There are approximately 14,000 mushrooms known to science at this moment in time. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
With the current rate of discovery, it will take another four thousand years to discover all the mushroom species on this planet, estimated to be more than 5 million in total.
With so many different types of mushrooms out there, it's no wonder they have been a staple of traditional medicine practices for centuries.
In this blog post, we will dive into the world of mushrooms and explore the best mushrooms for the immune system.
What are mushrooms?
Mushrooms are the reproductive organs of fungi. Mushrooms have been used for their healing properties for thousands of years, with an established use in traditional medicine practices such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.
While gourmet mushrooms are commonly eaten around the world, using mushrooms therapeutically is becoming increasingly popular in the West as their potential health benefits are uncovered by modern science.
What sets certain medicinal mushrooms apart from culinary mushrooms is that they contain bioactive compounds, such as beta-glucans, polysaccharides, and triterpenoids, that have been shown to have various health benefits.
These compounds are believed to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and provide antioxidant effects, among other things.
Health benefits of mushrooms
While the use of mushrooms has deep cultural roots, modern science is only beginning to explore and explain just how useful they can be for our health.
Here are 6 proven health benefits of consuming mushrooms:
A study from November 2021 found that people who eat mushrooms have a lower chance of experiencing depression. The antidepressant properties of mushrooms is thought to be down to ergothioneine, an antioxidant that may protect against cell and tissue damage.
Lead researcher Djibril Ba says, “Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine — an anti-inflammatory which cannot be synthesised by humans.
“Having high levels of this may lower the risk of oxidative stress, which could also reduce the symptoms of depression.”
While the types of mushrooms consumed was not reported in this study, previous research has shown hericium erinaceus, also known as Lion’s Mane, to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF), which may help prevent or reduce depression.
According to a meta-analysis published in 2021, mushroom consumption is associated with a lower risk of cancer.
Researchers found that people who regularly ate any type of mushroom had a lower risk of cancer. According to the findings, individuals who ate 18 grams of mushrooms daily had a 45% lower risk of cancer compared to those who did not eat mushrooms.
It was also found that the protective effects of mushrooms were most strongly associated with reduced breast cancer risk.
Another study from 2021 found that adults who ate mushrooms had a lower risk of premature death, regardless of their demographics, lifestyle choices and other dietary factors.
The study analysed the diets of more than 15,000 U.S. adults and found that individuals who consumed mushrooms had lower risk of death by all causes compared with those who did not eat mushrooms.
The researchers also observed a dose-response relationship between higher mushroom consumption and lower risk of all-cause mortality, suggesting the more mushrooms one eats, the less chance they have of dying of anything!
A number of mushrooms contain compounds that are proven to protect the brain from disease, injury and degeneration.
In one study, people who ate more than two cups of mushrooms (including golden, oyster, shiitake and white button mushrooms) a week had a 50% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Lion’s mane in particular has been shown to promote the growth of new brain cells and protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The microbiome in your gut is an ecosystem home to billions of organisms and bacteria. And it plays a vital role in keeping you healthy.
Research shows that polysaccharides found in mushrooms can work as potent prebiotics by stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut.
Mushrooms contain many macronutrients that work to support a healthy immune system. In fact, it is well-established that mushrooms are adept at immune modulation, most notably stimulating cytokine production, which in turn increases our natural killer cells to improve our body’s defence system.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from harmful invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
When a pathogen enters the body, the immune system recognises it as foreign and initiates a response to destroy it. This response involves various types of white blood cells, such as T cells and B cells, that are specialised to recognise and attack specific pathogens.
In addition to attacking pathogens directly, the immune system also produces antibodies, which are proteins that specifically recognise and bind to the pathogen, marking it for destruction by other immune cells.
The immune system also has a memory, which allows it to recognise and respond more quickly to pathogens it has encountered before. This is the basis for vaccination, which exposes the immune system to a harmless form of a pathogen, allowing it to develop immunity without causing illness.
How can mushrooms benefit the immune system?
Mushrooms have been found to have several beneficial effects on the immune system. Here are a few ways in which mushrooms can benefit the immune system:
1. Boosting Immune Function: Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, which are complex sugars that have been shown to enhance the immune system's ability to recognise and destroy foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. Beta-glucans are believed to activate immune cells called macrophages, which are responsible for identifying and engulfing foreign particles in the body.
2. Anti-inflammatory properties: Some mushrooms, such as Reishi and Turkey Tail, contain compounds that have been found to have anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system to injury or infection, but chronic inflammation can lead to a weakened immune system. By reducing inflammation, mushrooms may help to support a healthy immune system.
3. Antioxidant properties: Mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, such as ergothioneine and glutathione, which protect cells from oxidative stress caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. By protecting cells from damage, antioxidants may help to support a healthy immune system.
4. Prebiotic effects: Some types of mushrooms contain dietary fibres, such as beta-glucans and chitin, that are resistant to digestion in the human gut. These fibres act as prebiotics, feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut and helping to support a healthy gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome has been linked to a healthy immune system.
Overall, mushrooms can be an effective addition to a healthy lifestyle and may offer several benefits for the immune system.
7 best mushrooms for supporting the immune system
There are approximately 14,000 mushrooms known to science at this moment in time. And at our current rate of discovery, it will take an additional 4000 years to discover all the mushroom species on this planet - estimated to be more than 5 million.
What an exciting 4000 years it will be! But in the meantime, here are the best mushrooms for the immune system.
Chaga is a type of mushroom that is known for its ability to support the immune system. It contains beta-glucans, a type of polysaccharide that has been shown to stimulate the immune system by activating immune cells such as macrophages and natural killer cells. This can help to enhance immune function and reduce the risk of infections and diseases.
In addition to its immune-boosting properties, Chaga also has anti-inflammatory effects and is a rich source of antioxidants.
Cordyceps are highly prized for their medicinal properties, which are believed to benefit the immune system and overall health.
Some of the potential benefits of cordyceps that have been studied include:
- Improved athletic performance: Some studies have suggested that Cordyceps may improve physical performance and endurance, and may be useful for athletes and other active individuals.
- Reduced fatigue: Cordyceps may help to reduce fatigue and improve energy levels, making it useful for people who are feeling tired or weak.
- Improved immune function: Cordyceps may have immune-boosting effects and may be helpful for preventing illness.
- Reduced inflammation: Cordyceps may have anti-inflammatory effects and may be beneficial for reducing inflammation in the body.
3. Lion’s mane
Lion’s mane has become very popular among health conscious people. This is largely thanks to its cognitive benefits including its ability to increase NGF (nerve growth factor) levels and promote neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells).
These properties mean that many people who use lion’s mane experience:
- Clarity of thought
- Enhanced memory
- Enhanced focus
- Enhanced cognition
- Increased energy
The unseen benefits of lion’s mane are even more profound and include:
- Protection of the brain against neurodegenerative disease
- Reduction in inflammation, particularly in the gut
- Reduction in depression and anxiety
- Enhance recovery from nervous system injuries
- Lower risk of blood clotting and heart attack and stroke
- Control blood sugar and manage diabetes
- Possible anti-cancer effects
- Boost immune function
You’d be wise not to expect instant results with lion’s mane supplements. Clinical studies done with lion’s mane are typically done over at least two months of use.
Reishi, also known as Ganoderma lucidum, is a type of mushroom that has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Some potential health benefits of reishi include supporting the the immune system, anti-inflammatory properties, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and possible anticancer properties.
Reishi is also commonly used to promote restful sleep and to reduce anxiety and stress thanks to its adaptogenic properties.
5. Turkey Tail
Turkey tail mushroom, also known as Trametes versicolor, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. It contains a variety of bioactive compounds that have been shown to have numerous health benefits, including potent immune-boosting properties.
Some studies have shown that turkey tail mushroom can improve immune function in people with cancer and HIV. Additionally, turkey tail has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which may help to reduce the risk of disease.
Shiitake mushrooms have been used for their medicinal properties for centuries in traditional Asian medicine. Some potential health benefits and effects associated with consuming shiitake mushrooms include supporting the immune system, heart health and gut health.
Shiitake mushrooms also contain a compound called lentinan, which has been found to have anti-cancer properties. Studies suggest that lentinan can inhibit the growth and spread of cancer cells and may help to enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is a type of mushroom that has been used for its potential health benefits for centuries in traditional medicine. While more research is needed to fully understand the health effects of maitake, there is some evidence to suggest that it may have several potential benefits.
One of the most well-studied potential health benefits of maitake is its ability to support immune function. Some studies suggest that maitake may help stimulate the immune system, which could potentially help the body fight off infections and other illnesses.
Consuming mushrooms offers a number of health benefits with some mushrooms offering specific benefits for the immune system. These mushrooms contain bioactive compounds such as beta-glucans, polysaccharides, and triterpenoids that have been shown to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and provide antioxidant effects.
There is also evidence that suggests mushrooms reduce depression risk, cancer risk, and risk of premature death, while also protecting the brain, improving gut health, and enhancing energy.
Try out the mushrooms listed in this article for a natural way to boost the immune system and feel your best.
See our range of mushroom extracts here.