By Laurel Vukovic
Although we tend to think of mushrooms primarily as ingredients for creating gourmet meals, in Traditional Chinese Medicine mushrooms have been highly prized for thousands of years for their potent healing benefits. In Japan and China, medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake, maitake and reishi, have long been regarded as longevity tonics. Research is proving that these beneficial fungi are powerful allies for strengthening the immune system.
Mushrooms contain a variety of active compounds, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenes and antibiotics. Thus far, researchers have most intensively focused on the polysaccharides, the same type of compounds found in astragalus. As with astragalus polysaccharides, mushroom polysaccharides improve immune function by increasing the activity of macrophages, which have a voracious appetite for harmful microorganisms and cancerous cells. Polysaccharides also trigger the production of a type of white blood cell that kills a wide range of infectious microorganisms and tumor cells. Last, but not least, mushroom polysaccharides activate other essential immune factors, including T-cells, B-cells, interferons and interleukins.
While all medicinal mushrooms benefit the immune system, each variety contains different compounds that work in various ways to enhance immunity. Therefore, the best approach is to use an assortment of mushrooms to provide a broad base of immune support. You can find shiitake and maitake mushrooms fresh or dried in many grocery stores, and they make a delicious addition to soups or stir-fries. Along with a wide variety of other medicinal mushrooms, shiitake, maitake and reishi are available as concentrated extracts and in combinations specifically formulated to enhance immune health. Products vary widely in potency, so follow manufacturers’ recommendations for dosages.