Mushrooms and other fungi have long been used for their medicinal properties by traditional healing systems. They’ve recently gained widespread popularity and the modern herbalist can prescribe a variety of mushrooms to improve digestion, reduce anxiety, balance hormones, and even boost the immune system. You may even find a restorative mushroom latte at your hip corner café.
Although an ancient remedy, mushrooms are still new to scientific research. But, a new wave of interest in medicinal mushrooms has shed light on their potential healing powers – and their potential downsides. Let’s take a closer look at what we know about mushrooms, their effects on immunity, and when to take precautions.
Mushrooms and the Immune System
One of the main reasons people seek out medicinal mushrooms (like reishi, chaga, or turkey tail) is for their immune benefits. This stems from a rich makeup of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics that support a healthy gut and overall immune health[i].
In addition to being antimicrobial and prebiotic, mushrooms are believed to be immunomodulating, meaning that they could help to boost a weakened immune system or suppress an overactive one[ii]. In supporting the immune function, mushrooms may impact the body’s target immune cells (lymphocytes, macrophages, T cells, dendritic cells, and natural killer cells) to improve the immune response.
When it comes to an overactive immune system (such as with allergies or autoimmune disease), mushrooms may help to suppress the immune response and lower inflammation. They also show a potential for cancer management as compounds within the mushrooms may reduce tumor growth and enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy[iii].
Mushrooms, however, are not a cure-all immune tonic. These and other potential benefits and uses of medicinal mushrooms still require further investigation.
Mushrooms and Safety: Important Considerations for Medicinal Mushrooms
As with all supplements and medications, certain populations should take caution or avoid medicinal mushrooms.
- Candidiasis or Yeast Sensitivities
Candida albicans is a yeast-like fungus that lives in the digestive tract. It typically causes no issues, unless it becomes overgrown or enters the bloodstream or other organs of the body[iv]. Reducing sugar and yeast-containing foods are key to managing candidiasis.
Because mushrooms are so closely related to yeasts, mushroom supplements (or any dietary fungi) are not typically recommended for those with yeast sensitivities or candida overgrowths. This is mainly due to the concern that mushroom may cross-react with candida, triggering an immune response[v].
- Mold Allergies and Sensitivities
As molds and fungi are closely related, those with mold allergies may develop an allergy to medicinal mushrooms. Case studies have shown that ingesting mushrooms can cause an allergic reaction in those with a pre-existing mold allergy[vi]. More research is needed to fully understand how mushrooms affect those with mold allergies.
- Autoimmune Diseases and Cancer
If you are managing an autoimmune disorder and taking immunosuppressant drugs, medicinal mushrooms are not advised. While mushrooms are believed to help manage overactive immune responses, there is not currently enough research to understand whether the mushrooms would negate the effects of the medication[vii].
Mushrooms like shiitake and reishi are often used in conjunction with cancer treatments, but only when advised and supervised by an oncologistvi. Talk with your doctor before starting any new supplements during your cancer treatment plan.
Stay Healthy, Stay Safe
Many of us hope to boost our immune systems in a healthy, natural way. While there are many immunity “cures” out there, it is important to make sure that the supplements you choose are right for you and your body’s unique concerns. Check with your trusted health care provider to find the best immune solutions for you.
[i] Jayachandran, Muthukumaran et al. “A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota. ” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 18,9 1934. 8 Sep. 2017, doi:10.3390/ijms18091934
[ii] Lull, Cristina et al. “Antiinflammatory and immunomodulating properties of fungal metabolites .” Mediators of inflammation vol. 2005,2 (2005): 63-80. doi:10.1155/MI.2005.63
[iii] Guggenheim, Alena G et al. “Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology. ” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 13,1 (2014): 32-44.