Functional Mushrooms and Immunity

In recent years, science has been discovering the power of functional mushrooms. Hardly a month goes by without a new study making bold claims about their health benefits. Don’t let the clickbait titles fool you into thinking that these fruits of forest are just another health fad.

Functional mushrooms are the real deal.

Each fabulous fungus has its own catalogue of proven health benefits. Some power the brain while others promote heart health. But as a general rule, all of them give a powerful boost to your immune system, albeit how they do so can differ significantly.

It’s easy to claim that functional mushrooms support your immune system, but here, we’re going to dive in and tell you how they do it.

 

A brief guide to the immune system

How often do we read articles that make grand claims about the immune system? Weekly? Daily?

Yet, rarely do they explain what it actually is. To better understand the effects of functional mushrooms, let’s do a quick recap.

The immune system is a complex cocktail of cells and compounds that help your body fight off diseases. That much is well-known. It includes organs such as the spleen, as well as a network of lymph nodes and tissues. These all help to filter pathogens from the blood (harmful bugs and viruses) that find their way into our system.

The backbone of the immune system is the white blood cells. These remarkable little critters range from the tank-like natural killer cells to the living factories, such as the B cells which churn out antibodies that stick to pathogens leaving them inert.

Mediating this army of white blood cells is a wide array of molecules. These are like orders on the battlefield. They dictate what should happen and how. They can trigger inflammation, which recruits white blood cells to the frontline.

But our immune system doesn’t exist in isolation. How much we sleep, our stress levels, diet, and exercise all influence how strong our immune system is. Sometimes, our immune system goes haywire and begins attacking our own bodies, in the act of friendly fire. This typically results in autoimmune disease.

 

Functional mushrooms and immunity

Now that we’re familiar with how the immune system works, what effect do functional mushrooms have? We’ll go through some of the most potent immune-enhancing mushrooms, one by one.

 

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Sometimes known as the “pom-pom mushroom,” this feathery ball of fluff has a range of immune effects. First, it has been shown to help with inflammatory bowel disease. This is an autoimmune disease that leads to cramping and other bowel-related symptoms. Lion’s Mane reduces the signals of inflammation, calming down the immune response and helping with oxidative stress.

Furthermore, the antioxidant activity of the Lion’s Mane mushroom is one of the highest of fourteen mushroom species tested in one study. These effects have been theorised to reduce the impact of a range of illnesses.

The immune benefits don’t stop there. In animals, the Lion's Mane has increased the activity of the intestinal immune system – one crucial way that we can become infected. It also quadrupled the lifespan of mice injected with lethal doses of the bacteria salmonella.

 

Large lion's mane mushroom growing from a tree above some leaves

Figure 1. Think of the Lion’s Mane mushrooms as the guardian of your intestinal immune system. Photo by Karel Bock. (Shutterstock).

 

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

This mushroom works on the dangerous effects of chronic inflammation. Some studies have suggested that Chaga can reduce long-term inflammation, thereby positively affecting immunity. It also promotes cytokine formation. These are the army orders that organise your immune system. By promoting these specialized proteins, Chaga increases the number of white blood cells, helping to ward off harmful pathogens.

Conversely, it also prevents the production of harmful cytokines that lead to an overdrive of inflammation. So, you get the best of both worlds.

 

Large, black, cinder-looking chaga mushroom growing on tree

Figure 2. With Chaga, you can get the “best of both worlds” with immunity since it promotes positive cytokines while preventing the production of harmful cytokines. Photo by Bjorn S. (Wikimedia Commons).

 

Reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi)

There’s a reason Reishi is known as the “king of the mushrooms.” It also works on inflammation (are you starting to notice a pattern?) helping to suppress the secretion of inflammatory cytokines. By doing so, it keeps the immune system in check. Moreover, it provides a substantial boost against inflammatory breast cancer, helping to fight cancer cells and regulate the immune response.

But Reishi also acts more holistically, helping with the indirect causes of a weakened immune system. Depression, anxiety, and poor sleep have been shown to reduce immune functioning, as a result of stress. Therefore, by boosting your mood and improving sleep, as seen in mice, Reishi also has an indirect effect upon immune health.

 

Dark red reishi mushroom sitting in front of pieces of dried reishi and next to wooden spoons holding reishi powder all on wooden table

Figure 3. Reishi is considered the “king of the mushrooms'' because of its far-reaching effects. If you need help with anything from anxiety to inflammation, this ‘shroom is for you. Photo by wasanajai. (Shutterstock).

 

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey Tails are fan-like mushrooms that come in a dazzling array of purples and browns. But they’re not just a pretty mushroom. They’re also brimming with antioxidants.

One particular chemical of interest is polysaccharide-K (PSK) which stimulates the immune system. PSK alone has been shown to have potent anticancer properties, boosting the immune system in the process. Turkey Tails more generally can help enhance immune systems in those receiving chemotherapy. This is vital as chemotherapy usually dampens immune functioning.

Plus, it helps regulate gut bacteria, promoting the good stuff and helping weed out the bad. This is especially useful in people suffering from the effects of antibiotics, which can cause significant changes to the gut.

 

Arial shot of green, brown, and white rings of turkey tail mushroom growing on a tree

Figure 4. The beautiful Turkey Tail has potent anticancer properties. Photo by JerHetrick. (Shutterstock).

 

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)

Many people know Shiitake mushrooms as a healthy addition to their regular diets (with an impressive nutrient profile featuring 39% of daily Copper intake and 33% of daily Vitamin B5 intake, it’s easy to see why). But vitamins aren’t the only reason to add those ‘shrooms to your stir-fry or coffee. They also boast impressive immunity support!

Not only have Shiitake mushrooms shown to improve immune markers in humans, but they even showed the ability to reverse the age-related decline in immune function in mice. Moreover, consumption of Shiitake mushrooms has been linked to improved gut immunity and reduced inflammation.

 

Several small shiitake mushrooms growing on two mossy logs

Figure 5. Beyond being a nutrient-rich part of your diet, Shiitake mushrooms also support your immune system. Photo by puttography. (Shutterstock).

 

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

The Maitake mushroom, or the “Dancing mushroom,” as it is known in some parts of the world, is yet another mushroom known for its immune-boosting properties. One study that examined the effects of Maitake and Shiitake mushrooms on the immune system found that mice that had been given both Maitake and Shiitake had the most significant boost to their immune systems. The subjects given only Maitake had the second most significant boost, proving that Maitake has an effect on the immune system, even though our ‘shrooms are better when taken together. Of course, with our beverages, you don’t have to choose one or the other, but you get both of these immunity-boosting ‘shrooms in every cup.

Additionally, Maitake mushrooms have a bioactive component called “D Fraction” that is responsible for much of the anticancer benefits of taking Maitake mushrooms. D Fraction extract has been shown to be a powerful agent to be considered either alone or in conjunction with other agents as a cancer therapy.

 

brown maitake mushroom growing on a mossy tree

Figure 6. The Maitake mushroom has a component called “D Fraction” that gives it powerful anticancer properties. Photo by puttography. (Shutterstock).

 

Conclusion

In short: functional mushrooms mean functional immune systems. Whether by regulating chronic inflammation or recruiting an army of white blood cells, they help supercharge our defenses. Research has only scratched the surface of the possibilities. As further studies begin, more and more remarkable immune benefits are sure to be revealed. But, in the meantime, we can still enjoy a few healthy handfuls of our favourite fungal friends.

 
Do you bolster your immune system using functional mushrooms? Tell us which ones you use to help give it a boost!

 

Cover Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash