Everyone is familiar with the use of mushrooms in cooking, but few are aware of just how many powerful health benefits they provide. Did you know that mushrooms have strong antibiotic, antiviral, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties?
As a child, you were probably warned against eating the wild mushrooms you found in the woods or that would occasionally pop up in your yard because they could be poisonous. That was good advice. Indeed, some mushrooms will make you very sick and others are even lethal. However, there are also many mushrooms that are extremely good for you, being rich in numerous vitamins and minerals. In fact, a few are commonly referred to as “medicinal mushrooms” due to their centuries-long use in Eastern medicine practices.
More recently, Western medicine has begun to study many of the medicinal mushrooms and is beginning to recognize the tremendous health benefits they offer. Various varieties of mushrooms have been shown to promote immune function, ward off infections, combat viruses and bacteria, reduce inflammation, boost heart health, reduce cancer risk, balance blood sugar and more.
The Mushroom – Human Connection
Although the mushroom is sometimes thought of as a plant or vegetable, it’s actually a fungus. Unlike plants, fungi have no roots, leaves, blossoms or seeds. Paul Stamets, an international authority on fungi, explains how humans and fungi (such as mushrooms) are connected:
Fungi and animals are more closely related to one another than either is to plants…Diseases of plants typically do not afflict humans, whereas diseases of fungi do. Since humans (animals) and fungi share common microbial antagonists such as Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, humans can benefit from the natural defensive strategies of fungi that produce antibiotics to fight infection from microorganisms. Hence, it is not surprising our most significant anti-bacterial antibiotics have been derived from fungi.(1)
One Mushroom Is Good – but 10 Are Better
Studies have found that combining more than one type of mushroom can be much more beneficial that any single mushroom by itself. Therefore, ProHealth is pleased to offer Mushroom Immune – a combination of 10 of the top mushroom extracts known to promote a healthy immune system.
Cordyceps – Traditional Chinese medicine uses Cordyceps mushrooms to enhance energy, increase stamina and improve quality of life. An article in the December 2005 issue of the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology notes that the beneficial properties of Cordyceps mushrooms include its “anti-tumour, anti-metastatic, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, insecticidal, antimicrobial, hypolipidaemic, hypoglycaemic, anti-aging, neuroprotective and renoprotective effects.”(2)
Reishi – The Reishi mushroom is so highly valued in Eastern medicine that they call it the “mushroom of immunity” and the “medicine of kings.” It contains polysaccharides and other compounds that are thought to combat bacteria and viruses and boost the immune system. Studies have shown that the polysaccharide beta-1,3-D-glucan in Reishi stimulates the immune system by raising the levels of T-cells, a key component of human immunity.
Because in its natural form, Reishi is very bitter and 90% indigestible, it is necessary to take it in supplement form.
Maitake – Sometimes called the “dancing mushroom” because people were said to dance for joy when they found it, the Maitake mushroom is also known as the “king of mushrooms” due to both its large size and its powerful immune-boosting properties. Recent research has found that Maitake is the most potent immuno-stimulant of all the medicinal mushrooms. Numerous studies are looking into its possible benefits for treating cancer. According to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, “Maitake stimulates the activity of certain immune cells in laboratory studies and in mice. It has also been shown to stimulate immune function in a small group of cancer patients.”(3)
A 2014 study found that a combination of Maitake and Shiitake mushroom extracts significantly stimulated natural killer cell function and was more effective than either mushroom extract by itself.(4)
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Shiitake – Shiitake mushrooms, now widely available, were once reserved only for the emperor of Japan and his family. A great deal of research has been done on the multiple benefits of Shiitake mushrooms, including reducing cholesterol, inflammation and high blood pressure, but no benefit has been better documented than immune support. One of the most interesting features of the Shiitake mushroom’s effect on the immune system is its ability to respond to the needs of the individual, stimulating the immune system when needed but also preventing excessive immune activity when necessary.(5)
Coriolus – Known as Yun Zhi in Chinese medicine, Coriolus versicolor has demonstrated powerful benefits for the immune system. Numerous studies have found that Coriolus has provided strong immune support for patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments and has significantly increased the survival rate of certain cancer patients.
Coriolus mushrooms have also shown benefits for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. The Institute for Optimum Nutrition reports, “In pioneering work carried out at the Breakspear Hospital, Hemel Hempstead, UK, by Dr Jean Monro, supplementation with Coriolus versicolor increased the numbers and activity of natural killer cells in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and reduced the severity of a wide range of symptoms. Changes in natural killer cell levels have been found to accurately reflect the progress of chronic fatigue syndrome and its remission.”(6)
Polyporus – The Polyporus umbellatus (“umbrella-like polypore”) mushroom, known as Zhu Ling in Chinese medicine, is closely related to the maitake mushroom and, like the maitake, has powerful immune-boosting properties. In addition to immune support, the Polyporus mushroom is known for its diuretic properties, which may help reduce swelling and promote kidney and urinary tract health.
Wood Ear – Wood Ear mushrooms are also called Black Fungus. Like other mushrooms, Wood Ears contain polysaccharides, which can enhance the immune system. Wood Ears are also a rich source of iron – seven times higher than pork liver. Recent research has identified a chemical in Wood Ear mushrooms that inhibits blood clotting, so it may also be beneficial for heart health.
Tremella – Tremella mushrooms are also called Snow Fungus because of their white, nearly translucent appearance. Although not yet tested in human trials, Tremella mushrooms show great promise in the lab as possible anti-tumor agents. According to the Herb Museum in Vancouver,
“Scientific studies in cells and animals have found that the mucilage-like polysaccharides found in snow fungus fit like keys into receptor sites on certain immune cells. This increased the production of interferon and interleukin-2(IL-2), two important immune-system chemicals, and stimulated the production of germ-eating macrophages. Snow fungus also increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells and enhances the effectiveness of antibodies. In addition, snow fungus reduces the rate at which cancers spread in a laboratory setting. In order to grow and spread, tumours have to establish their own blood vessel systems. Snow fungus compounds counteract a blood chemical platelet-activating factor (PAF), which makes the blood less likely to clots and spins a fibrin “net” on which blood vessels to serve the tumour can form.”(7)
Poria – Poria mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years for their diuretic, sedative and tonic effects. In a 2011 report published in the journal Planta Medica on the chemical constituents and pharmacological properties of Poria, researchers noted, “Various studies of this fungus have demonstrated its marked anti-inflammatory activity in different experimental models of acute and chronic inflammation.” The author went on to state, “Reviewing the literature, we found that polysaccharides from Poria cocos enhanced the secretion of immune stimulators and suppressed the secretion of immune suppressors, thus potentiating the immune response. In addition, they showed antitumor activity against different cancer cell lines.”(8)
Hericium – The Hericium mushroom is commonly called Lion’s Mane because of its globular shape with cascading spines. It has also been nicknamed “Pom Pom Blanc” because it most closely resembles a white cheerleading pom pom. (Incidentally, the word Hericium means “hedgehog” – also an apt description.)
More than just an immune system booster, Hericium mushrooms have also been shown to boost memory and brain function. At least a dozen studies since 1991 have demonstrated the amazing neuroprotective and neuroregenerative properties of Hericium mushrooms. For example, a 2009 Japanese double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that participants with mild cognitive impairment, who took an Hericium mushroom supplement, experienced significant improvement in their cognitive function scores, which lasted for as long as they continued taking it. However, after they stopped taking the supplement at the end of 16 weeks, their scores declined significantly.(9)
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on February 18, 2016 and was updated on May 8, 2021.
Editor’s Note: For a fun illustration of how you can grow mushrooms at home, watch this quick video.
1. Stamets, P. “The Immune Enhancing Properties of Certain Mushrooms – Science & Latest Research.” ProHealth.com. December 17, 2008.2. Ng TB, Wang HX. “Pharmacological actions of Cordyceps, a prized folk medicine.” J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005 Dec;57(12):1509-19.3. “Maitake.” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. April 2, 2015.
4. Vetvicka V and Vetvickova J. “Immune-enhancing effects of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) extracts.” Ann Transl Med. 2014 Feb; 2(2):14.
5. “Mushrooms, shiitake.” The World’s Healthiest Foods. Retrieved February 16, 2016.
6. Hum M. “Medicinal Mushrooms.” Institute for Optimum Nutrition. Autumn, Spring 2001.
7. “Medicinal Benefits of Snow Fungus.” The Herb Museum. Retrieved February 16, 2016.
8. Rios JL. “Chemical Constituents and Pharmacological Properties Of Poria cocos.” Planta Med 2011; 77(7): 681-691.
9. Mori K, et al. “Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Phytother Res. 2009 Mar;23(3):367-72.
Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.