Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New for Fall 2012: Jade Defense REISHI

Since I have written at length about Jade Defense elsewhere, I invite you to read that post if you are new to the formula or want to refresh your memory.  In today’s post I will ramble a little bit about what makes this year’s Jade Defense “new and improved.”

Extraction Method:
The first thing is that compared to last year, I got a little bit more sophisticated in my extraction technique.  I typically make my liquid extracts as a mixed water/alcohol percolation, all the herbs ground up, moistened overnight, and extracted together in one fell swoop over the course of a day.  Last year’s Jade Defense veered from that protocol in that the aralia was extracted separately with pure ethanol as a fresh plant, and also I used the reflux feature of my Soxhlet Extractor to do a second extraction of the remaining herbs without added solvent.  I was quite pleased with the outcome, and in fact caught only one cold last winter (I attribute this defeat not to a failure of Jade Defense but to my staying up too late on New Year’s Eve).

This year, based on the fact that Jade Defense packs much of its immune-stimulating punch due to the water-soluble polysaccharides in a few of its key herbs, I first performed a pure ethanol extraction of the polysaccharide-rich astragalus and ganoderma (more on the ganoderma in a minute), and the aralia as well almost as an afterthought, to pull out ethanol-soluble medicinal compounds.  Then, after pressing the dregs, I performed a low-heat water extraction of the same herbs over several hours.  Finally I combined the two extracts, with each other and with the standard ethanol/water percolation of the remaining herbs in the formula (atractylodes, Siberian Ginseng, and ledebouriella). 

The result is a murky brown fluid that, when allowed to settle, shows components of different densities forming layers and clouds of various supersaturated solutes. Some people prefer their tinctures cloudless and pristine, and in fact I usually adhere to this esthetic standard in my medicines.  But in this particular case, I don’t mind at all because the result is so worthwhile.  The parts that settle out do so not because they are somehow rendered inactive; they are simply present in too high a concentration to be held in solution by the ethanol/water mix of the final tincture.  So, to get the maximum benefit out of your polyssacharide-boosted Jade Defense, you just have to remember to shake the bottle well before you take a dose.

Jade Defense is a formula that should be taken long-term to build the immune system.  Last year, I fear there were people who got one two-ounce bottle, took it for two weeks, went off of it, and then got sick a few weeks later.  So, to encourage you to do it right this year, Jade Defense REISHI is being distributed in four-ounce bottles.  If you take the recommended half-teaspoon dose twice a day (in the morning and late afternoon, on an empty stomach), one bottle should last you about a month.  If you prefer using a dropper for accurate dosing, transfer some of your Jade Defense REISHI to a dropper bottle AFTER SHAKING THOROUGHLY and take an equivalent amount (this should be about four full squirts, but you should calibrate this against a half-teaspoon baker's measuring spoon to make sure).  I like to mix it with a little hot water, but it can also be enjoyed straight up or on ice.

The new addition to this year’s formula is a medicinal mushroom most commonly known by its Japanese name, “reishi,” which is the Japanese pronounciation of its Chinese name, “ling zhi.”  Its Latin binomial is Ganoderma lucidum.  Reishi’s 43.3 Mb genome was sequenced earlier this year, yielding fascinating new information on the fungus’ metabolic pathways that result in the over four hundred bioactive compounds it produces.

Reishi holds a special place in the world of Chinese medicine.  Since ancient times it has been revered as a medicine of almost supernatural power.  In fact, the “rei” part of “reishi” (“ling” in Chinese) is a character that means something like “miraculous,” “mysterious,” or “supernatural.”  And the “shi” part (“zhi” in Chinese”) is a special character that is not used to refer to ordinary mushrooms but to semi-divine “excrescences” that, according to Daoist scholar Fabrizio Pregadio “pertain to an intermediate dimension between mundane and transcendent reality.”

What would lead the ancient Chinese emperors and sages to hold this fungus in such high regard?  One factor was its rarity (only in recent decades has it been successfully propagated and made widely available to consumers).  Another reason is surely its health effects.  Reishi was thought to confer longevity and even immortality on its ingesters.  Finally, as with most “sacred” plants used by humans, reishi-lovers probably appreciated its effects on their state of mind.

Fortunately for us, two millennia of anecdotal evidence about reishi’s health effects are backed up by much modern research.  Reishi is easily one of the best-researched medicinal herbs in the world.  What scientists have found is that reishi’s health effects are produced by two main classes of compounds: triterpenoids and polysaccharides.

The triterpenoids in reishi are all modifications of lanosterol, which is the precursor of all steroid hormones including ergosterol, which functions in fungal cell membranes much as cholesterol does in animals. However, reishi produces more than 150 different triterpenoids, begging the question: why?  Most likely, due to their bitter flavor, at least some of these triterpenoids are useful as anti-predation chemicals (animals don’t enjoy eating them).  Others probably play different roles in fungal biology.  Over many many generations of selection, the reishi mushroom has produced a startling array of triterpenoids, which, lucky for us, exhibit a number of health effects in humans.  Chief among these are liver-protectant, anti-hypertensive, anti-cholesterol, and anti-allergy effects of a subset of triterpenoids known as ganoderic acids.

The second major class of bioactive compounds found in reishi is the polysaccharides.  These are extremely large macromolecules that, together with abundant chitin, form the structural matrix of the mushroom’s body.  These are the substances that makes a mushroom rubbery/spongy, and the polysaccharides are also secreted by fungi and algae to help them stick to surfaces they are growing on, and to keep them from drying out.  Beta-glucans – one type of polysaccharide found in reishi as well as in yeast, some grains, and in other fungi – have been shown to have immune system stimulating effects.  It turns out that a receptor on the surface of human innate immune cells binds to beta-glucan, allowing the immune cells to recognize it as “non-self” and mount an immune response.  Because a part of these giant polysaccharides is structurally similar to signature molecules found on the cell membranes of bacteria, the body is in effect tricked into strengthening its immunity when there is in fact no actual threat.  The end result is an increased ability to fight pathogens and protect from disease. Animal studies show that beta-glucans and a number of different polysaccharides in reishi exhibit other effects, most importantly anti-tumor, radiation-protective, anti-inflammatory, and hypoglycemic effects.  While the mechanisms underlying these effects are poorly understood, I conclude that anybody wishing to strengthen their immune system, especially those fighting cancer or trying to avoid it, stand to benefit from supplementing with reishi.

Finally, drawing more from traditional therapeutic use than from contemporary research, reishi is an excellent herb for the lungs.  Like most mushrooms, it is yin-nourishing, with much of its yin-nourishing effect centered on the lungs.  This makes it useful for many kinds of cough, asthma, and bronchitis, and also makes it a good partner to the astragalus and aralia in Jade Defense, which strengthen the qi of the lungs to ward off cold and flu.

Mental Effects:
Reishi exhibits paradoxical central nervous system effects.  Some people say it energizes them, while others find it sedating and helpful for insomnia.  I believe this is because there are multiple (or at least two) substances in it with different mental effects, and that some are soluble in alcohol and others in water.  Due to the structural similarity of reishi triterpenoids to steroid hormones, it is quite likely that one or more triterpenoids are stimulating to the human nervous system much like steroids can be.  So a reishi extract that was made primarily using ethanol or another triterpenoid-friendly solvent could be expected to make you slightly wired.  Whereas other substances extracted using water may be responsible for any sedative effect.  My friend Gus used to get a dark reishi extract that was legendary for its sleepy feel-good effect (my buddy Andy Seplow has sourced some more recently that he says is comparable; if you’re interested in sleepy reishi you should contact him).

This issue suggests a future experiment in which I will separately extract reishi using alcohol and water, and evaluate each for mental effects.  I will report back once these experiments are concluded.

In the meantime, beware that THIS reishi extract that is included in Jade Defense REISHI may be stimulating to some folks.  I found this to be the case during my first week of organoleptic product testing.  I kept finding myself awake at night having all sorts of deep and interesting thoughts.  When it finally occurred to me that this was due to my evening dose of Jade Defense REISHI, I reduced my consumption to one daily morning dose, and was able to sleep again.  So if you find yourself suffering from insomnia after starting your course of Jade Defense REISHI, try taking your second dose earlier in the day, and/or reducing your second dose.  If this still doesn’t work, you can reduce your consumption to just once a day in the morning, as I have done (your stash of Jade Defense REISHI will also last twice as long!).  The jury is still out on whether the once daily dose will confer equivalent immune-stimulating benefit – I suppose we will find out this coming cold season.

NOTE:  when I say "mental effects," we're talking subtle.  These are not the magic mushrooms favored by Deadheads and other psychonauts!  I find the subjective effect of reishi to be, excuse the expression Buddhist literalists, to be very Zen: a centered alertness and creativity that keeps me feeling good and gets me through the day.

But all this talk of steroids, triterpenes, polysaccharides, etc. kind of misses the point.  We always want to know what does what, why does this stuff work, what molecules go to what receptors and what the hell is going on here?  That’s just the way our minds work, and I think it’s great that there are people studying this stuff.  And it sure is fun tossing around words like "triterpenoid."  But what I think is even greater is that there is this mushroom that grows in the wild, that people have been ingesting for many centuries because of what it does for their health and because they like the way it makes them feel.  And it’s not only this mushroom!  There are thousands of plants and fungi and bugs and animals that have medicinal effects in humans, that people have figured out over hundreds of generations.  Why do we insist on all these scientific studies to validate this stuff?  Why don’t we trust that people got it right?  Why would they keep ingesting some yucky-tasting fungus if it didn’t do them any good?  And why wouldn't they notice what it was doing for them, and compare notes, and pass this information along?  There’s an arrogance underlying the modern skeptico-medicalist presumption that much of natural healing is just old wives’ tales.  In fact, there’s usually a good reason why old wives tell their tales and old herbalists keep using their favorite herbs. 

There’s a divestment of our own authority, and our own wisdom, if you will, when we rely on scientific studies or Dr. Oz to tell us what’s good for us.  We should instead be curious, and open, and rational and critical too, as we make our way through life eating and drinking and trying things out in our quest to be whole and healthy and happy.  How does this make you feel?  If you feel worse, stop doing it.  If it makes you feel better, maybe it’s a good thing.  Stay aware.  Use common sense.  Live in balance with the seasons.  Take it easy.  Move your body.  Eat real food.  Take herbs when necessary.  Grow them in your garden and nibble on them fresh (I'd be happy to give you a gotu kola baby or a dokudami next spring).  Generally speaking, we should be able to take care of ourselves, health-wise, and be enjoying ourselves in the process.  The underlying philosophy of Green Monkey Pharmacy is essentially one of self-reliance.  Take responsibility for your own health!  See a doctor when you have to, get your annual checkup, but for most of the rest you can take care of yourself!  Start now with Jade Defense REISHI to stay healthy through the fall and winter.

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