If the phrase “food is medicine” is music to your ears, you’ll love all the health benefits associated with mushrooms. Mushrooms are not only low-calorie and delicious, they’re also full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that provide a number of different health benefits. Chief among them is the ability to boost your immune system and even possibly slow the growth of certain types of cancers. We’ve highlighted five different types of mushrooms that have been proven to help boost your immune system, and many of them provide other health benefits as well. Don’t love mushrooms? You can incorporate their benefits into your diet with a whole food nutritional supplement that contains all of the benefits without the taste.
Agaricus bisporus, or white mushrooms, are the most commonly cultivated mushrooms in the world, and you’ve likely seen them on your dinner table at least a few times (1). These mushrooms are known by multiple names depending on the stage of growth in which they are harvested; as immature mushrooms, they are called white mushrooms, and they are crimini mushrooms once they have turned slightly brown and portobello mushrooms when fully grown. Agaricus bisporus contains multiple antioxidant compounds that help diminish the effects of oxidative stress, a condition that results from an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Oxidative stress can cause chronic inflammation and cellular damage that increases the risk of developing certain conditions in the future, such as heart disease and certain types of cancer (2). White mushrooms are also an excellent vegan source of vitamin D; vitamin D deficiency affects nearly 50 percent of the world’s population (3). The active form of vitamin D has also been found to help slow the growth of cancer by inhibiting cellular proliferation and angiogenesis, which is the growth of new blood vessels that allow the tumor to continue to grow (4). Vitamin D helps to stimulate the production of white blood cells, known as macrophages, that fight infection, helping to boost the immune system.
If you could benefit from a mushroom that can help prevent signs of aging, lower inflammation, and lower the levels of cholesterol in the body, consider giving Inonotus obliquus, or chaga mushrooms, a try (5). Commonly used in folk medicine in Russia, Northern Europe, and China, chaga mushrooms are full of antioxidants that help prevent cellular damage caused by free radicals and can aid in reducing inflammation. Oxidative stress, a condition in which the body experiences a prolonged period of imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, can cause premature signs of aging, such as wrinkled or crepey skin, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. Chaga mushrooms provide antioxidants that help to rebalance the levels of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, helping to prevent premature signs of aging. The mushroom is also believed to help slow the growth of cancer cells by inhibiting cellular proliferation and angiogenesis, which reduces the speed at which cancer cells spread and new blood vessels are formed to feed them. One additional benefit of chaga mushrooms is that the fungus may help to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol in the body (6). It is believed that chaga mushrooms help to lower cholesterol levels by promoting inhibition against lipid oxidation, which is a process induced by free radicals; the antioxidants found in chaga mushrooms promote this inhibition.
Reishi mushrooms, or Ganoderma lucidum, are one of the most popular medicinal mushrooms and have held the honor for thousands of years, dating back to its use in traditional Chinese medicine. Reishi mushrooms were shown in one study to suppress the secretion of inflammatory markers like TNF-alpha and IL-6, as well as inflammatory mediators nitric oxide and prostaglandin E(2) (7). Suppressing the activity of inflammatory markers and inflammatory mediators results in an anti-inflammatory effect, and the mushrooms also may offer anticancer immunological mechanisms as a result of their anti-proliferative properties, which slow cell growth by inhibiting cellular proliferation and angiogenesis (8). In addition to offering many immune boosting properties, reishi mushrooms also are known for their calming properties. Sometimes dubbed “nature’s Xanax,” reishi mushrooms contain a compound called triterpene that helps to lower anxiety, diminish depression, and promote good sleep. Some people have also found that reishi mushrooms help to improve focus and concentration when consumed regularly, and the fungus has also been said to promote weight loss.
The Trametes versicolor, or turkey tail mushroom, is one of the most popular medicinal mushrooms and is used around the world (9). In addition to their beautiful colors and appearance, turkey tail mushrooms are best known for boosting the immune system. Like other mushrooms, turkey tail mushrooms are full of antioxidants that help to inhibit or reduce damage to the cells that can be caused by oxidative stress. More than 35 different phenolic compounds, a type of antioxidant, have been identified in turkey tail mushroom extract, in addition to two flavonoid antioxidants. The mushroom is also packed with polysaccharopeptides, which are compounds that are known to promote immune response and suppress inflammation through actions like increasing monocytes, which are white blood cells that are responsible for boosting immunity and fighting infection (10). These same polysacharropeptides have also been shown to inhibit the growth and spread of human colon cancer cells in a limited study, and scientists believe that this is caused by the enhanced immune response that turkey tail mushrooms promote; the mushroom may also help to improve the efficacy of some cancer treatments (11). Finally, turkey tail mushrooms benefit the immune system by supporting gut health through prebiotics. The mushroom contains prebiotics, which help to support good bacteria, known as probiotics, in the gut. These bacteria are responsible for protecting the body from infection by harmful pathogens and bacteria that make their way into the body through the nose and mouth.
Hericium erinaceus, also known as lion’s mane, is a type of mushroom that offers many different health benefits (12). The mushroom is commonly used for both medicinal and culinary purposes in China, India, Japan, and Korea and is said to taste like seafood. Lion’s mane mushrooms have been shown to boost the immune system by increasing the activity of the intestinal immune system (13). The intestinal immune system is made up primarily of gut bacteria that help protect the body from infection by pathogens and harmful bacteria that make it to the gut from the mouth or nose. It is believed that lion’s mane mushrooms boost the immune system by positively influencing the growth of probiotic gut bacteria, which help to stimulate the immune system. Additionally, lion’s mane mushrooms also help to reduce signs of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. The mushrooms are packed with antioxidant compounds that have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers and may help to manage inflammatory bowel disease, liver damage, and stroke (14). Like other mushrooms, lion’s mane mushrooms may also be beneficial in the fight against cancer, although no studies have been performed on humans (15). In addition to its immune system boosting properties, lion’s mane mushrooms may also help to manage diabetes symptoms, reduce the risk of heart disease, protect the digestive tract from developing ulcers, improve recovery from injuries to the nervous system, protect against dementia, and relieve mild symptoms of depression and anxiety.
By the Numbers
- 90%: Percentage of mushrooms consumed in the United States that are white mushrooms (1).
- 50%: Percentage of the world’s population that is deficient in vitamin D (16).
- 50,000: Number of species of mushrooms in the world (17).
Did You Know?
- Only one to two percent of the 50,000 mushrooms species in the world are poisonous (17).
- A single portobello mushroom contains more potassium than a banana (18).
- Mushrooms are extremely high in water content and are about 90 percent water (18).
- Mushrooms do not require sunlight to make energy for themselves, unlike plants.
- Mushrooms are a type of fungus, not a plant.
- China is the world’s largest producer of mushrooms, producing about half of all cultivated mushrooms in the world (18).