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Reishi terpenes: bioactive antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour compounds

    Table of Contents

    What are terpenes?

    Perhaps the term terpenes is unfamiliar, but what about lycopene? This is a specific type of terpene that most people have heard of, which is present in tomatoes and watermelons, for example. What defines these phytochemical compounds? One of the most characteristic features of terpenes is their antioxidant value but they are also responsible for the aroma and colour of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. In high concentrations, we can talk about the pharmacological properties of terpenes, and they are often used therapeutically. For example, some natural terpene derivatives such as menthol or eucalyptus are used for the symptomatic treatment of cough.

    As part of a healthy diet low in fats, sugars and sodium, The WHO recommends consuming more than 400 grams of fruits and vegetables a day to improve overall health and reduce the risk of certain non-communicable diseases. The reason for this is the high concentration of plant phytochemicals with antioxidant activity, which includes vitamins (A, C, E, K), carotenoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, saponins, enzymes and minerals. Interestingly, some specific phytochemicals can block numerous hormonal actions and metabolic pathways that have been associated with the development of cancer.

    The omnipresence of terpenes in the vegetable kingdom and their high antioxidant value is one of the reasons why it is recommended a varied, multi-coloured diet rich in these foods is recommended to help to combat cellular oxidation, whether due to stress, toxin or chemical contamination, or an inadequate diet. The WHO dietary guidelines, recommending the daily consumption of 400 g of fruits and vegetables is not solely for their antioxidant content. In addition, they state that a diet rich in terpenes is inversely correlated with the risk of suffering from chronic diseases in general as well as cancer.

    The properties of Reishi terpenes

    Terpenes, combined with (beta-glucan) polysaccharides, are the bioactive compounds that make Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)the king of the fungus kingdom and one of the most concentrated naturally antioxidant substances that exist. Reishi contains a both a high concentration and large variety of terpenes, many of which are considered unique. These include the ganoderic acids, lucidic acid, and ganoderol.

    The G. lucidum variety of Reishi terpenoid compounds contain immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycaemic, lipid-lowering and hepatoprotective properties as detailed below:

    • Terpenes are capable of inhibiting the release of proinflammatory substances; anti-inflammatory activity is mediated by the inhibition of NF-kappaβ and signalling pathways such as AP-1.
    • They have cytoprotective effects preventing hepatotoxicity due to antioxidant enzymes.
    • They possess antiproliferative effects by inducing DNA damage, cell cycle arrest in G1 or apoptosis in damaged cells.
    • They protect normal cells from the damage induced by radiation.

    Why is the action of terpenes on cancer studied?

    Terpenes are toxic to diseased or malformed cells. In other words, cytotoxic to cancer cells.

    What’s the mechanism? They impede the growth and development of cancerous cells by reprogramming their DNA to activate the mechanism that causes cell death (apoptosis). Some Reishi terpenes have been shown to have a cytotoxic effect on leukaemia, lung, colon, cervical, breast and sarcoma cancers.

    Terpenes behave like cytostatic substances, which are capable of inhibiting the development of tumour cells. The cytostatic effect of some Reishi terpenes has been evidenced in different phases of cervical carcinoma, breast cancer and lung cancer.

    As explained above, terpenes induce apoptosis. The proapoptotic capacity of Reishi terpenes has been observed in lymphomas, cervical and pulmonary carcinomas and melanomas.

    Although the majority of research thus far on the action of terpenes has been undertaken in the preclinical phase, and often combined with other treatments, published studies consider the data collected is useful for clinical use at a preventive level, especially in hormone-dependant oncological processes.

    Some publications suggest that the provenance, the cultivation system and the extraction methods used in G. lucidum production may affect the compositional profile of the final Reishi product both at a qualitative and quantitative level. Therefore, the presence and concentration of ergosterol and lucidumol B are considered by some authors as a criterion of quality in the biochemical profile of this medicinal fungus.

    Other bioactive compounds of Reishi

    Many of the anti-inflammatory, antiallergic and hypoglycaemic properties of Reishi are due in part to the presence of other compounds, mainly polysaccharides, but also due to phenols and glycoproteins. The most important of which are:

    Polysaccharides (alpha, beta and D-glucans)

    In vivo and in vitro studies demonstrate the immunomodulatory, antitumor, hypoglycaemic and antioxidant activity of beta-glucans, a type of polysaccharide present in Reishi.

    Alpha-linolenic acid C18: 3n6 (from the Omega-3 series)

    According to The Heart Foundation, the incorporation of Omega-3 fatty acids into the diet supports normal cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. It is common knowledge that omega fatty acids are found in seeds, nuts, fish, and seafood. However, it’s less well known that certain mushrooms are also a source. Some of the more important properties of essential fatty acids include its anti-aggregant, vasodilatory, hypotensive and antithrombotic actions.

    Biological function of terpenes

    We have presented the effects of terpenes on human health, but no less important are their biological functions in the living organisms they are sourced from. In plants, for example, they contribute to photosynthesis and protection against solar radiation. In addition, they constitute a natural barrier against insects and high temperatures. Therefore, the protective functions of terpenes are fundamental for human life and for the preservation of nature as we know it.


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