volume 24, number 1, March/April 2013, pp 40-44.