Mushrooms are often associated with mystery. They are indeed fascinating, being neither plant nor animal, yet having characteristics of both. In ancient times mushrooms were regarded as magical, as people could not figure out how they were produced. Could they also be magical when it comes to supporting the human immune system?
Let’s find out!
While mushroom use dates to some of the first medical texts on record in China and was traditionally used in Eastern Europe, mushrooms were generally excluded from the traditional Ayurvedic diet in India.
Why were mushrooms not widely used in Ayurveda, but were highly regarded in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
The answer is somewhat unclear, yet it can be speculated that this was due to mycophobia. Yes, fear of mushrooms!
It is common knowledge that one should have adequate identification skills before eating a mushroom from the wild. Herbalist, Renee Davis states, “Mushrooms: there are the good, the bad, and the psychedelic.” Most people are familiar with the latter varieties—which often leads to regarding the unknown with danger—and in turn, the good mushrooms often don’t make it into the spotlight.
It is estimated that there are 140,000 or so species of mushrooms on earth, of which only 10% or so are known. Of the 14,000 species that we know today, about half of them are considered to have varying degrees of edibility, over 2,000 are safe, and about 700 species are known to possess significant pharmacological properties.
While medicinal mushrooms have a long history of use in TCM, Western science is just now beginning to catch up and acknowledge the powerful benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Many current Ayurvedic practitioners are also now implementing medicinal mushrooms into their practice; some mushrooms are even considered to be rasayanas- rejuvenative tonics which can help lengthen lifespan.
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Immune Boosting Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
There is a large amount of scientific literature pointing to the immune boosting benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms can act as tonics for our immune system and may prove helpful during times of excess stress and transition. Research shows that our immune systems change with the seasons- this is a way in which we adapt to the change of weather and types of microbes in our environment.
Both TCM and Ayurveda have long held the belief that we are deeply connected with our environments- it’s about time we use this ancient wisdom to our advantage- with our current change of season from warmer months to cooler ones, it this is an optimal time to use medicinal mushrooms!
We tend to be more prone to sickness and infection during the transition of seasons, which makes sense as our immune system is in transition like the world around us. Research has led scientists to believe that the seasons have a profound effect on how human genes work.
They have discovered that the genes involved with immunity- our bodies defense against infection- are more active in cold months; while this is helpful for fighting off the flu, it can prove harmful and trigger autoimmune conditions.
One study, in “Nature Communications,” observed genes involved in immunity and specifically inflammation. These genes were more active in the cold winter months (December to February) for people living north of the equator and from June to August for those living south of the equator. Interestingly, for people who lived close to the equator, where the temperature remained mostly consistent throughout the year, they observed a different pattern—immunity and inflammation were linked to the rainy season when diseases such as malaria are more prevalent.
Renee Davis discusses how mushrooms support the immune system in a way that is normalizing to the body. She says, “You can think of them as immune tonics that are applicable in a wide variety of situations, including Lowered resistance and “catching things” easily; chronic or persistent infections; certain autoimmune disorders…”
How Do Mushrooms Support Immune Function?
Mushrooms trigger the immune system because they possess compounds that resemble microbes. Our immune cells sense this and respond by increasing our innate immunity (considered the front line defense). Our system goes into a state of alert and is also provided what can be likened to an immune system “workout”—resulting in a strong immune system over time.
Many medicinal mushrooms (for example, Maitake, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, and Reishi) are classified as immunomodulators. This means they can help boost immune function (ex. During infection), and also calm down the immune system (ex. Autoimmunity). In this way, medicinal mushrooms can support us through seasonal transitions and can also be beneficial for supporting immune balance day in and day out.
Which medicinal mushrooms are good for immune support?
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga comes from the Russian word for mushroom and often referred to as the “King of Mushrooms.”
Chaga is perhaps one of the best mushrooms for healthy immune function. This mushroom is abundant in Beta-D-Glucans, a constituent which helps balance the body’s immune system. Dr. Axe discusses how Chaga has one of the highest ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbent Capacity) scores of any food- this is significant as the higher an ORAC the better a food’s ability to protect the body from harmful free-radicals; Dr. Axe regards Chaga as one of the best sources of antioxidants.
Animal studies show that Chaga can help boost the immune system by increasing the production of certain immune cells, including interleukin 6 (IL-6) as well as T lymphocytes. Both of these immune cells help to regulate the immune system and make sure the body is able to fight off any invading bacteria and viruses. Research also shows that Chaga extracts can stimulate spleen lymphocytes—this can have a positive effect on immune system function.
Along with supporting the body’s innate immunity, Chaga has antiviral properties. Chaga has also been shown to reduce inflammation. Amazingly, one study showed that the anti-inflammatory effects of Chaga extract in the colon occur because Chaga has the ability to suppress the expression of chemical mediators of inflammation. These chemical mediators make inflammation more intense and widespread, so Chaga can reduce the continuation of inflammation.
Chaga mushroom powder easily can be made into a tea. Simply put a couple of teaspoons of Chaga in a diffuser and steep in one cup of boiling water for five or more minutes. If you feel inclined, you can add lemon, honey or maple syrup to taste.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lion’s Mane was named due to its shaggy, mane-like appearance. Research shows that this mushroom can boost immunity by increasing the activity of intestinal immunity. In this way, Lion’s Mane can help protect the body from pathogens that enter through the mouth or nose. While more research needs to be conducted, it is believed that these effects may partly be due to beneficial changes in gut bacteria resulting from ingesting Lion’s Mane.
Studies reveal Lion’s Mane has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. As chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to be at the root of many modern health conditions, including autoimmunity, Lion’s Mane may offer the necessary support to prevent these conditions.
Preliminary studies also show that Lion’s Mane may help reduce some of the health risks associated with obesity, as the mushroom has displayed the ability to decrease the amount of inflammation released by fat tissue.
Lion’s Mane isn’t just good for immunity, it also happens to be a powerful nootropic- a tonic for the mind. The research surrounding Lion’s Mane and brain health is quite impressive. This mushroom can stimulate the growth of neurons. See what the powder of tincture of Lion’s Mane can do for you.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidium)
Perhaps the most well-known medicinal mushroom, Reishi is also referred to as the “Mushroom of Immortality.” Reishi mushroom has a long history of use in TCM—it is said to be calming and was traditionally used in spiritual practices.
Reishi is helpful in supporting acute and long-term immune function. Renee Davis discusses how Reishi is a restorative mushroom that helps support the adrenal. She says, “I think of it as the mushroom to use when you’re stressed out, run down, and getting sick frequently.” Reishi has also shown to be a helpful aid in the treatment of allergies and hay fever—it can reduce the histamine response to environmental triggers.
Reishi is considered an adaptogen, bringing balance to the body and helping the body deal with the negative effects of stress. Studies show that Reishi’s antioxidant abilities can help strengthen the body’s defenses against illnesses, autoimmune conditions, allergies, infections and more. Since reishi acts as an immuno-modulator, the mushroom can help restore hormonal balance, bringing the body back to a state of homeostasis.
More recent findings show that Reishi can lower inflammation and increase the release of natural killer cells, which work to remove a range of mutant cells from the body. Reishi mushrooms are also considered a natural antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal due to the compounds, particularly triterpenes, they contain.
Reishi mushroom is also considered a heart tonic; reishi can improve blood circulation and lower inflammation. It can also help resolve infections more quickly. Reishi can be made into a tea and it also makes for a great addition to smoothies and hot chocolate!
With an educated mind, we can demystify medicinal mushrooms. While wonder remains, we have tradition and current science to support the use of medicinal mushrooms. Especially during this time of seasonal change- we can support our immune systems with mushrooms!
9 Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Plus Side Effects). Healthline Media, www.healthline.com/nutrition/lions-mane-mushroom.
Chaga Mushroom: The Immune-Boosting Superfood. Dr. Group’s Healthy Living Articles, Global Healing Center, Inc, 24 June 2016. www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/chaga-mushroom-the-immune-boosting-superfood/
Gasik, Lindsay. The Mushroom Conundrum. Frugis, 1 Jan. 1970. www.fruitnyoga.com/2012/03/mushroom-conundrum.html
Guggenheim, Alena G., et al. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2014. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684115/
Lee, Kuo-Hsiung, et al. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2012. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942920/
Lull, Cristina, et al. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 June 2005. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1160565/
Medicinal Mushrooms: A Chinese Medicine Tradition. The YinOva Center. www.yinovacenter.com/blog/medicinal-mushrooms-a-chinese-medicine-tradition/
Medicinal Mushrooms: Fitness for Your Immune System. Aviva Romm MD, 3 Feb. 2018. www.avivaromm.com/medicinal-mushrooms-immune-system/
Roberts, Michelle. Seasons Affect How Genes and Immune System Work. BBC News, BBC. 12 May 2015. www.bbc.com/news/health-32687313
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