A healthy immune system is worth its weight in gold. It helps protect us against pathogens by rallying our immune cells to strike down any foreign invaders (known as antigens) that come their way. Short-term inflammation is an essential part of this process. But when the immune system is not working properly, it may confuse our healthy cells as foreign, activating proteins called autoantibodies to attack them as if they were impostors. This chronic inflammation may manifest as one or more autoimmune diseases and can affect any part of the body, from the skin and joints to the nervous system.
Medicinal mushrooms have long been considered miniature pharmaceutical factories by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners and indigenous peoples with a celebrated history of use in a broad range of conditions – both physical and psychological. Thousands of years ago, Greek physician Hippocrates used medicinal mushrooms for their incredible anti-inflammatory benefits. More recently, a game-changing medical discovery was made in the 1920s when Dr. Alexander Fleming accidentally left a petri dish of bacterial microbes out for so long that they began growing mold (aka fungi). He noticed the mold was preventing the bacteria around it from growing, and just like that, the world’s first wonder drug was born. At the time, people were dying of infectious diseases like the flu and tuberculosis. But by the late 1940s, penicillin had reduced death rates by nearly 60%. Lately, scientists have taken a renewed interest in medicinal mushrooms, and what they’re finding has helped raise the profile of these miraculous fungi once again. This time around, researchers are looking back in time for solutions to today’s most common chronic conditions like cancer, high cholesterol, and autoimmune disorders.
Medicinal mushrooms are rich in multiple bioactive compounds, and many have been shown to be antimicrobial, antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and immunomodulatory. Many of their health benefits come from their polysaccharides (PS) and polysaccharide-protein (PSP) complexes, which also double as prebiotics – aiding in the development of a healthy gut microbiome. Many of these mushrooms also protect the liver, brain, skeletal, and cardiovascular systems. They also help normalize blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. One fundamental feature shared by mycomedicinals is their ability to contribute to overall wellness by bringing the body back into a state of homeostasis (internal harmony).
The concept of autoimmunity began in 1901 with the German father of modern immunology, Paul Ehrlich. In his “horror autotoxicus” (literally translated as the horror of self-toxicity), he theorized that the immune system was naturally designed to avoid self-destruction and would never attack itself. By 1938, two American doctors who were studying a rare blood disorder that caused anemia discovered that, in fact, the immune system does have the potential to turn on itself. This is an excellent reminder that science is constantly evolving (1).
Once considered uncommon, there are now over 80 known autoimmune disorders that affect 3-5% of the global population. And their symptoms and diagnoses can be complex and puzzling for both patients and doctors alike. Some autoimmune diseases involve just one organ. For example, psoriasis affects the skin. Other conditions, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), can affect the entire body. Doctors who suspect a patient may have an autoimmune disease usually begin by administering an antinuclear antibody blood test (ANA). The immune system makes antibodies to fight infection, but antinuclear antibodies are rogue proteins that typically attack the body’s tissues. Since a positive ANA test does not necessarily mean an autoimmune disease is present, doctors may follow with more specific tests to establish a diagnosis.
While we don’t exactly know what makes the immune system run amok, the causes are probably a combination of genetics, environmental exposure to toxic chemicals or infections, diet and lifestyle, as well as gender. Women of childbearing age are twice as likely to develop an autoimmune disease than men because their hormones shift so much during this phase of life.
Autoimmune symptoms can ebb and flow, disappearing for a while and then flaring up again. Flare-ups can be related to various factors like stress and hormonal changes. For example, lupus symptoms in women may improve or vanish altogether after menopause, signaling a possible connection between estrogen levels and autoimmune disorders.
Presently, doctors prescribe NSAID’s (such as Advil or Motrin) and/or chemotherapeutic drugs (aka biologics) to help suppress an overactive immune system. They may also recommend corticosteroids for short periods of time to calm inflammation. Unfortunately, these powerful medications tend to come with a long list of side effects and reduce the body’s natural ability to fight illness and infection on its own.
On the flip side, medicinal mushroom supplements have the potential to safely shift the immune system out of overdrive and into neutral while cooling chronic inflammation. As adaptogens, these mushrooms work with a person’s individual constitution to restore immune function and bring them back to wellness – without any harmful side effects (2).
Here are a few medicinal mushrooms for those wanting to regulate an overzealous immune system:
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cordyceps are cherished as both a Qi and Jing tonic. Qi herbs can optimize our capacity for converting food and breath into energy. And in TCM, our levels of vitality, adaptability, and immune response are considered a direct reflection of how well we can metabolize these two things. Jing is understood to work hand-in-hand with Qi to help shield the body from external stressors and promote longevity. In TCM, Jing is compared to a bank account containing your life savings. But instead of money, it is filled with a finite amount of life energy that should not be spent frivolously. Cordyceps supplements are thought to help us make the most of our genetic inheritance.
Fatigue and insomnia are overwhelmingly common in people with immune dysfunction (3). Not only are cordyceps prized for their rejuvenating properties, but they also have a real knack for calming the body’s immune response. Additionally, they are known to improve blood sugar levels and promote digestion and nutrient absorption, which can have additional immunomodulating effects (4). In one in vitro study, the antioxidants and polysaccharides in cordyceps were shown to boost beneficial gut bacteria and reduce harmful bacteria (5). The secondary benefits of a balanced microbiome include improved mood and sleep, immune and heart health, and hormonal balance. Moreover, a review of recent scientific research revealed that the active ingredient cordycepin, is a potent anti-inflammatory in chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma (6).
This “herb of spiritual potency” (aka lingzhi) has been used for thousands of years in Eastern cultures. Its most studied variety, red reishi, is brimming with more than 400 bioactive ingredients (7). In fact, the legendary Emperor Yan, who authored the ancient Materia Medica of medicinal plants, said that if reishi is “eaten customarily, it makes your body light and young, lengthens your life, and turns you into one like the immortal who never dies.”
Of course, no one can truly live forever, but reishi still contains many compounds that can positively impact our overall health. Dietary supplements containing reishi have immunomodulating, antioxidant, anti-fatigue, and anti-inflammatory health benefits. As of 2018, The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) of China listed nearly 150 Ganoderma lucidum-based drugs approved for a variety of uses ranging from chronic hepatitis to cancer treatment adjuvant (8).
Reishi’s ability to support liver detoxification can help keep autoimmune flare-ups in check by reducing the accumulation of the toxic chemicals we are exposed to daily through air, water, and food. Plus, its combination of polysaccharides and triterpenoids produces a magically paradoxical remedy that is both immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory. In one study of colon tissues taken from children with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), lingzhi successfully prevented inflammation by dialing down cytokine production (9). Animal studies also suggest that it effectively improves the length and quality of sleep.
Cordyceps and reishi mushrooms are ideally taken as a tincture or powder that can be blended into smoothies, soups, or hot tea. Another popular way to take mushroom supplements is in capsule form. Seek out a dual extract product to ensure you benefit from both the water-soluble (ie. beta glucans) and alcohol-soluble (ie. triterpenoids) active ingredients. An added perk of double extraction is that it makes for a shelf-stable product you can take anywhere. Look for a brand made from the mushroom’s fruiting body with a high beta-glucan content on the label.
Maitake and shiitake are two tasty, edible, and immunomodulating mushrooms with an earthy, umami flavor profile that jazz up any meal while assisting your immunity. In a 4-week study of 52 healthy adults, consuming less than half an ounce of shiitake mushrooms resulted in significantly improved immunity and inflammation markers (10). Furthermore, an animal study found that maitake and shiitake have the potential to stimulate an immune defense reaction (11).
Generally speaking, medicinal mushrooms are an extremely safe and worthwhile addition to any healthcare routine – and especially an autoimmune protocol. A good indicator of safety is that hospitals often use fungal medicines in conjunction with cancer therapy to help prevent some of the side effects associated with radiation and chemotherapy.
On the surface, autoimmune conditions might seem like a bunch of different mysterious diseases, but what they all have in common is inflammation. By regulating the body’s major systems at the root level, medicinal mushrooms can help restore healthy immune function (12). As more high-quality, long-term clinical trials become available, healthcare practitioners will be better able to guide their autoimmune patients toward optimal health.