Other common name(s): beta-glucan, hen of the woods, maitake D-fraction, maitake, maitake extract, ram’s head, sheep’s head
Scientific/medical name(s): Grifola frondosa
Maitake is a large edible mushroom native to the mountains of northeastern Japan. Its scientific name is Grifola frondosa. The maitake mushroom is eaten as a food, and an extract from this mushroom called maitake-D fraction® is marketed as a dietary supplement in the United States and Japan. The substance in the maitake mushroom is thought to be active in humans and is called beta-glucan.
Maitake D-fraction has effects on the immune system in animal and laboratory research studies. There is no convincing clinical evidence to date in available peer-reviewed medical journals reporting that the maitake mushroom is effective in treating or preventing cancer in humans, although some immune system effects have been demonstrated in people. Further human research is now underway.
How is it promoted for use?
Promoters claim that maitake mushroom extract boosts the immune system and limits or reverses tumor growth. It is also said to enhance the benefits of chemotherapy and lessen some side effects of anti-cancer drugs, such as hair loss, pain, and nausea.
What does it involve?
Maitake D-fraction is available in liquid extract, tablet, and capsule in health food stores, although the amount of beta glucan contained in each form may vary. The usual dosage of dried mushroom is between 3 and 7 grams daily. Maitake mushrooms are also available in grocery stores and can be eaten as food or made into tea.
What is the history behind it?
For thousands of years, Asian healers have used certain edible mushrooms in tonics, soups, teas, prepared foods, and herbal formulas to promote health and long life. In the past few decades, researchers in Japan have been studying the medicinal effects of mushrooms on the immune system, cancer, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
The Japanese word “maitake” means “dancing mushroom” because people in ancient times were said to dance for joy when they found these mushrooms, which were literally worth their weight in silver. Modern research on the maitake mushroom and its D-fraction extract began in Japan in the mid-1980s and has only recently spread to the United States.
What is the evidence?
Maitake mushrooms and the maitake D-fraction prepared from them contain a type of polysaccharide (a large molecule formed by multiple sugar molecules linked together). This molecule is called beta glucan, although some call it beta glycan. Beta glucan is found in several mushrooms, yeasts, and other foods. Beta glucan is believed to stimulate the immune system and activate certain cells and proteins that attack cancer. In laboratory studies, it appears to slow the growth of cancer in some cell cultures and in mice.
Most of the research on maitake D-fraction has been done in Japan using an injectable form of the extract. A 1997 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science found that maitake D-fraction was able to enhance the immune system and inhibit the spread of tumors in mice implanted with breast cancer. In a 1995 report published in the same journal, researchers concluded that maitake D-fraction was able to activate the immune systems of mice that had been injected with liver cancer cells and seemed to prevent the spread of tumors to the liver. It also seemed to prevent the development of cancer from normal cells. However, a non-randomized study of 15 dogs with lymphoma did not find any evidence of benefit from the use of maitake extract.
A 2010 study tested beta-glucans from maitake mushrooms by giving them along with paclitaxel, a cancer chemotherapy drug, to mice. The mice that got beta-glucan along with paclitaxel seemed to have a faster recovery of white blood cell counts than those that didn’t get beta-glucan. Again, this has not been tested in humans getting cancer treatment.
While animal and laboratory studies may show a certain compound holds promise as a beneficial treatment, further studies are necessary to find out whether the results apply to humans. In 2002, a group of Japanese patients with different types of cancer were given maitake D-fraction and maitake powder in addition to standard cancer treatments. Although the researchers thought some patients showed improvement, the study did not include a control group. Because of this and other limitations in the study design, no reliable conclusions can be drawn. It’s impossible to say for certain whether any effect was caused by the maitake treatments or standard cancer treatments the patients also received. More scientifically designed studies are needed to determine maitake's potential usefulness in preventing or treating cancer.
A clinical trial of maitake extract on 34 women after treatment for breast cancer was completed in 2010, and found that the beta glucans from maitake have definite effects on immune function. Surprisingly, it stimulated some functions and slowed down others. The study didn’t measure anything about how cancer might be affected by these immune changes.
In another clinical trial, beta glucan is being tested together with other drugs to learn whether they increase the effectiveness of a monoclonal antibody (3F8). Combining different types of biological therapy may kill more tumor cells. This is a small open label trial (so called because both patients and researchers know which treatment is being administered) in patients with neuroblastoma that has not responded to treatment. The study is looking at immune effects, side effects, and the maximum tolerated dose of beta glucan. It’s expected to be completed in late 2015.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must be tested before being sold), the companies that make supplements are not required to prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that their supplements are safe or effective, as long as they don't claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). In a 2013 study, a test of 44 samples found that fewer than half the herbal supplements tested contained any of the herb that was listed on the label. More than half the samples contained compounds that were not on the label. This suggests that the 2007 FDA rules to assure the proper listing of supplement ingredients are not always followed. Even when they are, the rules do not address the safety of the ingredients or their effects on health.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.
The maitake mushroom itself has been used as food for centuries and is generally presumed to be safe. Most human studies so far have not shown any adverse effects from maitake D-fraction or beta glucan, but human studies of their effectiveness in treating cancer have not yet been completed. In the 2010 study of breast cancer patients, one woman had to drop out of the study due to nausea and joint pain, and another quit because of a very itchy rash.
In animal studies, beta glucans of the type in maitake mushrooms lowered blood sugar. Because of this, it should be used with caution in people with low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or those who are on medicines to reduce or control blood sugar. Beta glucans also reduced blood pressure in animals and might have a similar effect in people. Additional studies are needed to find out whether these effects occur in humans.
Allergies to many types of mushrooms, including maitake, have been reported.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
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Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute. Maitake. Accessed at: http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/maitake on May 8, 2014.
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Newmaster SG, Grguric M, Shanmughanandhan D, et al. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products. BMC Med. 2013 Oct 11;11:222. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-222. Accessed at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/11/222 on June 2, 2014.
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US National Institutes of Health. Beta-glucan and monoclonal antibody 3F8 in treating patients with metastatic neuroblastoma. Accessed at: http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00492167 on May 8. 2014.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 08/15/2014