Top 6 Medicinal Mushrooms for Immune Support and More
Medicinal mushrooms are a special type of fungi — they are more powerful than the white button mushrooms you may see in a salad bar lineup, yet not quite as strong as those other types of mushrooms (no hallucinogenic effects with these!)
Most commonly consumed in their extracted form in a powder or capsule, medicinal mushrooms are becoming an increasingly popular way to improve health. In this article, learn more about how these fungi can support the immune system, along with the top benefits of the six leading types of medicinal mushrooms.
What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Medicinal mushrooms have been providing therapeutic benefits for a multitude of conditions for millennia, dating back to Eastern healing practices in the 5th century. From supporting sleep to strengthening immunity to boosting energy, each medicinal mushroom has a different purpose. Some of the mushrooms, like reishi, also function as adaptogens, meaning they help the body adapt to stressors.
These mushrooms bolster the immune system primarily through their content of a compound called beta-glucan, which is a polysaccharide and type of fiber. Beta-glucan acts as a prebiotic, meaning it provides food for your healthy gut bacteria (also known as probiotics) to flourish, thereby providing you with improved digestion and immunity.
As the microbiome and the immune system are closely linked, increasing the population of probiotic bacteria in the gut is an important factor in fighting illness and infection. In addition, medicinal mushrooms have been found to reduce inflammation, act as antioxidants, and provide antimicrobial activity — all of which can play a role in immune health.
Top 6 Medicinal Mushrooms for Immune Support
Also referred to as the “mushroom of immortality,” reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) exhibits strong anti-inflammatory, stress-relieving, and immune-supporting properties.
In addition to containing beta-glucan polysaccharides, reishi is the only known dietary source of ganoderic acid, which falls into the triterpene family. Triterpenes are bioactive plant compounds that are used medicinally due to their anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects.
As discussed in a July 2019 study published in Nutrients, reishi improves immune function by upregulating the activity of helpful macrophages, natural killer cells, and B and T-lymphocytes, while reducing the production of inflammatory cytokines.
Reishi is also known for its ability to improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and improve mood; these benefits are primarily due to reishi’s adaptogenic qualities.
2. Lion’s Mane
With a name due to its likeness to the long hair of a lion, the lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is known to benefit the brain and nervous system. Lion’s mane contains bioactive compounds called erinacines that support nerve growth factors, neurogenesis, and cognition.
Lion’s mane is also shown to reduce inflammatory cytokine production and scavenge for free radicals. Oxidative damage from free radicals can limit the body’s ability to respond to and fight off infections and illness.
In an August 2019 study, hippocampal neurons from mice were exposed to hydrogen peroxide, which oxidatively damaged cells. Adding a lion’s mane extract led to the protection of these neurons by increasing their viability after the oxidative damage. In the same study, lion’s mane also significantly increased levels of two antioxidants, glutathione and catalase, while reducing both mitochondrial toxicity and inflammation in the microglial cells of the brain.
3. Turkey Tail
Another medicinal mushroom named for its similarities to an animal, turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) has been studied for its ability to enhance both the innate and adaptive immune responses. The innate response is the first line of defense against foreign pathogens, while the adaptive system contains a memory of previous threats to specifically target invaders.
As seen in a review published in the Nutrition Journal, the bioactive compounds found in turkey tail increase activity of natural killer cells, helper cells, and total neutrophil and leukocyte counts.
Turkey tail, in particular, contains polysaccharopeptides (protein-bound polysaccharides), which may improve immune function and upregulation of monocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection.
Cordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungi that contains over 700 species, although Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris are the two most commonly studied.
Traditionally, the cordyceps mushroom has been used to stimulate energy, stamina, and endurance. Recent research points to its benefits on the immune system by reducing inflammation and oxidative damage.
For example, in a study using a model of aging mice, cordyceps led to enhanced immune system functioning, upregulated free radical scavenging, and inhibition of lipid peroxidation. Cordyceps may also play a role in preventing or ameliorating oxidative damage by boosting an individual’s overall antioxidant profile.
Known as the “king of mushrooms,” chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is most-studied for its benefits of improving gut and immune health. Of the medicinal mushrooms, chaga is thought to have the highest antioxidant levels.
Chaga modulates the immune system by promoting the formation of helpful cytokines and various white blood cells. As previously mentioned, a healthy microbiome is necessary for a robust immune system — and chaga may do just that! It's been found to improve the diversity and proliferation of gut bacteria, including the helpful Bifidobacterium species.
Additionally, chaga may help manage healthy blood sugar and unhealthy cholesterol levels, fight viruses, and protect against premature cellular senescence.
Mesima (Phellinus linteus) is a bitter-tasting mushroom that grows on mulberry trees and is traditionally used in Asia for treating blood-related conditions, like hemorrhage, clotting, and menstrual disorders. However, similar to the other medicinal mushrooms, mesima contains polysaccharopeptides, beta-glucan, and triterpenes that support the immune system.
As reviewed in a May 2019 paper published in Molecules, mesima exhibits potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. Specifically, mesima has been shown to stimulate macrophages, natural killer cells, and the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10, while suppressing the pro-inflammatory interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) — all of which may help to fortify your immune system for optimal health and wellness.
By improving your response to stress, maintaining energy, supporting immune health, and mitigating cellular damage, there’s no doubt that medicinal mushrooms can help you feel your best at any time of the year.
- Medicinal mushrooms, which are commonly consumed in powder or capsule form, exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which benefit the immune system.
- The top six medicinal mushrooms for immune support are reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, cordyceps, chaga, and mesima.
- The medicinal mushrooms modulate the immune response and improve gut health through their makeup of bioactive compounds, including beta-glucan and triterpenes.
- Medicinal mushrooms may be used year-round for ideal health and wellness.
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