For those who prefer their medicines to come from Mother Earth, the research being done on mushrooms is very exciting. Mushrooms are nothing new. In fact Chinese medicine and other ancient cultures have used them for thousands of years. Mushrooms, which are fungi, have their own type of antibiotics to protect themselves from bacteria and have been proven effective for people. Penicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline for example are all derived from fungi. While there is still much research to be done on the 14,000 species of mushrooms identified out of the 150,00 there are estimated to be in existence, Paul Stamets, mycologist for over 30 years, as well as other experts have found tremendous health benefits from the 100 species that have been the center of most modern day research. Of those, there are several that have been found to be especially beneficial at boosting the immune system.
Mushrooms and the Immune System
A lot of research is centered around the benefits that mushrooms provide to the human immune system. They have been found to have antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties. One of the best ways to stay healthy and fight off disease is to have your own immune system strong and able to perform the job of protecting the body from antigens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxins, and cancer cells. Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, is one of the proponents of using mushrooms and feels research supports they can provide a boost to the immune system.
Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms in our culture for a long time have gotten a bad rap by some people. Those who are wary of them have only been familiar with types that can be poisonous or think about the hallucinogenic types. Polypores seem to be the type of mushroom that provide the most benefit for the immune system and whereas there are numerous gilled mushrooms that can be poisonous, no poisonous polypores have been identified. Various polypore type mushrooms have been found to improve blood circulation, be beneficial in stabilizing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, provide support and protection for the liver and kidney, help regenerate nerves, reduce the risk of heart disease, destroy cancer cells, and even be effective in fighting off smallpox and flu viruses.
In addition to the direct support mushrooms provide for the immune system, they are also full of nutrients, antioxidants and beta-glucans. Beta glucan is a complex carbohydrate of the simple sugar glucose. It has been found to enhance and stimulate macrophages, a type of white blood cell that kills off foreign invaders, as well as T-cells, lymphocytes, and natural killer cells. Antioxidants of course protect us from damage free radicals can do to our cells.
Sometimes when the body is under extra stress, has sustained damage or other conditions that cause the immune system to react with inflammation, that defense becomes chronic leading to autoimmune diseases. These are cases in which the body has misinterpreted the need for defensive action and its normal immune system attacks and damages its own tissues. This is another instance where mushrooms are being found to be a valuable asset to the immune system. Mushrooms have a unique talent of preventing an over-reaction from the immune system while supporting immune system function. This property can help the immune system deal with problems without going overboard and damaging cells that are healthy. Another talent mushrooms have is their ability to do a great job of cleaning up in the body. Fungi love decay and eating medicinal mushrooms gives your body help in cleaning out waste, dead tissue and toxins. One of the most exciting findings to come out of research is the benefits medicinal mushrooms provide in fighting cancer and the support they give the immune system for people going through radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
Marjorie Nolan, MS, RD, a New York dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, also points out that mushrooms are a good source of protein, selenium, copper, potassium, and vitamins and that they have no cholesterol and very little fat. Since mushrooms absorb what is around them, it is best to get organic mushrooms for eating and to thoroughly cook them to get rid of the small amounts of toxins they may have absorbed from air, water, or land pollution. Experts also recommend if using supplements to get one that has a combination of several mushrooms which makes it harder for body pathogens to become resistant to any one variety.
The Cream of the Crop
In the world of medicinal mushrooms there are a few that have been identified, studied and found to stand out in the benefits they deliver. Here are a few of those mushrooms and what they are being used for.
Shiitake mushrooms contain the polysaccharide lentinan that has been used in treating cancers, providing liver protection, decrease cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar and has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It has even been found successful in fighting off AIDS and HIV.
For thousands of years Reishi mushrooms have been recognized by Asian cultures to have healing properties. It contains the triterpenoid ganoderic acid that are being found useful in treating cancers such as lung cancer and leukemia. It has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, is being used to stabilize blood pressure and cholesterol levels, protects the liver, enhances blood circulation, is being used in reducing prostate related symptoms in men and stifling the growth of tumors.
Chinese and Tibetan cultures have a long history of using Cordyceps mushrooms for medicinal purposes. Today, athletes are finding benefit from this mushroom’s ability to enhance strength and endurance. It has properties that help protect the liver and kidney, increase blood circulation, and stabilize cholesterol levels. It also shows promise for having antidepressant properties and has been used in treating Hepatitis B. Cordyceps also shows promise in treating cancer with its anti-tumor properties and has beta glucan and nutrients that boost the immune system.
Turkey Tail mushroom has received a lot of attention lately in the cancer treating fields. PSK and PSP, polysaccharides found in Turkey Tail, have been reported as significant compounds for fighting cancers such as breast cancer, leukemia, stomach cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, and many more.
This is another mushroom showing great promise for cancer treatment and for supporting an immune system that can be weakened from radiation and chemotherapy. It has also been found to be useful for diabetics, stabilizing cholesterol levels, enhancing hair and skin health and amazingly enough, for treating polio. This mushroom has the most beta glucan of any of the mushrooms which make it especially potent for immune system support.
Maitake mushrooms are another source of interest for fighting cancer. It supports the immune system and tests with mice have shown it to be effective in preventing tumors from forming. It also can lower blood pressure levels, give liver support, and is beneficial in treating diabetes and obesity. It is a rich source of Vitamins B-2, C and D as well as potassium, fiber, amino acids, magnesium and niacin.
This mushroom is being studied for benefits for age related memory function and mental clarity and stimulating nerve growth. It has been called “nature’s nutrient for the neurons” due to NGF (nerve growth factor) being found in it. Lion’s Mane is proving beneficial in reducing the effects of stress and producing a natural calming effect.
Combining Your Mushrooms
Since experts tend to agree that taking a combination of mushrooms rather than just one single variety seems to be the most effective for immune system support, a good way to accomplish this is by taking supplements with high quality organic mushroom ingredients. This supplement gives you a blend of reishi, cordyceps, maitake, shiitake, Turkey Tail, and Agaricus blazei mushrooms with the added benefit of astragalus, beta glucan and AFA bluegreen algae. Another mushroom blend giving you the powerful superfood nutrition from Earth’s forests combines reishi, maitake, cordyceps, wild black trumpet, and Poria cocos mushrooms.
However you choose to get your mushrooms, with supplements, foraging for your own or buying them at your local organic market, it is time to re-evaluate how you’ve thought about mushrooms in the past. The exciting research that is being done today just shows what many cultures have known for ages; that mushrooms are a great natural solution to supporting the immune system and keeping us healthy.
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