The Secret Life of Mushrooms: How They Can Boost Immunity, Support Your Gut, and Even Fight Cancer

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Scientists estimate that there are approximately 140,000 species of mushrooms on earth, only about 10% of which are known. Of these species, about 700 are thought to possess pharmacological properties, and 1% are poisonous. Medicinal mushrooms can offer a wide range of benefits including better brain function, more energy, better sleep, and a healthier immune system. More recently, they have even been used as adjunct treatment for cancer.  Scientists are just beginning to discover the many therapeutic uses of these mysterious fungi,  and the world of mushrooms is ripe with potential. [This article, “The Secret Life of Mushrooms: How They Can Boost Immunity, Support Your Gut, and Even Fight Cancer” was originally published in HealthXWire]

Medicinal mushrooms: simultaneous discoveries 

Medicinal mushrooms have been part of human culture for thousands of years. In 1991, scientists discovered a mummified corpse carrying amadou mushroom and a birch polypore.  This Iceman dates back to 5300 years ago, and it is thought that he carried these medicinal fungi to help him survive in the Alps. Amadou, incidentally, is effective as a potent anti inflammatory and has been used to cauterize wounds, while polypore is a purgative for the digestive system.  

The use of medicinal mushrooms has been documented worldwide over millennia, as our  ancient ancestors tapped into their mysterious healing power. Mushrooms have appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics as plants of immortality and in ancient Greek and Roman texts. The Greek physician Hippocrates recognized the anti-inflammatory properties of amadou around  450 BCE. The Vikings were said to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle.  Chinese medicine has recognized these fungi for their antiviral, antimicrobial, and anti inflammatory properties for thousands of years.  

Mushrooms and immune support 

The medicinal benefits of mushrooms do not fit the current pharmaceutical model of a single  ingredient for a single symptom. Instead, mushrooms produce a wide range of beneficial effects through a number of different mechanisms. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the  public began to focus more intensely on immune system function and natural methods of  boosting immunity. After a much-publicized association between low vitamin D levels and  worse COVID-19 outcomes, the connection between nutrition and immune health found its way  into the limelight. It is perhaps less widely known that mushrooms are the only viable source of  vitamin D that does not come from animal sources. Mushrooms also contain prebiotics which support the microbiome, further supporting immune health as about 70% of the immune system  is within the gut. 

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When your immune system is dysregulated… 

Our immune system works best when it is in a state of balance. Its main function is to defend  the body against foreign invaders such as fungi, yeast, parasites, viruses, bacteria, and toxins.  More generally, immunity can be defined as the ability of the body to distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’. In some cases, when the immune system is weakened, it can no longer make  this distinction, and the body begins to attack itself. The result can be autoimmune conditions such as lupus, Crohn’s disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Decreased immunity can also lead to frequent infections, slower healing, and increased degeneration leading to cancer and aging

Our immune systems naturally weaken as we age, putting us at higher risk of inflammation,  increasing susceptibility to autoimmune diseases, and making us more vulnerable to invading  viruses and bacteria. In both the young and old, a dysregulated immune system may result from antibiotic intake, chronic stress, excessive exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, poor sleep, gut imbalances, smoking, physical inactivity and poor nutrition. Most of us will probably experience an immune system imbalance at some point in our lives. Over the long term, a dysregulated immune system may lead to conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, food allergies, and type 2 diabetes.  

Beta-glucans as immunomodulators

Many of the immune benefits of medicinal mushrooms come from compounds called beta glucans contained within their cell walls. Beta-glucans act as immunomodulators, stimulating the immune system to help fight foreign invaders and downregulating the immune system when it becomes overactive. Therefore, these natural compounds may help the body fight infection and pose a therapeutic potential for autoimmune diseases. In addition, due to their potential to activate the adaptive immune system, beta-glucans have also been explored for clinical cancer treatment, as they may stimulate the destruction of cancer cells.  

As the health benefits of mushrooms become more widely known, the mushroom supplement industry is responding with rapid growth. The functional mushroom market is expected to reach  $19.33 billion by 2030, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.3%. If you’re interested in finding a mushroom supplement, then it’s important to realize that not all brands contain  significant amounts of beta-glucans. The most helpful mushroom compounds are found in the  fruiting body, but many supplements today contain either the fruiting body or the mycelium (root  structure). Furthermore, some mushroom producers grow mycelium on grains like rice or oats,  which are then included in the supplement product as starch.  

For example, Real Mushrooms a Canada-based supplement brand, uses only the fruiting body for its products and also lists the percentage of beta-glucans on each label. Skye Chilton launched Real Mushrooms in 2016 with a mission to educate the public about how to discern real quality in mushroom supplements. He was inspired to start Real Mushrooms after conversations with his father, Jeff Chilton, founder of Nammex, a leading supplier of mushroom extracts to supplement companies. Jeff Chilton has over 40 years of mushroom growing experience and is credited as one of the first to bring organic mushroom extracts to the North American market. Freshcap Mushrooms and Naturealm are other mushroom products sourced from Nammex that promise extracts sourced only from fruiting bodies with no added mycelium,  grain, or fillers.  

Cordyceps: immune system booster and cancer fighter 

Cordyceps, also known as caterpillar mushroom, is native to Tibet and China. It gets its name from the Latin words for ‘club’ and ‘head.’ In the wild, this mushroom thrives at high altitudes as  high as 10,000 feet above sea level, and it normally grows parasitically on insect pupae. It has been used in Nepal as a folk remedy for diarrhea, headache, cough and liver disease. Also  called ‘Himalayan Viagra’, Cordyceps has been used to treat erectile dysfunction. It has a  broad range of health benefits for the renal, cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, sexual, and  immunological systems.  

Cordyceps has also been recognized for its ability to act as an immunomodulator and to fight cancer. It boosts the immune system by increasing the activity of white blood cells in the body.  Cordyceps has increased the white blood cells of healthy individuals by 74%, and it has increased white blood cells in leukemia patients by 400%. It has also been reported to have  antitumor activity for several different cancers. It has a cytotoxic effect on tumor cells, meaning that it kills cancer cells and may shrink tumors. Due to the limitations of conventional surgical and chemotherapy treatments for cancer, there has been some interest in natural antitumor  drugs. Cordyceps is one medicinal mushroom that has been suggested to have anticancer  potential.  

Turkey Tail fights cancer and AIDS 

Used in Chinese medicine to treat respiratory conditions, Turkey Tail is a disc-shaped mushroom with varying colors that resembles its namesake. This medicinal mushroom is being investigated as an adjunct treatment for cancer with minimal side effects. A compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK) found in Turkey Tail stimulates the immune system, and may be responsible for this mushroom’s anticancer effects. In fact, PSK is approved in Japan as an anticancer prescription medication. Turkey Tail has been shown to increase survival rates in patients with certain cancers and even mitigate the immune effects of chemotherapy. Due to its immunoregulating effects, it has also been used therapeutically for autoimmune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The health potential of this plentiful fungus is high, and its benefits are still  being investigated.  

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Your pet can benefit 

Many dog owners have used Turkey Tail to help treat cancers in their pets. A recent Penn State study showed that dogs treated with this medicinal mushroom had the longest survival  times ever reported for those with hemangiosarcoma. With few side effects and growing popularity among pet owners, medicinal mushrooms are making their way into veterinary  offices. 

If you are considering giving mushrooms to your pet, you should not feed them raw mushrooms, as they can be difficult to digest and are potentially toxic. Mushroom supplements for pets are a great option, but few supplement brands offer these promising products. Real Mushrooms launched a mushroom supplement line for pets in March 2022, recognizing a rapidly growing market as 67% of adults now own pets. With a chief veterinary officer that is expert in mushrooms for pets, Real Mushrooms holds a long list of veterinary clients among their 1500 prescriber accounts. If you are going to trust your pet’s health to a supplement brand, you  should consider only those that are pure, organic, and free of fillers. Noomadic Mushroom  Total, with 30% beta-d-glucans is another top-rated mushroom product for dogs. You could also try Solary Mushroom, which promises 10% polysaccharides.  

One mushroom, many benefits 

We know that mushrooms are packed with vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, but it is not as well known that they contain prebiotics and immunomodulating compounds. Not only can certain medicinal mushrooms balance your microbiome and help to build resistance to infections, but they can also help to fight cancer. Research over the past few decades has shown that mushrooms have powerful properties that can help to slow tumor growth, regulate  tumor genes, and stimulate the destruction of malignant cells. Mushrooms have shown promise as an adjunct treatment for cancer, with minimal side effects. 

Used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, mushroom species with pharmacological properties have been used in healing practices all over the world across multiple cultures.  Modern medicine is just catching up with what our ancient ancestors knew millennia ago.  Unlike conventional western models of one ingredient for one symptom, these potent fungi  promise a wide range of positive health effects in a single, elegant package.  

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