To Your Health

I started taking a mushroom extract a few months ago on the recommendation of a friend, and I do feel better. What is in there that could make a difference?

Q. I started taking a mushroom extract a few months ago on the recommendation of a friend, and I do feel better. What is in there that could make a difference?

A. I assume this mushroom extract contains reishi, shiitake, or maitake mushroom or a combination of these. If so, the active ingredient is likely to be beta-1,3 -glucan, or more precisely beta-1,3/1,6 D-glucans.

Beta-glucans (BGs) are complex polysaccharides composed only of glucose. BGs are found in baker's yeast, in grains such as oats and barley, and in several types of mushrooms. BGs are related to starch but are not readily available from these foods because they reside in the indigestible cell walls. The foods must be thoroughly broken down in order to free up the BGs and make them absorbable.

Research indicates that BGs stimulate the immune system, provoking certain cells called macrophages to literally "gobble up" dead or dying cells as well as foreign material that doesn't belong inside our bodies. Thus BGs are promoted as anti-cancer agents and have been used in conjunction with conventional chemotherapy in the treatment of gastric and colorectal cancer. BGs appear to be responsible for lowering LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) in people using oat bran as a fiber supplement.

Research is still scant on BGs, but it appears that they may participate in communication among our body cells. We are all well aware of the genetic code, comprised of nucleic acids, which carries information from generation to generation. There is increasing evidence that there is also a method of carrying information from one body cell to another utilizing either carbohydrates or proteins. The work of Dr. Stanislov Burzincki in Houston, with protein fragments he has named "anti-neoplastins" may exploit this phenomenon. Similarly, BGs may participate in a carbohydrate-based system of communication. Combining BGs with other cancer therapies potentiates the effects of chemotherapy and has resulted in increased tumor shrinkage and lengthened survival time. Even without knowing how BGs work, it is a safe supplement for almost anyone to experiment with.

Q. When I wear cheap jewelry it turns my skin black. I do fine with gold. Is this another case of the Princess and the Pea?

A. More likely you have an allergy to nickel. Nickel, a trace mineral that some people consider essential and others consider toxic to humans, is often alloyed with gold in jewelry. It is a common cause of allergic dermatitis, with perhaps 20% of women noticing a problem. Women may be more likely to have this allergy because historically they are more likely to introduce nickel into their body through ear piercing. The cheap metal post used to initially hold the hole open usually contains a lot of nickel.

Nickel allergy may not be the same as allergy to house dust or cedar pollen, the classic allergies mediated by high levels of Immunoglobin E and resulting in histamine release. Instead, nickel allergy seems to be associated with high levels of Interleukin-12 (Il-12). Il-12 is one of many inflammatory substances our bodies use to defend us against invaders, real or imagined. Nickel probably fuses with some perfectly harmless protein (it tends to combine with protein easily) to make a compound that your immune system doesn't like and tries to evict.

Nickel is found in many common foods, and you might want to see what happens when you reduce your intake of foods high in nickel such as oysters, cocoa, tea, margarine, licorice, and pickled foods. If your problem is severe, a supplement of N-Acetyl Cysteine (1,000 mg/day) might help. Everyone agrees that the best solution, and one that most women are happy to comply with, is to stick to gold jewelry.

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