Humans have been using mushrooms for their nutritional and therapeutic effects for millennia. Initially, their use was prevalent throughout Eastern Russia, China, Korea, and Japan. However, more people in the West are now becoming aware of their benefits.
Experts believe that as many as 700 different fungal species have medicinal properties. Among the best-studied of these is their ability to enhance immune function.
This article takes a close look at mushrooms for immunity, how they work, and the best types available. Read on for our complete guide.
Mushrooms and Immune Defense
To understand mushroom immune support, first, it is necessary to have a basic grasp of how immunity works.
The immune system is extraordinarily complex and involves many different cell types with various functions. However, it is possible to divide it into two primary categories; innate immunity and adaptive immunity.
Innate immunity is the portion of the immune system that is with us from birth. It allows our bodies to identify foreign particles (antigens), such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi and activates our natural defenses.
This includes the release of chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines. These are proteins that act as signals, indicating a potential threat, and triggering the inflammatory response.
Most people are familiar with the effects of inflammation. It is responsible for making injured areas become hot, red, and swollen, and causing sore throats during common colds. It results from increased blood flow that transports immune cells, including white blood cells, to infected areas to neutralize the threat.
Meanwhile, other immune cells, such as B cells, produce proteins called antibodies. They allow the immune system to recognize antigens more quickly should they reencounter the same ones.
Antibodies speed up the immune response and prevent serious illness from occurring. They are the reason individuals cannot get certain infections twice, and also how vaccinations work. This is the portion of the immune system known as adaptive immunity.
So, where do mushrooms fit into the picture?
Most medicinal fungi are rich in compounds called polysaccharides. These are large molecules composed of several carbohydrates bound together.
Human cells cannot synthesize polysaccharides. Therefore, the immune system recognizes them as antigens and triggers an immune response. Let’s take a closer look.
Mushrooms’ Immune System Benefits
Polysaccharides make up approximately 80% of mushroom cell walls. Around half of these polysaccharides are beta-glucans, which may enhance both innate and adaptive immunity.
They increase immune cell activity and cytokine production. However, they also appear to down-regulate other inflammatory compounds to have anti-inflammatory effects overall.
That said, some mushrooms could exacerbate certain inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. Therefore, affected individuals should exercise caution with their use.
Additionally, some mushrooms have antiviral, antibacterial, or anti-fungal properties, offering an extra layer of immune support.
Some mushrooms have antiviral, antibacterial, or anti-fungal properties.
However, the immune system does not only play a crucial role in protecting us from infections. It is also critical in the identification and destruction of cancerous cells.
Immune boosting mushrooms’ potential in the fight against cancer is the area where most research exists. It appears that several species may help to enhance the efficacy of cancer treatments while simultaneously reducing side effects.
For example, one of the active compounds in turkey tail mushrooms may be a useful adjunct to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It has been used for this purpose for over 30 years in Japan.
Now, let’s explore the potential benefits of the most common types of medicinal mushrooms.
Best Mushrooms for Immune System Support
There are many options when it comes to mushrooms and immune system health. Below are some of the most researched examples, including:
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Turkey tails (Trametes versicolor)
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Many of these mushrooms’ immune-boosting properties are due to their high beta-glucan contents. However, each species contains a variety of unique substances and, therefore, has particular strengths.
Chaga for Immune Support
Chaga is a parasitic fungus that grows on hardwood trees across Russia, Eastern Europe, North America, and Japan. It is sometimes known as clinker polypore as it resembles a lump of burnt coal (a clinker).
Its traditional uses include promoting health and longevity, and Siberian folk medicine holds it in high regard for treating cancer.
Modern research suggests that chaga supports immune system health, especially in immunocompromised individuals, for example, those with bone marrow damage. It may also possess antimicrobial, antiviral, and antitumor properties.
Reishi for Immune Support
Reishi is one of the most renowned medicinal mushrooms. Classical Chinese medicine suggests that it promotes longevity and enhances vital energy.
Native to East Asia, this mushroom grows on decaying wood and has a hard, wood-like texture with a shiny surface. It is rare in the wild, adding to its mystique and overall appeal.
There is little human research into reishi and the immune system. However, a small number of studies on cancer patients suggest it may be beneficial. It appears to enhance cellular immunity in the majority of patients. It may also have antibacterial and antiviral effects.
Other potential reishi benefits include lowering blood pressure and blood sugar. Therefore, individuals taking blood pressure medication, anticoagulants, antiplatelet drugs, or diabetic medicines should consult a doctor before use.
Turkey Tail for Immune Support
Turkey tails grow in a variety of climates on dead and dying trees. They get their name from their concentric brown and gray rings that resemble a turkey’s tail. Turkey tail immune support is one of the best-researched areas in the medicinal mushroom field.
Turkey tail immune support is one of the best-researched areas in the medicinal mushroom field.
They contain two unique compounds, polysaccharopeptide (PSP) and polypeptide krestin (PSK), that are used alongside anticancer medicines in China and Japan.
They may help repair cell damage following chemotherapy, protect against radiation side effects, and strengthen immunity.
Research suggests that turkey tails have a range of benefits for cancer patients, including:
- Enhancing immune function
- Increasing body weight
- Improving wellbeing
- Reducing tumor-related symptoms
- Improving survival rates
Shiitake for Immune Support
Shiitake may be best known as a culinary mushroom that is popular in East Asian cuisine. They have attractive, dark brown caps and an earthy flavor that many people enjoy. However, they may also help to enhance immunity.
A 2015 study of 52 healthy adults investigated shiitake mushrooms’ immune system benefits. The participants consumed either 5 g or 10 g of mushrooms daily for four weeks. By the end of the study, they showed improved immune function, including enhanced gut immunity. Furthermore, they had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
Maitake for Immune Support
Maitake is another mushroom that is known as a delicacy. Its alternative name is Hen of the Woods, which describes its feather-like growing habits.
Besides beta-glucan, it is rich in amino acids and vitamins B1, B2, C, and D. Research suggests that maitake may boost immune defense more than shiitake when taken alone. However, it appears that the two work even more effectively in combination. There is also some evidence that maitake, shiitake, and reishi could have synergistic effects.
Cordyceps for Immune Support
Cordyceps is another highly-prized mushroom in Chinese medicine. It grows in the mountainous regions of Western China and has some very unusual features. Its spores infect insect larvae and gradually take over their bodies as they grow. This has led to its Chinese name dongchongxiacao, or ‘winter worm, summer grass.’
Traditionally, cordyceps is famous as a remedy for fatigue, weakness, low libido, and cough. However, modern research into cordyceps’ immune system benefits is also promising.
This fungus contains cordycepin and appears to inhibit several different tumor types. It enhances innate and adaptive immunity and may also counter inflammation in autoimmune disorders. It may also possess antibacterial properties.
Final Thoughts on Mushrooms for Immune Health
Medicinal mushrooms have become more prevalent in recent years. Research suggests they have a variety of benefits for human health, including enhancing innate and adaptive immunity. Furthermore, they appear to be safe with a low risk of side effects.
That said, not every type of mushroom will be suitable for everyone. Individuals living with specific medical conditions or taking prescribed or over-the-counter medicines should seek medical advice before use.