Functional Mushrooms: Nature's Ancient Remedy for Optimal Immune Function
For centuries, cultures worldwide have used mushrooms not just as a food source but also for their vast array of medicinal properties. One of the oldest human mummies ever found - “Ötzi’ the Iceman” who lived 4,000 years ago had the mushroom Piptoporus betulinus - known for its natural antibiotic and antiparasitic effects - in his medicine kit. Scientific research now validates what traditional wisdom has long known: functional mushrooms have the power to profoundly modulate our immune system.
The immune nourishing properties of mushrooms are down to the unique types of nutrients found in them, often referred to collectively as myconutrients. While all mushrooms will each contain their own unique combination of myconutrients, functional mushrooms, sometimes called medicinal mushrooms, have specific medicinal properties that distinguish them from the culinary varieties.
Understanding ‘Myconutrients: Beta Glucans and more
The most studied myconutrient found in all mushrooms are key polysaccharides called beta-d-glucans (beta-glucans). Beta-glucans not only act on our immune system but also act as a prebiotic fibre. This provides them with their dense meaty texture and earthy flavour while also feeding and fertilising our gut microbes. The other medicinal myconutrients contained within functional mushrooms tend to be specific to each mushroom, giving them their own unique qualities. Some of the most well-studied include carotenoids, phenolic acids, terpenes and terpenoids, flavonoids, glycosides, ergosterol and ergothioneine.
The Science of Mushrooms for Immune Modulation
The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to keep us well. We can think of your immune system as a high-tech security system with innate immunity like the quick-response guards, always on duty, offering immediate protection through eliciting an inflammatory response against unwanted intruders. In contrast, adaptive immunity is the elite detective squad, specialised and learning from past encounters to protect you better in the future. These two arms have to work in harmony otherwise we risk upsetting the balance between getting frequent infections and suffering from unwanted inflammation. Immune modulation refers to the process of fine-tuning the immune response ensuring every part of your immune system works in harmony. The word ‘modulation’ is key here because, unlike other compounds and medications that affect the immune system by either suppressing it or promoting it, some of the myconutrients in functional mushrooms act as biological response modifiers (BRM). This simply means they can balance different arms of the immune response supporting their array of important functions not only against infection, but also inflammatory diseases, allergies, and more.
The bioactive myconutrients in functional mushrooms elicit their immunomodulatory effects by activating key receptors on immune cells, fine-tuning the function of both the innate and adaptive immune systems to ensure they are harmonised. Some examples include the carotenoids and ergothioneine which have antioxidant properties that quench free-radical damage and reduce oxidative stress, a key factor known to influence immune function. Phenolic acids in mushrooms like Reishi and Chaga modulate the immune response by inhibiting inflammation by acting on enzymes like cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) (the target of drugs like asprin and ibuprofen), thereby mitigating unwanted inflammation. Ergosterol is a plant-based precursor of Vitamin D2. When mushrooms are exposed to sunlight they convert this to vitamin D2, a key immune-supporting nutrient.
At Ancient + Brave we love our functional mushrooms. Here are a few of our favourites and their amazing benefits for immunity.
Lion's Mane: The Brain-Boosting Mushroom
Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a type of nootropic, meaning that it contains unique myconutrients that offer several brain health benefits. Scientific studies demonstrate that this is down to compounds like hericenones and erinacines that stimulate the release of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These are crucial for the growth and protection of brain cells and improved cognitive function. Recent research also indicates that Lion's Mane can also enhance the innate immune response and support intestinal immune function. This means that it offers a dual benefit for both brain health and whole-body immune health.
Chaga: The Birch Tree's Immunity Gift
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), often found on birch trees, is rich in antioxidants. It contains a high amount of melanin, which gives it a distinctive black colour and contributes to its antioxidant properties. These antioxidants help in reducing inflammation and immune function. Chaga has been used in folk medicine, particularly in Siberia and other parts of Asia, for its supposed health benefits, including immune support.
Reishi: The Mushroom of Immunity and Immortality
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) has been a staple in Eastern medicine for thousands of years, often regarded as the 'mushroom of immortality.' It is known for its adaptogenic qualities, helping the body to navigate stress. Reishi contains triterpene, which provides it with immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory properties. They also give this mushroom a bitter taste which can take a little getting used to if you tend to avoid bitter flavours. Sadly, bitter tastes have become something to be avoided in our modern diets at the expense of our health. Here at Ancient + Brave, we know that ‘bitter is better’ when it comes to Reishi. By embracing the complexity of bitter flavours, we can harness the wonderful properties of this mushroom.
Turkey Tail: A Symbol of Longevity and Immune Health
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) has a rich history in traditional medicine, particularly in China and Japan for fortifying immune function. It is known for its high content of polysaccharopeptides like PSP and PSK, which are now being explored as an adjunct application in cancer therapy, particularly as immune-supporting agents during chemotherapy. PSP from turkey tail is also an important prebiotic that has been shown to help the gut regulate its balance of bacteria in a way that provides metabolic benefits to support a healthy weight.
Blending Tradition with Science
Alongside our new understanding from the growing lens of modern science, traditional knowledge of functional mushrooms must continue to be passed down through generations. Their traditional use provides us with a rich context for their many benefits. In many cultures, functional mushrooms have been used for centuries, not just as a remedy for physical ailments but also as a means to balance the body and mind.
Functional mushrooms are not just a source of health benefits for humans; they are essential to the health of our planet. Their roles in ecosystem balance, carbon sequestration, soil regeneration, and biodiversity make them invaluable in our efforts to maintain planetary health. As we continue to explore and understand their health benefits through the lens of science, we also must be mindful of their broader ecological significance and symbiotic relationship with the health of our planet. At Ancient + Brave, our commitment to quality and sustainability is at the heart of everything we do, especially when it comes to the sourcing of functional mushrooms for our products. We firmly believe in the power of these incredible natural resources, but we also recognize our responsibility to the planet and to our consumers.
The key role of functional mushrooms in immune modulation is a perfect example of how traditional practices can inform modern scientific inquiry. As we continue to uncover the secrets of these remarkable fungi, we will likely discover so many more promising and exciting possibilities for the future of our health and planetary health.
New to functional mushrooms? Get in touch and ask one of our in-house team of specialists.
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Note: The information in this article is for educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult with a healthcare provider for personalised medical advice.