The Mystery of Medicinal Mushrooms - Part 2 of 3

The Mystery of Medicinal Mushrooms - Part 2 of 3

The Mushroom-Immunity Connection

By Don Gauvreau, MSc, OCT, CSCS

aka The Supplement Godfather 

In part one of this three-part series we covered the history and traditional use of mushrooms as a medicine. In part two of this series, we’re going to dive into the power of mushrooms to boost immunity and highlight the top immune-boosting mushrooms and the emerging research behind them. Mushrooms comprise a vast, and yet largely untapped, source of powerful new healing substances. Mushrooms are proven to possess anti-allergenic, anti-cholesterol, anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties. They’re a powerful tool in preventative medicine and as part of an integrative clinical treatment protocol.

Medicinal Mushrooms Boost Immunity

Medicinal mushrooms stimulate and modulate the immune response in humans. Numerous bioactive polysaccharides and polysaccharide-protein complexes from medicinal mushrooms are what enhance innate and cell-mediated immune responses and exhibit anti-tumor activities. Stimulation of the immune defense systems by bioactive polymers from medicinal mushrooms has significant effects on the maturation, differentiation and proliferation of many kinds of immune cells. Many of these mushroom polymers have been shown to provide immunotherapeutic properties by facilitating growth inhibition and destruction of tumor cells. Recent research also shows that some of these mushroom-derived polymers possess direct cytotoxic effects on cancer cells. The exact mechanism of their anti-tumor actions is still not completely understood but modulation of key immune responses by these mushroom polysaccharides is quite evident. 

The Power is in the Polysaccharides

Mushrooms are rich in polysaccharide carbohydrates, such as chitin, hemicellulose, alpha- and beta-glucan, mannan, xylan and galactan. Polysaccharides are the most abundant active compounds found and studied in medicinal mushrooms. Polysaccharides are long-chain carbohydrates that are made up of various monosaccharides connected by glycosidic bonds. The most well-known polysaccharide found in mushrooms is beta-glucan. This polysaccharide makes up the cell walls of mushrooms. In plants, cellulose is the polysaccharide that makes up cell walls. Beta-glucan polysaccharides are the most well-known and most heavily studied active compound found in mushrooms. Specific types of mushrooms like chaga (Inonotus obliquus), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), maitake (Grifola frondosa), mesima (Phellinus linteus) and agarikon (Fomitopsis officianales) possess high levels of beta-glucan polysaccharides.

Beta-glucan specific to Fungi
Mushrooms contain the polysaccharide beta-glucan, but it’s a special type. Beta-glucans come in various forms. The main one found in fungi is referred to as (1-3)1-6)beta-d-glucans because they contain a 1,3 carbon backbone with elongated 1,6 carbon branches. This beta-glucan is specific to fungi and yeast. Plants (such as oats) also contain beta-glucan, but they have a different branching structure, which are (1-4)beta-d-glucans. Mushroom beta-glucan is extraordinarily complex.

How Does Beta-Glucan Boost the Immune System?

Beta-glucan in itself does not cure diseases or health conditions. The value of mushroom beta-glucan comes in its ability to enhance the immune system by allowing it to work better. Beta-glucan is classified as an immuno-modulator, which means it modulates changes in your immune system to make it as efficient and effective as possible. Beta-glucan works by activating every immune system cell in the body, including macrophages, neutrophils, basophils, and natural killer cells. Beta-glucan modifies cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers that can suppress white blood cells and make you more susceptible to getting sick. Cytokines are cell signaling molecules that aid cell-to-cell communication in immune responses and stimulate the movement of cells towards sites of inflammation, infection, and trauma. Beta-glucan from mushrooms also helps bolster and maintain the structure of your cells. New research shows that mushrooms can even provide health-promoting benefits by way of improving the health of the gut microbiome. Mushrooms act as prebiotics to stimulate the growth of healthy gut microbiota via the inhibition of exogenous pathogens.

There are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of medicinal mushrooms as immunomodulators and anti-cancer agents. To follow, we highlight some of the top medicinal mushrooms, including chaga, reishi, turkey tail, maitake, mesima and agarikon.

CHAGA (Inonotus obliquus)

Chaga is long considered the King of the Mushrooms. I’ve so eloquently given it the moniker ‘Godfather of Fungi’ because of its incredibly powerful and diverse medicinal effects. It holds the highest ranking as a healing super mushroom due to its many amazing health properties, including antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal. Chaga is also very well-known for its immune system boosting, detoxifying, blood sugar balancing, and adaptogenic properties. Although commonly referred to as a mushroom, chaga is actually a hard sterile conk that is a canker disease on birch trees in cold climates. The conk that is used medicinally comprises wood from the substrate tree and mycelium of the invasive fungus. Birch trees contain precursor compounds such as the triterpenoid betulin. Chaga draws betulin and other precursors directly from the birch tree and turns them into inotodiol, trametenolic acid, and betulinic acid. Inotodiol has shown the strongest activity according to research. Chaga also contains high levels of beta-glucan, which as previously explained are the most well-known and predominant compound found in medicinal mushrooms and help boost the immune system and fight off a variety of diseases.

Chaga mushroom is found in several areas in the Northern Hemisphere and has been used in traditional medicine for various ailments. It has a few other names that It goes by, including, cinder conk, birch conk, and clinker polypore to name a few. Studies show that compounds in chaga can selectively inhibit the progression of and kill cancer cells and activate immune system cells, reduce inflammation, and have a protective effect on the liver. Chaga can even reduce fatigue and increase mental sharpness. 

REISHI (Ganoderma lucidum)

Reishi has earned the moniker of the “mushroom of immortality”. Chinese herbal medicine has several formulas featuring this mushroom and some herbalists rank reishi above ginseng as one of the most important components of Traditional Chinese Medicine. One of the key active compounds in reishi is terpenoids, which provide significant anti-inflammatory action and a powerful antioxidant effect. Reishi also contains various proteins, including ganoderic acid, danoderiol, danderenic acid, and lucidenic acid. Reishi-specific polysaccharides, called Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides (GLPS) increase the production of three of the toxin-like substances that have been associated with controlling the growth and survival of malignant cancer cells. Reishi is also a great source of the powerful beta-glucan polysaccharides. 

TURKEY TAIL (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey tail mushrooms grow in a woodland environment around the world. Turkey tail also goes by the Latin name, Trametes veriscolor, which it earned because of its wide variety of colors. It is one of the most common mushrooms in North American woods. Turkey tail is one of the most heavily studied mushrooms for its effects in treating cancer. In Asia, turkey tail mushroom has a long history of use and is prescribed for cancer treatment and as part of an integrative chemotherapy program to treat cancer. Turkey tail has been successfully used to stimulate the immune system in women with breast cancer. This species of mushrooms has a history of use in Asia as a nonspecific immune modulator, and in breast cancer patients, they have been shown to interact with the CR3 membrane receptors and boost immunity. The University of Minnesota and Bastyr University (Kenmore, Washington) completed a phase 1 dose-escalation trial and found that up to 9 grams per day of a turkey tail preparation is safe and tolerable in women with breast cancer who had undergone chemotherapy. The most exciting part of this study was the finding that 6 grams of turkey tail mushroom appear to lead to faster immune recovery after radiation therapy. Turkey tail contains beta-glucan, but the superhero compound found in turkey tail is called PSK, or polysaccharide K. In fact, PSK is the most commonly prescribed anti-cancer agent to Japanese cancer patients who’ve had a tumor removed and are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy.

MESIMA (Phellinus linteus)

Mesima is another very popular medicinal mushroom in Asia where it is used in conjunction with chemotherapy drugs for inhibiting tumor growth and reducing the frequency of metastases. Research shows that patients using an integrative approach to cancer treatment have a statistically higher survival rate than patients on pharmaceutical drugs alone. This mushroom works on T lymphocyte activity and cytotoxic T cells, the white blood cells that destroy viruses. Mesima also increases B cells and antibodies. The active compounds found in mesima mushroom include beta-glucan, lectin, protocatechuic acid, protocatechualdehyde, caffeic acid, ellagic acid, hispidin, davallialactone, hypholomine B, interfungins A and inoscavin. 

MAITAKE (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake is a polypore mushroom that grows in clusters at the base of trees, particularly oak trees. Maitake contains some unique polysaccharides called, grifolan, D-fraction and MD-fraction and is a rich in beta‐glucan. These polysaccharides exert significant effects in the immune system. Research studies suggest that maitake D‐fraction has anti‐tumor activity and can prevent cancer and tumor growth. Maitake’s effects on cancer cells are mediated by inhibition of malignant cells through the release of cytokines. 

AGARIKON (Fomitopsis officianales)  

Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis), also known as Laricifomes officinalis has gained recent fame because of the work of world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Agarikon is a medicinal polypore that’s been used for hundreds of years to combat several diseases, most specifically pulmonary disease. Recent work by Stamets identified anti-pox properties in the polypore, which confirms an ancient use. More recent work done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), and the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) screened various mushroom extracts against a number of viruses. Agarikon showed very strong activity against cowpox and vaccinia (smallpox). A whole list of other viruses showed inhibition when treated with extracts from agarikon, including influenza B, H1N1 (swine flu), H3N2 and H5N1 (avian flu) strains, yellow fever, West Nile virus, arenaviruses such as Tacaribe and Pichinde, and Punta Toro, a hemorrhagic virus. Chlorinated coumarins from the mushroom mycelia and lanostane triterpenoids from basidiomes (gills) have been shown to be directly responsible for anti-viral, anti-bacterial and pathogen-inhibiting properties of agarikon. 

Looking Forward to the Next Issue and Part 3!

Looking ahead to Part 3 of this series on medicinal mushrooms, we will examine the world’s most functional mushroom, Lion’s Mane. We will highlight many of the functional properties Lion’s Mane has, including cognitive health, gut health and immune system support.


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