Mushrooms are some of the most powerful stimulators of the immune system that nature possesses. They also tout anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can benefit your adrenals, liver, kidneys and skin, as well as boost your energy levels and mental clarity.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used in China for thousands of years to stimulate the immune system. They’re one of the most-researched natural medicines, with over 2,000 mushroom-focused studies published in the last 10 years. Recently, mushrooms have become a hot topic for pharmaceutical industries, especially in the area of cancer treatment.
A Bit of Background on Medicinal Mushrooms
While one can get gut-healthy fiber from consuming a juicy portobello burger or indulging in a creamy risotto, mushrooms are only defined as medicinal if they contain certain compounds called Beta-glucans (B-glucans) in their indigestible cell walls. These super-compounds are special carbohydrate molecules. Not all mushrooms contain them; however, they can be found in reishi, maitake, agaricus, chaga, lion’s mane, coriolus, cordyceps and tremella mushrooms.
B-glucans can be found in other foods — oats and barley, for example — but it’s only the particular type of B-glucans found in medicinal mushrooms, with their triple-helix structure, that confer special immune-boosting properties. These B-glucans are some of the most powerful immune system-stimulators in the natural world.
When ingested, the body recognizes them as non-self and mounts an immune response. This is a common phenomenon in the world of plant medicines: plants contain mini-toxins that, when introduced to the body, kick the body’s self-healing mechanisms into action, boosting anti-inflammatory pathways, antioxidant support and the immune system.
The small amounts of stress induced by these medicinal compounds, often called polyphenols (the same beneficial ingredients found in green tea, or leafy green vegetables), trigger our body’s protective mechanisms. This is called a “hormetic” response — the mushrooms supply the body with a small toxic load that stimulates our own self-healing mechanisms. In other words, “that which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” This much-repeated phrase, uttered to children who’ve fallen and scraped their knees, or adolescents suffering from their first heartbreak, tends to ring even truer in the world of plant-based medicine.
B-glucans encourage the production of stem cells and stimulate tissue repair. This makes them particularly useful for athletes, whose high level of activity can wear down the body’s tissues over time, or for people who are dealing with chronic mental, emotional and physical stress.
The B-glucans in medicinal mushrooms also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Research from Bastyr University in Washinton State showed that reishi mushroom decreased levels of TNF-alpha and NK Kappa-B, two inflammatory cytokines that contribute to chronic inflammation such as chronic pain, arthritis, autoimmune disease, and even mental health conditions, such as depression and bipolar disorder.
Health Benefits of 7 Medicinal Mushrooms
Some medicinal mushrooms, such as coriolus, agaricus and maitake, mainly contain B-glucans and so are primarily used for their immune-boosting benefits.
However, other mushrooms have gained the attention of the scientific community for their ability to provide additional medicinal benefits, such as adrenal support, skin health, and detoxification, due to their possession of other potent compounds.
1. Chaga Mushroom Health Benefits
Chaga mushrooms contain melanin and betulin compounds, which boast some of the most potent antioxidants in nature (even more than those in green and black tea). Antioxidants help the body to neutralize free radicals, prevent conditions like cancer and reduce inflammation. The compounds in chaga mushrooms also help nourish the skin and hair.
2. Cordyceps Mushroom Health Benefits
Cordyceps mushrooms are particularly helpful for liver, lungs, adrenal glands and kidney health. Cordyceps contains adenosine compounds, such as cordycepic acid, which can help treat adrenal fatigue: the decline in energy, mood, sleep quality and strength as a result of chronic stress. Cordyceps mushrooms help increase energy, stamina and endurance, and protect the body against the effects of prolonged stress.
This can be particularly helpful for athletes, or those who suffer from low energy levels and disrupted sleep due to stress. Prolonged stress can be damaging to our bodies’ tissues, is a common cause of chronic inflammation and is one of the primary factors in aging.
3. Coriolus Mushroom Health Benefits
Coriolus, or “Turkey Tail”, deserves special attention, as it is one of the most researched mushrooms for boosting the immune system. There are hundreds of studies on coriolus mushrooms, including 48 studies in humans. It’s also one of the most common mushrooms studied for cancer treatment.
4. Lion’s Mane Mushroom Health Benefits
Lion’s Mane mushrooms contain carbohydrate compounds that support the brain, improving memory and cognitive function. Lion’s Mane helps promote the growth, survival and maintenance of new neurons and protects the myelin sheath, the protective fatty coating around nerve cells. This can be helpful for older adults who are concerned about preserving memory, learning and concentration as they age.
5. Reishi Mushroom Health Benefits
Reishi mushrooms possess additional medicinal compounds called triterpenes, specifically ganodermic acids, in addition to its B-glucan content. These compounds provide liver-boosting powers, helping the liver clean out toxins and improving the body’s ability to detoxify. Reishi also has potent anti-inflammatory benefits, lowering inflammatory cytokines that are responsible for causing autoimmune conditions and chronic inflammation.
6. Tremella Mushroom Health Benefits
Tremella mushrooms, like chaga, also benefits the skin and hair. Tremella is thought to improve complexion through its effects on hyaluronic acid, which maintains water content in the skin, muscles and joints, and naturally declines as we age. Supplementing with tremella mushrooms can prevent the age-related decrease in hyaluronic acid production, maintaining skin pliability and naturally improving the skin’s appearance, as well as the health of the muscles and joints.
7. Shiitake Mushroom Health Benefits
Shiitake mushrooms contain a compound called AHCC, Active Hexose Correlated Compound, which is supported in various scientific papers for its antiviral and anticancer effects and its positive impact on the immune system.
In Japan, AHCC, extracted from shiitake mushrooms is used to prevent hospital infections and to boost the immune system in cancer treatments. However, to extract the beta glucans and AHCC from shiitake mushrooms, they must be hot water extracted. Simply consuming them in your diet won’t provide the same powerful, immune-boosting benefits.
Medicinal Mushrooms and Cancer
The immune system-boosting effect of medicinal mushrooms has shown powerful promise in cancer treatment. Cancer cells are normal body cells that have reached the end of their lifecycles but are evading the immune system; they’re ignoring the body’s signals telling them to die, instead growing out of control and hoarding essential nutrients.
The small stress imposed by the B-glucans from medicinal mushrooms is thought to provide that tiny toxic push these cells need to die. This effect aids conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, and also shows promise in treating cancers that don’t respond as well to conventional treatments, while protecting the body’s healthy cells, and potentially reducing the side effects of cancer treatments.
Medicinal Mushroom Preparation
When the mushrooms’ cell walls are broken down, their medicinal carbohydrates are made available for consumption. Historically, mushroom medicines were made by slow-boiling crude, dried mushrooms, a process called “decocting”, to activate their medicinal properties. The process of boiling crude mushrooms breaks down chitin, the indigestible fiber in their cell walls, releasing the B-glucans and allowing them to be absorbed by the body after digestion.
Today, mushroom extracts are created through a process called “hot-water extraction”, which frees up the B-glucans and allows them to be freely absorbed, which is why some species of mushrooms, like chaga mushrooms, can be consumed as teas.
Supplementing with Medicinal Mushrooms
Patients can speak to a naturopathic doctor about taking medicinal mushrooms to manage a specific inflammatory condition, to prevent infections or to promote optimal health. Often, it’s best to use a combination of two or more mushrooms, producing synergistic benefits.
For chronic conditions, cycling with different mushroom combinations every three to four months can prevent the “tailing off” effect, when benefits decline because the immune system becomes used to the effects of the mushrooms. This usually occurs in conditions where long-term mushroom use is needed, but not if you take lower doses for optimal health or prevention.
And it can always be helpful to rotate the different mushrooms used, to treat the immune system from different angles and keep the treatment fresh. Talk to your naturopathic doctor or natural health professional to see if medicinal mushrooms are right for you and your health goals and how to dose.