These are all good choices, but our most powerful tool for staying healthy is a swift and intelligent immune system. And one of the best ways to achieve optimal immune effectiveness is with the help of medicinal mushrooms.
Mushrooms have been used in Chinese medicine and other traditional healing systems for thousands of years. Early practitioners based their medicinal choices on trial and error and keen observation. Now, modern research is proving they were right.
Medicinal mushrooms are rich sources of unique nutrients, antioxidants, and compounds that work in numerous ways to support health. One family of carbohydrates found in mushrooms is beta-glucans. Carbohydrates can fuel the body in many ways, but beta-glucans have a particular affinity for immune cells. They stimulate macrophages, lymphocytes, T-cells, and natural killer (NK) cells, among others. They are especially focused on our innate immunity, the immune system's first responders.
But mushrooms do more than boost immunity; they seem to modulate it, essentially "training" immune cells to respond appropriately to pathogens, toxins, cancerous cells, and other dangers. We want the immune system to take care of the problem at hand without overreacting and killing healthy cells. Medicinal mushrooms are unique to this purpose, as they can both boost immunity and help calm an overactive autoimmune response. This combination can be quite helpful when addressing psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune conditions.
If this were all mushrooms did, that would be more than enough. But they also offer a host of other benefits. For example, mushrooms can support cardiovascular health, reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, and improving oxygenation and circulation. They can support vital energy, cognitive health, digestive wellness, metabolic efficiency, and more.
Medicinal fungi can also fight cancer in a number of ways. First, as mentioned, they support the immune system's ability to fight off developing tumors. But they also provide powerful antioxidant support, neutralizing free radicals, those aberrant molecules that injure cells and even damage DNA.
In addition, mushrooms are natural detoxifiers, cleansing the body of accumulated waste, dead tissues, potential carcinogens, and more. In the same way that fungi thrive on decayed matter, medicinal mushrooms seem to have an affinity for damaged areas of the body and work to help repair and rebuild these areas. They act like sponges for toxic materials, and with all of their other important benefits, mushrooms can be excellent aids in any detox program.
There are more than 270 types of medicinal mushrooms, so it's important to differentiate them based on specific health needs. Here are some top recommended species:
• Agaricus blazei boosts the immune system by supporting interferons and interleukins, proteins that modulate immunity, attack viruses, and respond to cancer. A number of animal studies have demonstrated the mushroom's ability to fight tumors. Agaricus also helps control cholesterol and blood sugar.
• Cordyceps sinensis energizes phagocytes, macrophages, and NK cells. It also increases HDL (good) cholesterol and lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol.
• Coriolus versicolor is recommended for its antitumor activity. This mushroom has also been shown to enhance cancer treatments, such as radiation.
• Ganoderma lucidum (reishi) lowers cholesterol, promotes circulation, and helps oxygenate the blood. Some research has found it can be effective against both HIV and cancer.
• Grifola frondosa (maitake) fights cancer, reduces blood pressure, modulates blood sugar metabolism, and supports a healthy liver. This mushroom has also been used to fight cancer and HIV.
• Polyporus umbellatus enhances immunity, supports liver health, and has been shown to fight off bacteria, such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.
For daily wellness support, look for a mushroom formula that combines multiple species so that you get comprehensive immune, cardiovascular, cellular, and overall health support. When selecting a formula, make sure the mushrooms are cultivated indoors under sterile conditions on a high-quality growing medium. This is critical, since mushrooms absorb whatever is in their environment. In my clinical practice, I use a formula containing the species listed above, which are cultivated on a powdered blend of immune-supporting herbs and organic brown rice, a growing medium that enhances their benefits.
The Culinary Variety
You can also get some of the benefits of medicinal mushrooms from the varieties found in produce aisles.
Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, which fights pathogens and cancer. Common button, portabella, and crimini mushrooms are nutrient dense, rich in vitamin D, selenium, and B vitamins. You can actually enhance their vitamin content: When mushrooms are put out in the sun, they can manufacture vitamin D, just as we do.
Mushrooms don't always get included in the superfood conversation, but they're clearly some of the most potent superfoods available. Factoring in their powerful immune benefits, antioxidant and antitumor activity, detox capacity, cardiovascular support, and nutrition quotient, these remarkable fungi are some of the world's most treasured natural remedies.
Integrative-medicine expert Isaac Eliaz, MD, founder of the Amitabha Clinic & Healing Center in Santa Rosa, California, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.