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October 15, 2020 10 min read

Medicinal Mushrooms are fungi that are used or can potentially be used in the future to make medical drugs and/or may have potential adaptogenic effects when consumed. They contain one or multiple identified biocompounds which can have various health benefits, such as antiviral or anti biological ageing properties. In this article, we’ll cover the top 5 medicinal mushrooms that currently have the most research, evidence, and investigation done in regards to their ability to support, improve, or help maintain the immune system, along with some basic information on the mushrooms themselves.


Cordyceps Militaris


Cordyceps are a type of parasitic mushrooms that normally grow from the bodies of insects. Cordyceps Militaris, unlike some of the other varieties, is a mushroom that is safe to eat once cooked or processed with alkali (and reportedly tastes pretty good with pasta). Nearly all Cordyceps Militaris today is safely and effectively harvested using a starter medium of composted rice or formulated liquid nutrition stock, although those found in the wild still grow from the bodies of insects (there isn’t significant evidence that the growth medium affects the final nutritional quality of the mushroom either, fortunately).


Historically, it was used in both Chinese traditional medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, although it saw more use in Chinese traditional medicine than Ayurveda due to the mushroom being more commonly found in Eastern China than in India. Before reliable and scalable harvesting methods were discovered, this mushroom was primarily reserved for the wealthy in society due to its rarity, as in the wild it only grows on certain kinds of insects (in the case of Militaris, primarily ants). It was primarily meant to be consumed as food, believed to give a dish invigorating properties - although some regions did boil it as a concentrated tonic for those suffering from infections.


Cordyceps Militaris is rich in polysaccharides which have been shown to have varying positive effects on immunity in different studies. The primary possible immunological benefit that has been observed thus far is an increased amount of lymphocyte production. Although human studies looking closer into this are rare (compared to animal ones at least), one small randomized, double blinded

placebo-controlled clinical trial done on healthy Korean men showed a significant increase in lymphocyte production compared to a placebo group, as seen in the graph below.[1]


The why and how of this is still undetermined, but it does at least support the findings of experiments done with mice in that Cordyceps Militaris does increase lymphocyte production somehow. It also reported no ill side effects of participants who took the Cordyceps Militaris extract, which is good news since other varieties of Cordyceps, such as Cordyceps Sinensis, can cause side effects such as severe nausea.


Turkey Tail


Officially known as Trametes Versicolor (although depending on the region, may also be called Coriolus Versicolor or Polyporus Versicolor), it has been used globally as a medicinal mushroom due to it being found in virtually every region of the northern hemisphere. It was traditionally used for a wide variety of ailments, depending on the region - but most commonly was given cooked or dried and powdered for vitality to those ill from infections. Its common name comes from its vibrant autumnal colors and wavy shape, similar to a wild turkey fanning its tail feathers. They grow on many types of dead hardwoods, such as the stumps, felled hardwood trunks or branches, as well as on the wounds of living trees. While edible, it isn’t too popular, since it is difficult to cook with and tends to have a tough and rubbery texture unless properly prepared. It has a taste that is slightly bitter and somewhat earthy, but with strong notes of beef steak as well; therefore its most commonly used as a powder to be used as a base in soups and stocks to infuse a strong umami taste into the dish.


Turkey Tail has a large amount of adaptogenic Fungal Beta-Glucans (novel sugars only found in fungi which are more efficiently metabolized) compared to other mushrooms. These Beta-Glucans are important as there is evidence that, when metabolized by the body, they strengthen the immune system by enhancing macrophage response by creating “sticky targets” that attract increased attention and thus increased activity by the immune system.[2]There is however one other study that shows theymay have a very significant relationship with the immune system.


In 2014, researchers managed to control two strains of Human Papillomavirus (HPV16 and HPV18) in 88% of patients who were given extract capsules made from Trametes Versicolor and Ganoderma Lucidum after two months.[3] Although this finding is very significant, the study itself is not well structured enough to draw any solid conclusions, as this doesn’t show whether it was an immune boosting effect that caused the virus to be cleared, or whether it was some kind of antiviral property. It also obfuscates possible conclusions by mixing both Trametes Versicolor and Ganoderma Lucidum rather than using them in isolation as well for treatment, since now it is unknown if what was observed was due to only one of the mushrooms or both combined together. This is important to know since, while Turkey Tail is better recognized for its potential immune boosting effects via high levels of Beta-Glucans, Reishi mushroom (which is the next mushroom I’ll be covering) is thought to possibly haveantiviralproperties. At the very least though, this study does show that medicinal mushrooms should certainly be studied more for potential applications in antiviral medicine as well as being a possible viral prevention medication in the future.


Reishi


Also commonly called Lingzhi and scientifically named Ganoderma Lucidum, it is a mushroom that is native to forests of China, Korea, and Japan. You may have read that this mushroom also grew in North America, but that is actually outdated misinformation - the variety found in North America, while similar, only grows in north eastern Hemlock forests, and is now classified as a separate species known as Ganoderma Tsugae. The variety which most research has been done on meanwhile is the more commonly found Ganoderma Lucidum which can grow in subtropical areas. Although edible raw, it is best first cooked in order to eliminate mild, heat sensitive cytotoxins which sometimes form in it that can cause a mild stomach ache (this is much rarer the case in mushrooms which are farmed though). Most however consume it for possible health benefits rather than taste or texture, since the mushroom is strongly bitter and has a very rubbery, cork like texture. It’s not spectacular when it comes to protein levels among mushrooms either (though on the higher side for a wood growing variety), but it is also extremely rich in beta-glucans, and certain antioxidants, as well as being a great source of essential amino acids, and B-Complex vitamins, making it a highly useful supplemental addition for Vegans or those with primarily plant based diets and active lifestyles. It is also very high in Vitamin D and Selenium - both nutrients which are important to maintaining a strong, healthy immune system.


This mushroom has a very long history in Chinese traditional medicine due to the mushroom being most commonly found in Eastern China - although “common” here still being quite rare, since this mushroom only appears in the wild under very specific, ideal conditions. Due to its overall rarity, the mushroom was reserved for only the highest of Chinese royalty, and taken as an “immortality” drug (hence the name Lingzhi, whose Chinese characters are connected to divine power). Fortunately, these days the mushroom is abundantly farmed using hardwood sawdust or logs.


Other than the aforementioned high levels of fungal Beta-Glucans this mushroom also possesses, Reishi may also contain antiviral properties. Certain compounds in the mushroom which, in high dose extracts can sometimes cause liver damage, seem to have an effect at suppressing certain viral infections in lower doses in vitro. How effective this is in vivo is yet to be established, and it’s unknown if these same metabolite compounds are also the ones which cause an observed increased macrophage response in vivo.[4]Regardless, these potential antiviral properties are significant enough to warrant more attention, due to the dearth availability of antivirals in existence; which is why this mushroom makes this list of top 5 mushrooms for immune support despite there needing to be more research done into Reishi’s effects on the immune system.


Maitake


Scientifically named Grifola frondosa, this mushroom is native to China and Japan. The Maitake mushroom has been used traditionally and ceremoniously in China and Japan as a special celebratory dish for thousands of years, as a medicinal mushroom offering health and longevity. It is still very popular to consume in modern times in Japanese cuisine due to its strong umami flavor that pairs very well with red meats and cruciferous vegetables, as well as being an excellent addition to seafood, red meat, vegetable, and mushroom stocks. In the wild, the mushroom grows at the stump of Elk, Oak, and Maple trees, but is now widely cultivated using a special substrate of hardwood dust mixtures that utilize special composts, minerals, and sucrose. Although farmed Maitake is rather affordable and easily obtained, Maitake in the wild can be somewhat uncommon as it is usually used and harvested locally for ceremonial traditions or as a local holiday dish.  Luckily, there is no discernible difference between wild and farmed mushrooms in either taste or nutrients.


This mushroom is particularly nutritious, with the nutrients it is rich in alone being great at supporting a healthy immune system and making for a great addition in just about every kind of diet. It is high in many antioxidants and is a rare non-meat source of highly bioavailable Vitamin D.  It’s also an excellent source of Niacin, making this another useful mushroom for Vegans to include in their diet as either a food or supplement.


Overall, this mushroom is best consumed for its adaptogenic effects in relation to the immune system, since it contains all the daily nutrients needed for a healthy and strong immune system, along with a high level of novel fungal beta-glucans. One thing of possible importance is that Maitake is rich in a certain heteroglycan which the body uses in its metabolic processes to repair damaged DNA as well as maintain the progenitor cells of macrophages in good shape.[5] Overall, this savory and tasty mushroom is a great addition to diets as either an addition to your meals or as supplement when it comes to having a healthy diet, and especially one that helps keep your immune system well nourished.



Matsutake


Binomially called Tricholoma matsutake, this mushroom is found in Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and Japan. Preferring colder climates, it likes to grow under litter of the forest floor, typically near Pine trees. Unlike most of the other mushrooms listed here, this one does not feed off of dead or live trees, instead forming a symbiotic relationship with them through their roots. Due to this however, the mushroom has been growing increasingly rare in the wild in some regions due to an invasive species of nematode which severely harms the pine trees this mushroom coexists with. This can make the price of wild harvested Matsutake extremely volatile, ranging in price from US4$/kg all the way up to US$5,000/kg, depending on how bountiful the harvest season was for the year. Unfortunately, due to the mushroom’s dependence of mature trees in order to grow, farming this mushroom can be difficult as well. Most of it is grown by planting the spores, along with specially prepared compost, in pine tree forests, meaning it is exposed to the elements in the same manner as wild harvested versions are, and thus affecting reliability of harvest as well.


This mushroom, much like the Maitake, was also historically used primarily for special ceremonial autumn dishes to impart luck and good health. Almost always, it was eaten simply by itself with no toppings, grilled. This is due to the mushroom’s exceptionally unique flavor - usually pine flavored with notes of cinnamon, and being somewhat spicy, along with tones of umami. It’s also very pungent, smelling strongly of wood, spice, and fish, with younger mushrooms having more intense aromatics. Although not as high as other mushrooms in proteins and B vitamins, this mushroom carries significantly large amounts of immune supporting D vitamin and Copper, with 3x more than Vitamin D and 2x more Copper than Oyster Mushrooms. 


Along with the high levels of certain immune supporting nutrients this mushroom has, Matsutake seems to contain a certain beta-glucan which can directly stimulate splenic lymphocyte interferon (IFN-y)productionresponse, and by a very significant amount:[6]

*TmC-2 (a special beta-glucan formulation made from Matsutake) shown here greatly increasing IFN-y (a type of interferon gamma used by lymphocytes).


This is important since it is a cytokine that is critical for innate and adaptive immunity against viral infections, as well as some bacterial and protozoal infections. IFN-y is an important activator of macrophages as well. Although the amounts of this beta-glucan you may get from simply eating the mushroom may be too low to cause such a drastic production response as seen in the graph above, it would be enough to at least have an adaptogenic benefit, with the benefit being possibly much stronger if taking Matsutake extract. These findings are also why Matsutake is now being researched in having possible applications for those who suffer from clinical immunosuppression, such as those undergoing chemotherapy.


Endnotes


I hope you found this article informative whether you’ve been looking into adding mushrooms into your diet in order to keep your immune system healthy or for living an adaptogenic lifestyle. If you are looking for healthy mushrooms to simply add to your cooking - whether it be because you are eating a non-meat diet or simply looking to add more vegetables and fungi to your meals - I recommend focusing on using Cordyceps Militaris, Maitake, and/or Matsutake (when in season) as these are the tastiest and easiest to cook with of the 5. 


We also have more articles covering mushrooms, from deep dives into specific popular medicinal mushrooms, to whether you should choose extract or powdered mushrooms when it comes to supplements, as well as an ultimate guide to medical mushrooms, all in our growing wellness library.

 

References:


1: Kang, H. J., Baik, H. W., Kim, S. J., Lee, S. G., Ahn, H. Y., Park, J. S., . . . Lee, S. M. (2015). Cordyceps militaris Enhances Cell-Mediated Immunity in Healthy Korean Men. Journal of Medicinal Food, 18(10), 1164-1172. doi:10.1089/jmf.2014.3350


2: Akramienė, D., Kondrotas, A., Didžiapetrienė, J., & Kėvelaitis, E. (2007). Effects of ß-glucans on the immune system.Medicina, 43(8), 597. doi:10.3390/medicina43080076


3: Donatini, B. (2014). Control of Oral Human Papillomavirus (HPV) by Medicinal Mushrooms, Trametes versicolor and Ganoderma lucidum: A Preliminary Clinical Trial. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 16(5), 497-498. doi:10.1615/intjmedmushrooms.v16.i5.80


4: Batra, P., Sharma, A. K., & Khajuria, R. (2013). Probing Lingzhi or Reishi Medicinal Mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (Higher Basidiomycetes): A Bitter Mushroom with Amazing Health Benefits. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 15(2), 127-143. doi:10.1615/intjmedmushr.v15.i2.20


5: Mizuno, T., & Zhuang, C. (1995). Maitake,Grifola frondosa: Pharmacological effects. Food Reviews International, 11(1), 135-149. doi:10.1080/87559129509541024


6: Byeon, S. E., Lee, J., Lee, E., Lee, S. Y., Hong, E. K., Kim, Y. E., & Cho, J. Y. (2009). Functional activation of macrophages, monocytes and splenic lymphocytes by polysaccharide fraction from Tricholoma matsutake. Archives of Pharmacal Research, 32(11), 1565-1572. doi:10.1007/s12272-009-2108-y


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