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BREATHE: Mushrooms and Respiratory Health

Breathing is fundamental to our existence.  Through the simple

Photo courtesy Winslow Training – www.winslowtraining.net

act of inhaling and exhaling, we provide our vital organs with the oxygen it needs to survive while eliminating waste gases and toxins from our body.  Healthy adults take approximately 12-16 breaths per minute while newborns take 40 on average, a direct correlation of the size of the lungs.  Whereas daily breathing keeps our bodies functioning properly, deep, conscious breathing, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure and quiets the brain which relieves stress.


The process of breathing is straightforward.  Oxygen enters the body through the mouth or nose, passes through the sinuses, trachea and bronchial tubes into the lungs.  From there, oxygenated blood is carried in the bloodstream to the heart where it is pumped throughout the body.  Red blood cells carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it is exhaled out.

A healthy respiratory system is supported by strong bones and muscles primarily in the chest area and spine.  As we age, bones and muscles in and around the lungs become weaker making breathing more difficult leading to restricted airways, shortness of breath and fatigue.  Additionally these changes decrease the amount of oxygen in the blood leading to a weaker immune system and susceptibility to respiratory illnesses and other diseases.

Respiratory illnesses are not limited to older individuals.  Several factors contribute to respiratory complications including the environment (pollution, toxins, allergens), harmful lifestyles (smoking, inhaling toxic gases, poor diet, lack of exercise) and genetics.  Upper respiratory disorders include the common cold, sinusitis, influenza (flu), croup and whooping cough while lower respiratory maladies range from asthma to bronchitis, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, tuberculosis, COPD and a host of other lung diseases.

In the US over 23 million people currently have asthma and more than 6.8 million individuals were diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) last year, the fourth leading cause of death in the US.  8.7 million people were diagnosed in the past year with chronic bronchitis, 4.1 million with emphysema and close to 300,000 emergency visits were made in response to respiratory complications.

Some of these illnesses are in part due to a compromised immune system and oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals (atoms that attack cells) outnumber antioxidants (molecules that keep free radicals in check) leading to DNA damage.  Studies have shown that there is a direct link between oxidative stress and lung damage resulting in COPD, asthma and other respiratory illnesses as well as allergic disorders and serious non-pulmonary diseases.

A study using Chaga extract demonstrated its ability to reduce DNA damage from oxidative stress and concluded that it could be a “possible and valuable supplement to inhibit oxidative stress in general” (Najafzadeh, M. et al).  Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), is a polypore mushroom that grows predominantly on birch trees in northern climes, that has many known benefits including anti-tumor, anti-allergic and anti-glycemic properties as well as anti-inflammatory and immune potentiating effects.  Chaga’s healing powers has been used for centuries by Eurasians to prevent the onset of degenerative diseases and to treat ulcers, tuberculosis and gastritis.  It is currently approved in Russia as an adjunct to cancer therapy and used by Europeans to treat skin disorders, bronchitis and lung disease.

Animal studies using Chaga extracts were also done to determine its effectiveness on asthma by observing the inflammatory cells in mice.  The study compared a control group to three with asthma, two of which were given Chaga extracts in high and low dosages.  As suspected, the three asthmatic groups had higher numbers of inflammatory cells in lung tissues compared to the control group, but those that were given Chaga extracts had lower inflammatory cells and their tissue damage was significantly alleviated.  The researchers concluded that Chaga extracts had the potential to effectively treat asthma by correcting imbalance in the immune system and reducing the number of inflammatory cells.

The most significant trigger for asthma is allergies and animal studies using Chaga extracts suggest that this mushroom also exhibits anti-allergic activities.  In the research lab, mice were given Chaga extract to see how it responded to specific allergens.  The results demonstrated a significant reduction in allergy-causing antibody as well as an increase in cells that eliminate pathogens.

Other mushrooms also exhibit properties helpful in preventing and managing respiratory illnesses.  Reishi, for instance, is a well-known medicinal mushroom recognized for its many health benefits including its positive impact on the upper respiratory tract.  Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is a polypore mushroom that grows on dead or dying deciduous trees in North/South America and Asia.  It has been a part of Oriental culture for thousands of years revered for its antiaging and energizing effects.

Reishi helps with respiratory ailments by increasing the oxygen absorbing capacity of the alveoli (air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange occurs) which in turn boosts stamina.  Patients suffering from chronic bronchitis benefit from Reishi extracts that effectively reduces the activity of the parasympathetic nerves responsible for the incessant coughing. Like Chaga, Reishi appears to have antiviral properties as demonstrated in research determining the effects of this fungus on the influenza A virus.  Reishi boosts the immune system, acts as an energizer and due to its high levels of lanostan, is also a natural antihistamine.

Neither Chaga nor Reishi are consumed raw but rather ingested in tea form, as a tincture  or in  capsules.  Terrafunga carries a supplement called Breathe taken in capsule form that combines the benefits of Chaga, Reishi and Cordyceps for a healthier respiratory system. Both Reishi and Chaga can still be found in the wild; Reishi growing on oak, maple and elm, Chaga on birch, and can be made into a tea relatively easily.  Both are a little bitter so adding maple syrup or honey will adjust the flavor.

Respiratory health is directly connected to one’s general well-being. Developing good habits such as eating wholesome foods, staying active, getting plenty of sleep and relaxing the mind all contribute to boosting the immune system and overall health.  Taking long, deep breaths at various times of the day will calm the mind, relieve stress and restore a sound body.

Sources: Mycomedicinals, Paul Stamets (2002), chagaknowledge.com, National Institute of Health, NCBI.nlm.nih.gov, healthypeople.gov/2020, lifescience.com

Terrafunga does not offer medical advice. Readers should seek medical advice from a licensed physician or other qualified health care professional and not rely on information they may gather from secondary sources such as the internet.