Botanicals

Mushrooms for Whole Immune Support

The profound response of the human immune system to mushrooms

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I often find myself staring up at the grey sky, wondering, “What’s good about all this rain?” As my eyes scan my surroundings and take in the lush, green foliage of the region, it doesn’t take long for the answer to come: in addition to the diverse plant life that abounds here, a rich world of fungi also thrives in this damp climate.

The range of responses that the human body has to mushrooms is profound, demonstrating a far greater diversity and magnitude than our responses to plants.[1] From the chanterelles that taste perfect sautéed in butter and garlic, to lion’s mane and its potential to help those with Alzheimer’s,[2] to maitake and its ability to enhance immune function, to the psilocybin-containing species credited with expanding human consciousness, Kingdom Fungi has much to offer us humans.[3] It’s as if we co-evolved alongside mushrooms – and indeed, some have argued that we did just that.

The range of responses that the human body has to mushrooms is profound, demonstrating a far greater diversity and magnitude than our responses to plants.

Although the list of potential therapeutic benefits of mushrooms is long, they are perhaps best known (and studied) for their immune-modulating properties – in large part due to their common medicinally active ingredient, β-glucan.[4]

β-glucan-protein bioactive complexes have been shown to bind to specific receptor sites on immune cells, literally activating those cells and increasing their infection-fighting, aberrant-cell-killing properties. Glucan-protein complexes are not produced by the body, however, making us dependent upon other sources (like mushrooms) for their immune-enhancing properties.

β-glucan-protein bioactive complexes have been shown to bind to specific receptor sites on immune cells, literally activating those cells and increasing their infection-fighting, aberrant-cell-killing properties.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake is also called the Dancing Mushroom, as the story goes that a group of Japanese woodcutters and Buddhist nuns danced in celebration of the discovery of this tasty and medicinal fungus. Those dancing forest-goers might not be so surprised to learn that maitake is revered to this day for its healing properties, in particular with respect to immune health.

In a multi-phase human clinical study funded by the U.S. Government and performed at Sloan-Kettering Hospital, balanced immune support (immunomodulation) was observed in the maitake-consuming participants at all dosage levels tested, including low doses, with no adverse effects. After three weeks, levels of immune-enhancing cytokines (IL-2, TNF-alpha, IFN-gamma) increased, as did interleukin-10 (IL-10), an anti-inflammatory cytokine.[5]

But this isn’t the first study to illuminate the power of maitake to enhance the immune system or to explore some of the mechanisms by which it does so. Administration of maitake has been shown to increase phagocytic activity – the function by which immune cells “eat” bacteria and other harmful agents, thereby killing them.[6] The mushroom also has been shown to increase the number of various immune cells like macrophages (cells that perform phagocytosis), helper T cells (infection-fighting cells), and natural killer cells (which kill invaders and abnormal or mutated cells).[7],[8] Maitake also increases the cytokines (signals) that activate these important immune cells – by as much as 60 times in one study![9]

Administration of maitake has been shown to increase phagocytic activity – the function by which immune cells “eat” bacteria and other harmful agents, thereby killing them.

Maitake has been widely researched for its effects in protecting against the kinds of harmful cellular changes than can predispose us to cancer.[10] In addition to the many immunological mechanisms proposed to explain these effects,[11] maitake also may reduce the risk of both serious and chronic illness by helping to keep blood sugar levels in check.[12],[13] The mushroom has also been shown to restrict the growth of blood vessels to tumors (a quality called “anti-angiogenesis” in medicine), thereby depriving them of the nutrients they need to grow and cause harm.[14]

Other β-glucan-rich mushroom species studied and celebrated for their effects on the human immune system include:

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Like other β-glucan mushrooms, reishi has been shown to activate and modulate the immune response, protect our cells, and deactivate carcinogens.[15] It has also been shown to protect the skin against the effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays, thereby protecting against photoaging.[16]

Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus). In addition to being rich in iron,[17] oyster mushroom has been proven to be beneficial in preventing and managing recurrent respiratory tract infections in children, adults, and elite athletes.[18] Oyster has also been shown to oppose the oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction seen in acetaminophen over-dose, thus benefitting the liver and kidneys.[19]

Turkey tail (Coriolus versicolor, Trametes versicolor)

The clinical studies on this mushroom support its role as a potential immunotherapeutic,[20] and it has been shown to exert direct antioxidant effects protecting against damage to the DNA of white blood cells (immune cells).[21]

Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Lion’s mane has a long history of traditional use for supporting the brain and nerves, and has been shown to increase the secretion of nerve growth factor, a substance that induces the growth of nerves in both the brain and the rest of the body.[22] The mushroom has been demonstrated to increase cognitive function,[23] reduce the symptoms of both depression and anxiety,[24] and alleviate the nerve pain associated with diabetes.[25]

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)

Shiitake has demonstrated antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects,[26] like many other mushrooms. Eating the tasty mushroom on a regular basis was shown in one study to improve immunity.[27]

Agaricus (Agaricus blazei)

Agaricus supports immunity and infection[28] in part by disrupting biofilm production.[29] It has been shown to improve the symptoms, fatigue, and quality of life measures of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s[30] and ulcerative colitis[31]). Agaricus is used to treat hepatitis in traditional medicine, and one study has demonstrated its ability to normalize liver function in patients with chronic hepatitis B.[32]

Were we born to eat and heal with mushrooms?

Given the abundance of the varieties of fungi and evidence that humans have been eating them and using them in medicine virtually since the beginning of time,[33] coupled with the myriad of immune-enhancing properties they exert on the human immune system, one could argue that we were, indeed, born to consume mushrooms.

 

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