Edible and medicinal mushrooms have been used in Asian cultures for thousands of years as a tonic for both prevention and acute treatment of diseases, but recently they have gained interest in the West, as mainstream medicine discovers the multiple and incremental immune pathways that these fungi effect. Their potential use in cases of chronic immune dysfunction is making these mushrooms the latest research trend in immune support and prevention.
As both a food source and medicinal substance, mushrooms can be a rich source of amino acids, fiber, vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates and other functional compounds. Numerous studies have reported the activity of therapeutic compounds in mushroom species such as Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), and Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus). Their health-giving properties have been attributed to carbohydrates found in their cell walls called polysaccharides.
The immune system is incredibly complex, with multiple cell types fulfilling specific jobs, from detecting and identifying pathogens, to releasing substances that destroy diseased cells and micro-pathogens. Optimizing this response and maintaining coordination of these immune responses is essential for avoiding illness and clearing infections. By looking at specific mushroom compounds, we are piecing together the multiple roles that they play, as well as anticipating their overall effect. Generally, each individual mushroom species contains its own assortment of compounds, each with one or more functions that participate in the immune system’s reactions.
Here are a few notable examples:
Already associated with the ability to improve mood and cognition, the Reishi mushroom has been gaining attention for its ability to affect major immune pathways, including initiating the death of abnormal cells. It does this by activating Natural Killer (NK) cells. Other in-vitro studies using human cell lines have shown Reishi can inhibit the overgrowth and population of breast cancer cells and help prevent cancer cell migration. A systematic, evidence-based review revealed that cancer patients were more likely to respond positively to their chemo or radiotherapy when given Reishi as an adjunctive treatment.
Cordyceps also plays a huge role in immune responses. Polysaccharides from this mushroom have been shown to promote more efficient macrophage activity. Macrophages are the “Pac-Man” cells of the body, devouring debris, pathogens, and dead cells. A more efficient “clean-up crew” can help to clear invading pathogens faster.
Naturally found growing on beech and oak trees, Lion’s Mane can reduce pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut as well as regulate/influence immune signals when gut inflammation is present. It possesses strong antimicrobial activities against both antibiotic-resistant and non-resistant pathogenic bacteria. Researchers are even showing positive effects in combating H. Pylori infections - the bacteria responsible for ulcer development, and subsequently stomach cancer.
The ability of Lion’s Mane to activate anti-tumour reactions is bringing to light that this mushroom could potentially be used in the prevention and adjunctive treatment of cancers, specifically stomach, colon, and liver cancers. In the meantime, it may be beneficial in cases of gut inflammation; however, more human clinical studies are still needed.
Himematsutake (Agaricus blazei), is a Brazilian mushroom species used traditionally in Latin America for the prevention and treatment of cancer. Recent studies have shown that mushroom extracts from Himematsutake stimulate T-helper-1 (Th1) cells. It’s the job of Th1 immune cells to target pathogenic bacteria and activate the macrophages that engulf and destroy pathogens and diseased cells. Studies have suggested that these Th1 activities and responses support the suppression of cancer.
Other research has focused on the antioxidant properties of Himematsutake. An in-vitro study showed that this mushroom was able to prevent human DNA damage from free-radicals.
These properties, especially Th1 stimulation, may also give us a lead on using medicinal mushrooms in cases of allergies. The same signals that increase Th1 activity cause the immune system to downplay Th2 responses: pathways that lead to the development of allergic symptoms, asthma, and sinusitis.
Accessing Mushroom Power
The benefits of medicinal mushrooms are unleashed when these compounds are released from the mushroom’s cell walls. This is most effectively done with a hot-water extraction. Unlike typical plant cells, the cell walls of fungi are made from a hard fibre called chitin. As humans are unable to digest chitin, the mushrooms must be exposed to hot water for the polysaccharides to be released undamaged, and in high enough concentrations for therapeutic benefit.
AOR has used these research findings to develop a new synergistic blend of seven different mushroom species, including Reishi, Lion’s Mane and Himematsutake. AOR’s Mushroom Synergy provides the immune support generated by these mushroom polysaccharides via hot-water extraction, for a highly-concentrated mushroom extract, and has blended them with two botanical herbs for well-rounded immune and stress support.
The Future is Fungi
These mushrooms, along with many other edible species, have many nutritional and potential therapeutic uses. More high-quality human clinical trials are needed to realize their full potential, but the fact that mushroom research has grown so exponentially in the last few decades has us excited for what’s on the horizon.
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