Mushrooms and Immune Support

Eastern medicine practitioners have recognized the health benefits of mushrooms for thousands of years. In the United States, mushrooms are typically viewed as a culinary delicacy and have only recently been considered a supplement. Many varieties of mushrooms are some of the most effective immune-supportive supplements in the natural foods industry.

Here are some of the most powerful mushrooms used for immune support.

Mushrooms and Immune Health

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese because people were said to jump for joy when they found maitake mushrooms, as the fungus was literally worth its weight in silver.

What’s the key to maitake’s immune-supporting properties? Beta-glucan, a complex polysaccharide (aka: fiber-sourced sugar and part of a long-chain carbohydrate) that stimulates various immune reactions on different levels of human physiology. Maitake contains both beta-1,3 glucan and beta-1,6 glucan.

When someone takes a combination of various beta-glucan-rich mushrooms (such as shiitake and maitake together) this will incite the most natural immune defenses.

Maitake mushrooms may also be useful to support cardiovascular health via healthy blood pressure levels, and healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Maitake promotes the body’s innate resistance to pathogens, and helps maintain blood sugar levels within the normal range.

You should be able to find maitake mushroom dried or fresh in Japanese markets, gourmet foods stores, or upscale supermarkets. You can add it to any food in which you would normally add mushrooms, such as stir-fry, salad, pasta, pizza, omelets, or soup.

Maitake can also be taken as a liquid concentrate or dry form in capsules. If you decide to take maitake as a supplement, look for maitake D-Fraction, which is an extract of the mushroom.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Reishi is known as the “Mushroom of Immortality” and is one of the most respected and admired shrooms in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. Reishi is more of a medicinal mushroom than a culinary one. It can range in color, but red reishi is generally thought to be the most potent and effective.

Reishi is one of the best choices when looking for an immune system nourisher and general tonic for overall health. As with maitake mushroom, reishi also contains polysaccharides. In fact, reishi contains over 100 different ones that support immune function. They work by plugging into immune cells; more specifically, they connect to macrophages in the bloodstream, and macrophages “digest” these polysaccharides and redistribute them throughout the immune system so every other immune cell gets the benefits from them.

Reishi also contains 119 different triterpene compounds, which have shown to have immune-promoting effects on all immune cells (macrophages, lymphocytes, and natural killer cells). 

Reishi mushroom is considered an adaptogen, which is used to support stress and has a calming effect on the nerves.  

You can buy dried, ground mushrooms and use them to make hot tea if you don't mind the bitterness. I prefer reishi powder to make my reishi tea. Reishi also comes in a liquid extract or capsule form. Take reishi every day for at least two months to see what it can do for you. The flavor of reishi tastes great with chocolate, so I like to mix it with hot chocolate and add to coconut fat bombs. 

Shiitake Mushrooms (Lentinula edodes)

Shiitake are prized for their rich, savory taste and diverse health benefits. They’re high in beta-glucan polysaccharides with a 1-3 beta-glucan linkage and a special beta-1,6-D glucopyranoside branching. These are known to support immune health and a normal inflammatory response.

Shiitake mushrooms contain several compounds, including oxalic acid, lentinan, centinamycins A and B, and eritadenine, which promote the body’s innate resistance to pathogens (ie: bacteria and viruses).

Shiitake mushrooms provide a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, B vitamins, and selenium.

Shiitake are often sold dried – look for ones that are sold whole, rather than sliced. Shiitake can also be found fresh at your local market. When picking out shiitake, the caps should be thick, with deep, white fissures. You can cook with shiitakes as you would any other mushroom. If you're interested in a supplement, a blend of mushrooms is an option (shiitake, maitake, reishi, chaga) because each one has a slightly different beta- or alpha-glucan fraction profile, and by combining these different glucan fractions, it provides the body wonderful, powerful immune support. 

Turkey Tail/Coriolus (Coriolus versicolor)

Turkey tail is its common name in the U.S. because of its fan shape, and this mushroom is a superstar for immune support. The bioactive components of this shroom include two polysaccharopeptides (PSK and PSP), which are involved in immune support and healthy inflammatory response.

Turkey tail mushrooms are high in antioxidants and support gut health by promoting a healthy balance of gut microbiota.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

Chaga is a parasitic fungus that thrives on birch trees. It prefers growing in the cold forests of Russia, Korea, eastern and northern Europe, and northern parts of the U.S. and Canada.

Chaga contains a unique compound called betulinic acid, which exhibits potent antioxidant properties, helping to protect cells from oxidative damage and promote overall health and longevity.

Chaga is primarily used to support a healthy inflammatory response, assist the immune system, support normal function and health of the liver, and promotes the body’s innate resistance to pathogens. It also has a mild effect on supporting normal, healthy blood sugar levels.

Chaga is available in extracts, capsules, and teas and is often combined with other medicinal mushrooms. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some dried chaga chunks, you can easily make a highly beneficial tea tonic that can be drunk alone or added to your favorite lattes or smoothies!

Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Lion's mane mushroom is odd-looking but edible and has a flavor likened to lobster. Yum! Not only does it taste great, but it also contains a handful of known active constituents for health: beta-glucans, hericenones, and erinacines.

Lion's mane is used to support digestive health and contains immune-supporting properties and neurological properties. The most intriguing potential of Lion's Mane is it may stimulate the production of a substance known as Nerve Growth Factor, which is a specialized protein necessary for the growth of sensory neurons and may play a role in myelin sheath growth on brain cells, which is very important for overall brain health.

Cordyceps sinensis

Cordyceps has been used for years to support stamina, energy levels, and endurance and has become one of the top-selling sports supplements among the worlds' elite competitive athletes.

Cordyceps is also used to support overall adrenal health and function, for respiratory support, kidney health, and cardiovascular health. Cordyceps can be used for long periods of time without a problem.

Consuming more mushrooms might be one of the best foods you can eat to support your health. Go for it!

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

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Dai X et al. Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2015;34(6):478-87.

Wachtel-Galor S et al. Chapter 9: Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi). Herbal Medicine: Bioolecular and clinical Aspects. 2nd ed.

Mohammad SH et al. Immunomodulatory Properties of Coriolus versicolor: The Role of Polysaccharopeptide. Front Immunol. 2017;8:1087.

Guggenheim AG. Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology. Integr Med (Incinitas). 2014 Feb; 13(1):32-44.

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