There are estimated to be 250,000 fungal species in Australia including 5,000 mushrooms and yet mushrooms are only starting to be studied in clinical trials in humans.
However medicinal mushrooms have a long history of being used in folk medicine and as functional foods in Asia.
We know that mushrooms have a wide range of health benefits due to the non-digestible or β-linked polysaccharides, especially β-D-glucans but do we know the full effects on our body and especially on our immune function?
The most studied medicinal mushrooms include: Shiitake, Reishi and Cordyceps.
Shiitake mushrooms or Lentinula edodes consumed regularly has been shown to improve immunity by:
- increasing sIgA (secretory IgA) which can lower allergic response.
- lower levels of systemic and localised inflammation by reducing levels of inflammatory cytokines
- reduce histamine release from mast cells lowering inflammatory response
Reishi mushrooms otherwise known as Ganoderma lucidum, is probably the most studied of the mushroom family and contains a huge number of different compounds including over 150 biologically active polysaccharides. The active constituents of Reishi have been scientifically tested to have antioxidant, immune modulating, antiviral and antibacterial effects.
Reishi do this by:
- binding to cell surface receptors on surface of immune cells, altering the activity of macrophages, natural killer (NK) cells and T helper cells.
- promote lymphocyte proliferation and differentiation.
- promote antibody production.
- activate peripheral blood mononuclear cells and activate an innate anti-infective response.
- restore the balance between T helper 1 and T helper 2 cell balance to reduce allergic responses.
- inhibit viral replication.
Cordyceps sinensis otherwise just known as Cordyceps may strengthen cellular immunity and assist with energy production, stamina and fatigue.
Traditionally used to replenish the kidney and soothe the lung, for the treatment of fatigue, night sweating, hyposexualities, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, asthenia after severe illness, respiratory disease, renal dysfunction and renal failure.
Recent studies have demonstrated the multiple pharmacological actions of Cordycepes, including antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antifatigue, hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic, liver protective effects and immunomodulatory properties and it has been shown to have an anti-fatigue effect in animal studies.
Does this mean that only the above mushrooms have health benefits?
This does not appear to be the case, the mushroom species above have been studied in relation to particular health conditions and especially their effects on immune function. However the mushrooms you buy from the fruit and veg shop or your local farmers market also have health benefits - they contain a wide range of B vitamins which helps to provide energy by being involved in the breakdown of protein, fats and carbohydrates. B vitamins also play a big role in supporting the production of neurotransmitters for your nervous system. Mushrooms can provide a filling and hearty aspect to your meal. They are low in calories and can leave you feeling full and satiated indicating they could be helpful in weight management.
Mushrooms also contain potassium, fibre, vitamin D, iron, vitamin C and magnesium making them little powerhouses of nutrients.
Try including some different varieties of mushrooms into your diet and see how you go and if you notice any benefits on your health. We like to mix mushrooms into soups and broths, add to stir frys or salads and we use powdered mushrooms in our smoothies to support our immune health.
Mushroom picking is also a great way to be interactive with your food however please ensure that you are going with someone who is knowledgeable in the identification of mushrooms as there are many poisonous mushrooms that grow that look very similar to the edible and safe varieties.