You might know this by now: for a well-functioning immune system, you’d have to eat well, sleep 7 to 9 hours every night, stay physically active, and manage your stress levels. But… Given the long-term, consistent nature of these habits, one can’t help but wonder, ‘Is there a way to give your immune system an instant glow up–while you work on the above?’ Thankfully, yes. And it all comes down to mushrooms. To be clear, though, you shouldn’t just pick up random common mushrooms, like portobellos and white button mushrooms, at the supermarket. Instead, there’s a specific type you should be looking out for: medicinal mushrooms.
What are medicinal mushrooms? How do you know if a mushroom is, well, medicinal? And what kind of health benefits do these medicinal mushrooms confer? Continue reading to find all the answers.
What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?
In scientific literature, medicinal mushrooms are defined as macroscopic (i.e. visible to the naked eye) fungi used in the form of extracts or powder for prevention, alleviation, or healing of multiple diseases, and in balancing a healthy diet (1, 2, 3). In other words, medicinal mushrooms refer to specific fungi that show therapeutic value in human health. While medicinal mushrooms may be a relatively new concept to many in the West, they have been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years.
For example, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has used mushrooms for ages. The ancient Chinese version of the Materia Medica–a body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of substances used for healing–frequently mentioned medicinal mushrooms (4). Similarly, Indian texts dating back 5,000 years highlight the medicinal properties of mushrooms (5).
Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
Now, the question is: what health benefits do medicinal mushrooms bring, exactly? The answer to this question is a lot. Because different mushrooms exert different medicinal properties, here's a quick summary (more details to follow in the upcoming section on best medicinal mushrooms).
Enhances The Immune System
Medicinal mushrooms are known to boost the levels and activity of many vital components of the immune system (6, 7). They may even 'prime' immune cells to become more effective in responding to future attacks and infections.
Increases Antioxidant Activity
You probably know that free radicals can damage various structures in the body’s cells. This is known as oxidative damage, and it contributes to an increased risk for many chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and even premature aging. Fortunately, medicinal mushrooms contain potent antioxidants that have been found to neutralize free radicals (8, 9, 10).
Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
Research shows that medicinal mushrooms can be a promising way to improve blood sugar and insulation regulation, especially when paired with a healthy diet and lifestyle. The mushrooms' beneficial blood regulation effect is attributed to a component known as beta-glucan–a form of soluble dietary fiber–which has been found to reduce blood sugar levels in clinical trials (11, 12, 13, 14).
Supports Brain Health
Emerging research has found that people who integrate mushrooms into their diets–even if they only consume them in small portions–appear to have a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which often precedes Alzheimer's disease (15). Scientists believe that the various compounds, including hericenones, erinacines, scabronines, and dictyophorines, found within medicinal mushrooms, can contribute to brain cell growth.
Best Medicinal Mushrooms That Promote Immune System (and More)
Reading about the various health benefits of medicinal mushrooms must have planted a few questions in your mind. Which are the best available in the market? What are the health benefits they can bring about (e.g. immune boost)? Great question. Here’s a list of the medicinal mushrooms you should look for.
#1 – Cordyceps
Cordyceps, also known as the caterpillar fungi, is arguably the most well-known Asian mushroom believed to have medicinal effects. In fact, old Chinese medical books and Tibetan medicine have described the mushroom as a treasure. Especially for chronically tired people. That’s because cordyceps helps increase energy production through pre-cursor compounds like adenosine and cordycepin–in turn, helping the body utilize oxygen more efficiently and enhance blood flow (16).
But what if you're not struggling with fatigue? Can cordyceps still benefit you? Well, yes, of course! This mushroom also improves your immunity by stimulating cells and specific chemicals in the immune system (17).
#2 – Lion’s Mane
Interestingly enough, the lion's mane's physical appearance bears a striking resemblance to, well, a lion's mane! The mushroom has long, cascading shaggy spines that resemble a waterfall. Because of the multitude of health-beneficial compounds, including beta-glucans, the lion's mane mushroom has been considered the most critical Asian mushroom with medicinal effects (18).
One therapeutic benefit the lion's mane stands out in particular, other than its immune-boosting ability. Lion's mane can support brain health. Research shows that the mushroom helps foster the production of the bioprotein nerve growth factor (NFG) and myelin (insulation around nerve fibers), both of which are absolutely crucial to optimal brain functioning (19, 20). Promisingly, the lion's mane has been shown to improve cognition in a small human study (21).
#3 – Reishi
The reishi mushroom, also known as lingzhi, has been used for hundreds of years. Most notably, it's known that ancient Chinese royalty saw the mushroom as 'the mushroom of immortality'. While most of the polysaccharides found in the reishi mushroom are associated with immune functions, the mushroom is also known for its calming properties (22, 23).
Thanks to the compound triterpene, the reishi mushroom can help alleviate anxiety, encourage better sleep, and even promote healing (24, 25). Because of all the mood-boosting compounds the reishi mushroom contains, it's even said to be one of the best medicinal mushrooms for treating depression.
#4 – Shiitake
Of all the medicinal mushrooms listed, this must be the one you’re most familiar with. And it’s none other than the shiitake. Just a little background: these fragrant mushrooms have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and are also part of Japan’s, Korea’s, and Eastern Russia’s medical traditions. Research shows that shiitake mushrooms can help strengthen the immune system (26, 27). This immune effect is attributed to the polysaccharides found in the shiitake.
An animal study has also highlighted the mushroom's potential in attenuating age-related decline in immune function–which is a promising finding for many individuals concerned about decreased immune function with age (28). According to studies, the shiitake also shows promise as one of the best medicinal mushrooms to ease symptoms for individuals with arthritis (29, 30, 31).
#5 – Maitake
Here's a fun fact: 'maitake' means dancing mushroom in Japan. While the mushroom doesn't actually dance, its health benefits should make you feel like dancing. And that's because compared to other medicinal mushrooms, maitake has shown superior results in preventing and treating cancer–and other health conditions (32, 33). Unsurprisingly, maitake also exerts a positive effect on overall immunity (34, 35).
As if all the above were not impressive enough, a 2015 study also showed that the maitake mushrooms could positively impact the glucose levels of rats (36). This points to the medicinal mushroom's potential as a type 2 diabetes treatment in humans.
#6 – Turkey Tail Mushroom
What an interesting name, right? Named for the vibrant palette of stripes that resembles the plume of feathers on turkeys, the turkey tail mushroom has a long history of use in Asia among TCM practitioners, who used it to promote general health, strength, and longevity. And modern science gives backing to its traditional medicine usage!
Studies have shown that the turkey tail mushroom helps modulate the immune system–in turn, helping fight infections, illness, and diseases (37, 38, 39). The mushroom may also help heal infections, such as an oral strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
#7 – Agaricus Blazei Mushroom
Agaricus blazei mushroom (blazei mushroom, for short) is a type of medicinal mushroom grown in Brazil, Japan, and China. As with other medicinal mushrooms, the blazei mushroom contains beta-glucans, which modulate the immune response and promote cellular health (40). There's more. That's not all the health benefits the mushroom confers.
Impressively, several preliminary studies have shown that the mushroom has anti-tumor properties. A 2011 review highlighted that the blazei mushroom could prevent the spread of ovarian and lung cancer, inhibit the growth of fibrosarcoma and myeloma tumors, and reduce the size of prostate tumors in animal and test-tube studies (41).
What Is The Best Way To Take Medicinal Mushrooms?
Do a quick web search, and a helpful medicinal mushroom chart might pop up, illustrating how some medicinal mushrooms can be eaten by simply cooking them (e.g. lion’s mane, shiitake, and maitake). Other mushrooms need to be made into tea, soup, or even powders (e.g. reishi and turkey tail).
Is there a convenient way to boost your immune system (and promote other aspects of your health) with medicinal mushrooms–that doesn’t involve you grounding individual fungi up? Well, yes, there is–with Dr. Danielle’s holistic medicinal mushroom blend (which consists of all 8 of the best medicinal mushrooms), immunity support just got easier. Just pop the pills, and you’re good to go!