We are constantly bombarded with foods, toxins and pollutants that impact the performance of our immune system. Immune and auto-immune disorders are becoming more and more common and costing us millions in medications and ill health. Fortunately the solution may lie in the humble mushroom which has been used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to support immune function.
Since the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics, derived from fungi, we have forgotten the virtues of this versatile organism. However, the medicinal benefits of mushrooms are starting to be recognized again by Western medicine. Discover how these incredible organisms could have a significant beneficial impact on your health.
Mushrooms are a revered organism, vital in maintaining the Earth’s ecosystem, and they have played an important role in many cultures for thousands of years. Many anthropologists believe that the consumption of mushrooms containing psilocybin by early hunter-gatherers resulted in the first expressions of language and symbols. Considered sacred by indigenous people and called “the food of the gods” by the ancient Egyptians, mushrooms are regarded as a mediator between the divine and mankind.
The latest scientific research has revealed that some species of fungi have tremendous health benefits. This includes: killing viruses; aiding weight loss; facilitating greater nutrient intake; and improving immune performance. Their effects are so remarkable many are being dubbed ‘immunoceuticals’ for their ability to repair and restore specific immune functions. Below are summaries of the top 5 mushrooms known to boost the immune system and provide other health benefits.
1) Turkey Tail
Trametes versicoloris, also known as Coriolus versicolor, is a multicolored mushroom, from the family of mushrooms known as polypores. The appearance of the mushroom, often found growing at the base of dead conifer trees, has led to the nickname Turkey Tail due to the similarity to the tail feathers of the bird. The polypore family has been extensively researched and as many as 75% show medicinal benefits, specifically anti-microbial properties.
The mushroom contains the chemical polysaccharide-K which is currently being investigated for its potential role in treating and preventing cancers. Laboratory and human tests have confirmed the chemical performs several useful roles and the American Cancer Society stated that the mushroom derivatives could be useful in both cancer treatment and prevention.
Results collected from various clinical studies published in the Journal for the Society of Integrative Oncology found that the mushrooms are specifically useful in preventing re-occurrence of cancers after traditional medical treatments have ended. The researchers concluded there was a strong case for the mushrooms to be included as part of treatment programs for breast tumors to prevent the development of secondary cancers.
In traditional Chinese medicine the mushroom is called Yun-Zhi and is used for a wide range of different illnesses. In ancient China it was believe the mushroom increased vital energy and strengthened bone. Due to its effectiveness in preventing cancer regrowth a wide range of supplements are being used by cancer patients. The supplements are often taken in conjunction with traditional treatments such as chemo and radiation therapies. Some sub-groups of patients experience a massive increase in survival rates when supplementing treatments with these mushrooms.
Various different chemicals (polysaccharides) have been isolated from this multipurpose mushroom which, in addition to the anti-cancer properties, is effective in treating various types of hepatitis. The polysaccharides have an effect on the rate of production of lymphocytes, a key cell in the immune system, creating an immuno-protective effect especially useful in older patients. The chemicals in the mushroom are thought to work by helping the immune system identify potential threats and signaling to the body that action is required.
The family of mushrooms known as cordyceps also derives their name from their appearance; their Latin name means ‘club head’. They are more commonly known as ‘caterpillar mushrooms’ due to their resemblance and because they often devour caterpillars. The mushrooms are parasitic which means they consume insects, spiders and other small creates with external skeletons. The spiny fungus lives mainly in tropical forests in Asia and curiously some species have the ability to affect the behavior of its host before it is killed. Once infected with spores, the host organism is directed to a place which will provide the best environment for it to be consumed. For example, ants infected by the mushroom climb up trees before they die. In this way the mushroom can consume its host victim ‘in peace’ and it is in an ideal location to spread more spores once it is eaten. This is like a fish voluntarily getting out of the water, cooking itself, getting on your plate and then doing the dishes after you have eaten it!
In traditional Chinese medicine the mushroom is known as Dōngchóng and has been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac, immune stimulant, physical stimulant, respiratory aid and much more. In some regions the price of the mushroom has risen dramatically, and steadily, over the last decade due to its increasing popularity. Fortunately this mushroom can now be cultivated in the laboratory making the price more accessible and supplement manufacturers are promoting the fungus for its wide variety of health benefits.
Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use cordyceps to provide greater amounts of energy during workouts, it contains adenosine which is used to make energy in all cells and it also increases testosterone which promotes muscle formation. Studies in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that the mushroom improves oxygen utilization by as much as fifty percent and crucially it won’t show up on drug tests so it can be used by professional athletes. The mushrooms ability to increase oxygen uptake is a new addition to the broad range of uses being investigated for potential therapeutic benefits, specifically for elderly patients and those with respiratory conditions.
Researchers originally thought that the health benefits of the mushroom were due to compounds called cordycepin and cordycepic acid. However, latest research has dismissed these compounds as being responsible for the immune support and respiratory changes. Further studies are being undertaken to identify exactly how these mushrooms are helping us. Like Turkey Tail scientists have discovered the presence of polysaccharides which have known anti-cancer properties.
Some studies have shown the mushrooms can: lower triglyceride levels; improve metabolism; help the immune system with its anti-inflammatory effect; and help you lose weight. Asthma patients and individuals with respiratory problems could also benefit from the mushroom as it helps move mucus out of the lungs.
The ability to stimulate the immune system has been harnessed by patients recovering from cancer and other immune disorders; however, different species of mushrooms in this family can have opposing effects. Some members of the cordyceps family actually have immune suppressant effects and are being investigated for their ability to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients. Consumers need to confirm the specific species (e.g. Cordyceps militaris) is used in a supplement to support immune function (many supplements simply state the family name which is insufficient to ensure effectiveness). Cordyceps militaris is the oldest, and perhaps most prominent member of the family and has been specifically targeted for further scientific investigation.
The Reishi mushroom is also extensively used in traditional Chinese medicine and may even be one of the oldest species used. The Latin and Greek roots of the name, Ganoderma lucidum, mean ‘shining’ referring to the appearance of its skin. It is also known as the Lingzhi in traditional Chinese medicine. Like TurkeyTail it is a polypore, meaning it has multiple colors and the red and brown color together with the distinctive shape means it resembles a human kidney.
The biochemical composition of Reishi mushrooms includes polysaccharides, with anticancer properties, and substances which resemble hormones. A variety of other substances found in Reishi mushrooms are currently under investigation, looking specifically at their structure and potential influence on human biology. Naturally the fungus feeds off the wood of decaying trees and is found in many regions of the world but is relatively rare. Fortunately it can be cultivated in the lab or even at home using sterile wood-chip cultures.
Like other medicinal mushrooms there are a wide variety of benefits from taking this fungus, usually consumed in a tea which tastes very bitter. From increasing heart Qi (vital energy) to improving memory and increasing lifespan there are a wide range of traditional uses. More recently the Reishimushroom’sability to improve immune function and its antioxidant effects have received specific attention. Reishi’scapacity to lower blood pressure is also of keen interest and traditionally the mushroom would be used by monks to aid calming the mind for meditation.
Reishi mushrooms also prevent tumors forming, and increase the immune systems response to potential threats;this means they could be used alongside cancer therapies and as a preventative medicine. Some studies have suggested that Reishimushrooms specifically help the body get rid of the virus which causes hepatitis and also reduces pain associated with arthritis.
Studies published in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biochemistry found that Reishimushrooms reduce the pain and auto-immune response associated with rheumatoid arthritis. The exact mechanism of action is still not known but they seem to reduce the production of inflammatory cytokines which signal the immune system to, wrongly, attack the body. While further tests are still needed to determine exactly how this effect is achieved is seems clear that the Reishimushroom could help the millions of sufferers of this debilitating condition.
The Journal of Recent Patents on Inflammation and Allergy Drug Discovery published an article in June of this year stating that the Reishimushroom could be a “wonder herb” pertaining to its immunomodulatory effects. Specifically itsability to reduce unwanted immune responses, in allergies and autoimmune disorders such as arthritis and Lupus, means it could have incredible therapeutic potential.
Maitake mushrooms are also from the polyphone family and have various common names relating to their shape, that of the head of a sheep, ram or hen. They are often found consuming dead oak trees and are native to both Japan and North America. The mushrooms can take on giant proportions and are eaten, cooked in butter, as well as being used as a traditional medicine. The mushroom is naturally high in many vitamins and minerals essential to the human body and has been used traditionally to improve the function of the immune system. More recent research indicates the mushroom may help in a variety of metabolic roles, including: promoting fat metabolism; encouraging healthy blood sugar levels; and causing weight loss.
Much research has concentrated on the mushrooms ability to cure and prevent cancer. Tests have shown it not only kills cancer cells, inducing apoptosis, but also prevents them spreading throughout the body. The US Food and Drug Administration have approved an application for further studies into the mushroom due to the enormous potential as a therapeutic agent to treat cancer.
The Latin name of the mushroom is Grifolafrondosa but supplements often refer to the specific portions or chemicals extracted from the mushroom, including: maitake D-fraction, and beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is the polysaccharide found in the mushroom and it is believed this is what is responsible for the medicinal benefits, specifically for cancer patients. The National Cancer Institute is studying the effectiveness of the mushroom when used in combination with other anti-cancer drugs. The mushroom stimulates chemicals in the immune system, specifically cytokines and also the production of tumor necrosis factor which as the name suggests ‘kills’ tumors.
5) Agaricus Blazei
There is often confusion around the naming of this mushroom due to it being ‘discovered’ multiple times by different botanists on different continents. The Latin names include Agaricus subrufescens and Agaricus Blazeiin addition to various common names including: the mushroom of life; mushroom of the sun; and, more obviously, the almond mushroom due to its sweet almond like taste. The mushroom grows naturally in North America, Europe and Brazil and is used as a cooking ingredient as well as a medicine.
Like Maitake this mushroom contains beta-glucan, so also has anti-cancer properties due to the presence of this useful polysaccharide. By crossing this mushroom with other species known to produce beta-glucans scientists have created a new species believed to have even more of a medicinal benefit. The patent to support this novel mushroom advocates its use in treating HIV patients due to the increased immune response it creates.
It would seem that nature has provided a medicine cabinet of natural ingredients to support our immune systems and other vital functions. Traditional medicine from China and Russia has been using these magical ingredients for thousands of years and Western medicine has a lot to learn.
Many scientific studies into the effectiveness of the mushrooms are providing extremely promising results in a wide variety of areas. They seem to specifically combat many of the modern diseases of immune suppression liked to our lifestyle, environment and diet.
You could pick your own mushrooms from the wild, but there are some important factors to consider. The absorbent characteristics of mushrooms mean that they will take in any pollution or heavy metals from the environment, which can be detrimental to your health.
Also a relatively small number of species of mushroom contain harmful toxins which are to be avoided as they can potentially cause a long slow death. Despite this warning there are numerous pictorial guides you can obtain to safely accompany your picking of mushrooms, or alternatively you can buy your own mushroom growing kit online to cultivate them yourself.
Genetically humans are closer to mushrooms than mushrooms are to plants, for example fungi take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Our compatibility with mushrooms means they are a powerful tool for our health because the antibiotics and chemicals that fungi naturally produce are effective for humans too. As research continues more and more mushrooms are being found to have therapeutic benefits. Mushroom immunoceuticals, based on traditional medicines, could be a key and vital aid in our efforts to regain health and support our immune systems in the modern era.
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About the Author:
Laura Lindsey is the chief nutritionist of Holistic Health Labs. She has helped thousands of men and women transforming their health with the right foods, nutrition and supplements.
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