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Mushrooms Against Cancer?

My sister-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer almost three years ago and is now in remission. She heard that a product from Japan called AHCC can help prevent cancer recurrence. Can you tell me anything about it?

Answer (Published 2/7/2014)

Originally published December 11, 2007. Updated February 7, 2014.

Active hexose correlated compound, or AHCC, is a proprietary medicinal mushroom extract intended to strengthen the immune system. In the past, the formula was considered a trade secret of the Japanese manufacturer, so we don’t know for sure what’s in it other than a combination of several species of Basidiomycete mushrooms, including shiitake (which has been shown to have anti-cancer effects). This may change as the FDA continues to review its regulation of supplements and require full disclosure on products labels. The extract is marketed as a supplement for cancer patients, particularly those undergoing chemotherapy. The manufacturer also suggests taking it for prevention of recurrences among patients who have been treated for cancer as well as for the promotion and maintenance of good health.

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A review of studies of AHCC from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York concluded that there hasn’t been enough research in humans to determine whether it works. The review noted that one study showed that AHCC could enhance the activity of natural killer cells (key immune system components that defend us from cancer) in test tubes, and that animal studies suggest that AHCC has antioxidant effects and can improve the response of the immune system in mice with chemotherapy-weakened immune systems. However, there have been few human studies demonstrating AHCC’S effectiveness. One study in patients with liver cancer found that the supplement improved liver function and cirrhosis and reduced levels of certain tumor markers in the blood. However, the MSKCC reviewers determined that this study had design flaws. Another human study of prostate cancer patients treated with AHCC found that the supplement was ineffective.

Until we know more about whether AHCC works as advertised, I suggest that your sister-in-law consider the mushrooms I recommend to cancer patients for their proven immune-enhancing and anti-cancer effects:

  • Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), is a common medicinal mushroom shown to have anticancer effects in ongoing research in this country. Use liquid or encapsulated extracts.
  • Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is an edible mushroom known in the U.S. as "hen of the woods" because in appearance it resembles the fluffed tail feathers of a nesting hen. In addition to its anti-cancer, anti-viral and immune-enhancing properties, maitake may also help reduce blood pressure and blood sugar.
  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is too bitter to eat but is widely available in teabags, capsules and liquid extracts. Animal studies have shown that reishi improves immune function and inhibits the growth of some malignant tumors; it is also a natural anti-inflammatory agent.
  • Agaricus blazei (Agaricus brasiliensis) contains beta glucans, a group of polysaccharides (complex sugars) believed responsible for this mushroom's immune-boosting effects. Research has shown that Agaricus has anti-tumor and anti-viral activity, as well as moderating effects on blood sugar and cholesterol. Oncologists in both Japan and Brazil use this mushroom in treatment protocols. It is sold in the U.S. in dried form as well as in extracts.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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