We often hear this vitamin or that behaviour is good for boosting the immune system. However, our immunity is somewhat more complex than that! The immune system is in fact quite a complex balancing act: when we’re fighting a disease or an infection, the immune system must “upregulate” or become stronger to battle what we’re fighting. However, if you have “too much” immunity, it results in an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system actually attacks its own healthy cells (think Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis etc).
This is what makes medicinal mushrooms so powerful from an immune perspective: they have been shown to have immunomodulating effects, which means that they keep the immune system in check: not too much and not too little! When we have balance, there is stimulation when our body has a call to arms, and a downregulation when it is overactive. Balance.
Mushrooms and Immunity
Medicinal mushrooms have a number of powerful benefits like neuroprotective abilities (for brain health) and blood sugar balancing attributes. But by far one of their most potent superpowers relates to immunity. Below are some of the most important mushrooms that have this superpower and the one thing that they all have in common is that they contain polysaccharides called beta-glucans, which fight inflammation and balance the immune system. Beta-glucans attach themselves to immune cells and activate them, which means they can recognise “danger” to the body and get to work destroying them.
The best ways to use medicinal mushrooms to support the immune system is use them in cooking (just not raw or whole!), in teas and as supplements. While we rarely find all the mushrooms listed below readily available at our grocery stores, finding a good powdered or capsulated form of these is your best bet! In fact, they make a really nice addition to your morning coffee!
Reishi, known as the “king of mushrooms” is one of the most popular medicinal mushrooms with good reason: it does it all! Anything from weight loss, to easing depression and encouraging better sleep. In fact, it is one of the most popular mushrooms associated with aggressively fighting cancer cells.
Reishi contains a compound called triterpene which is responsible for its calming properties, but also for its positive effect on the nervous system. As a result, it is very effective for modulating and balancing the immune system.
Chaga has quite a few compounds in it that promote balance in the immune system, and also has antioxidant polyphenols and something called betulin which is associated with anti-cancer effects. The antioxidants fight free radicals and inflammation, combat oxidative stress and may slow the growth of cancer. The fact that its also linked to anti-ageing of the skin is no bad thing!
Technically speaking, cordyceps is not a mushroom, but rather a caterpillar fungus. However it looks like a mushroom and quacks like a mushroom so has been treated as a medicinal mushroom. Supplementation with cordyceps in a Korean study showed that it was associated with an increased activity of natural killer immune cells, accompanied by improved immune regulation. Together with the polysaccharides in cordyceps, this is a powerful “shroom” for improving immunity!
Additional benefits of cordyceps include boosting energy and allowing the body to use oxygen more efficiently and boosting blood flow, which is particularly useful for improving physical activity!
Lion’s Mane is a powerful brain-health promoting mushroom, but there is also a fair amount of research focusing on its immune system regulatory properties, particularly within the context of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Lion’s Mane is packed with antioxidants and strengthens the immune system in much the same way as other medicinal mushrooms. The added bonus: it stimulates the production of critical components of brain health, so it really is a little miracle shroom for overall health.
Maitake is a medicinal mushroom that has shown anti-cancer activity on breast cancer and melanoma. Maitake contains a compound called proteoglucan, which is where its immune-stimulating effects come from. A mouse study showed that proteoglycan can decrease mammary tumor cell behaviour, but even more impressively the polysaccharides in maitake appear to have an antiviral effect against HIV!
Besides being delicious in a stirfry, shiitake mushrooms have traditionally been used to treat the common cold. They also seem to result in improved gut immunity and an anti-inflammatory response. And as with the other medicinal mushrooms, their anti-cancer effects are proving to be very promising. In fact, lentinan is a compound that is derived from shiitake and is currently being used as a complementary treatment for tumours in China and Japan.
We’ve mentioned the anticancer properties (due to high amounts of antioxidants) of most of the medicinal mushrooms, but Turkey Tail seems to be the winner in this sphere. Turkey Tail contains a compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK) that is well-known for stimulating the immune system. So effective is it though to be, that it is a prescription anticancer drug in Japan. In particular but not limited to, Turkey Tail has been shown to fight leukemia calls and improve the immune system of people on chemotherapy.
Aside from cancer, it has also been used for fungal infections and in therapeutic use for AIDS.
Definitely not magic mushrooms, medicinal mushrooms are still quite magical. They contain unique bioactive nutrients that cannot be found in any other plant or animal source. Being a rich source of polysaccharides and antioxidants, they protect the body against microbial and viral infections and have been strongly linked to improving our gut microbiome.
While they shouldn’t be viewed as a cure for illness, they are powerful sidekicks to our immunity. We all need help with achieving immune balance and mushrooms are one of the best ways to do this!
My Favourite Mushroom Products
Each of the medicinal mushrooms are excellent when used individually as they each have unique properties (eg Lion’s Mane for brain health), there is a lot of magic that happens when they are combined!
My favourite go-to mushroom product that I use daily in my coffee is Prime Self’s Shroom Elixir, which I use all year round. I also really like the Medi Mushroom 4-in-1 stack (Lions Mane, Reishi, Chaga and Cordyceps) as well as all the wonderful blends by Four Sigmatic and the Magic Adaptogenic Mushroom Lattes from Vivo! We certainly are spoilt for choice in the realm of medicinal mushrooms!
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia — Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
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