We’re all looking for an extra boost to keep us protected from colds and flu. You, like many others, may have tried a variety of natural alternatives to give you the upper hand over contagious infections. But supplements, vitamins, or foods that manage to reliably shorten the duration of an infection (or avoid it altogether) are few.
Yet, there’s one organism – that predates all other life forms on land and has evolved to be a master of survival — that has a matrix of compounds sophisticated enough to comprehensively support our immune system vitals: Fungi and in this case mushrooms.
A strong and healthy immune system is a fundamental building block of good health regardless of the time of year. It plays an active role in regulating a host of essential functions, including mood and mental health, the gastrointestinal system, and vitality.
For thousands of years, medicinal mushrooms have been used across cultures to help boost the immune system and fight off colds and flu. In particular, Eastern medicine practitioners have known of the healing and regenerative properties of mushrooms for millennia. Finally, scientific research in the West is catching up.
As a result, medicinal mushrooms are receiving more mainstream attention as a powerful tool in boosting immune defense. When used in combination with other strategies, they may help as a supportive therapy, giving you the edge you need to bounce back when you do get sick.
How The Immune System Fights Viral Infections
It’s important to understand that there are different types of bodily immune response to illness, and these come from the innate and adaptive immune systems.
Innate Immune Defence Systems
The innate immune system is our first line of protection against infection. Its initial defense includes outer protection from pathogens through our skin, cilia, mucous membranes, and gut.¹
When a virus makes it past this outer protection, our innate immune system goes to work with its second line of defense. This is done by moving inflammatory cells to the site of infection or activating defense cells that are already there.
Soluble protein substances of the complement system move into action and also help to defend the body.¹ This leads to an inflammatory reaction where blood circulation increases, and it can cause a fever.
When we think of the response our body generates to a foreign invader like the flu, we immediately think of the fever, chills, cough, and other respiratory or sinus symptoms that happen. These responses are all active displays of the body’s innate immune system at work in an acute situation.
The body musters all of its innate immune response mechanisms to fight off infections and to return to its healthy baseline.
Adaptive Immune Defense Systems
If your innate immune system isn’t able to fight off the infection, that’s when the adaptive immune system kicks in.
This system takes longer to activate (four to seven days after exposure to a pathogen) when there is an infection the body is trying to fight. However, when it is needed, the adaptive immune system can provide a more targeted, precision response. However, both the innate and adaptive systems often work together.
The adaptive immune system has several parts that react in different ways, depending on the place in the body where the infection is. For example, the adaptive immune system makes antibodies to destroy pathogens outside the cells that are circulating in the blood and body fluids.¹
The body creates a cell-mediated response to get rid of pathogens inside the tissue. These parts of the adaptive defense include T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, antibodies as soluble proteins in the blood, and cytokines in the blood and tissue.
How Your Body Develops Immunity to a Pathogen
It’s your adaptive immune system where immune defense to specific infections develops. The cells can “remember” invaders they’ve already had contact with, and the defense response can then be quicker with each successive exposure.¹ This is why you only get sick with a certain virus strain and subtype of Influenza A once, and you’re then immune to it.
Most vaccinations work in the same way, by introducing a version of a pathogen to the body, so that T cells and antibodies develop, with memory cells as well. When and if this pathogen is encountered in daily living, the body already has natural defenses against it, and your immune system can quickly eliminate it.
Medicinal Mushrooms Can Stimulate & Modulate Immune System Cells & Processes
Medicinal mushrooms can help with your body’s immune response by working to strengthen and support it’s natural defense processes.
It’s well established that medicinal mushrooms are effective immune system modulators and immune cell activators. These fungi have a direct impact on your body’s production and use of Natural Killer cells, T cells, B cells, antibodies, macrophages, and cytokines.2 These cells are all part of the immune system and play a role in your body’s ability to fight off infection.
For example, the medicinal compounds of certain mushroom varieties are known to modify cytokines, which are both pro and anti-inflammatory messengers secreted by immune cells. Certain cytokines can suppress white blood cells and make you more susceptible to getting sick. However, mushrooms can help to reduce the inflammatory response caused by cytokines and allow for T cells, B cells, and antibodies to work more effectively.3,14
There are many studies showing that mushrooms can stimulate or suppress different anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory cytokines.4 Immunomodulation is the ability of the body’s immune system to respond intelligently to any biological circumstances in the body:
“Mushrooms can increase inflammatory cytokines in the start of an infection (which is what you need actually to fight off a virus naturally) but then are extremely anti-inflammatory in the second half. Herbs and mushrooms are immune modulators, meaning they can adjust how they are affecting the body based on need in the moment.”
Scientific evidence (in vitro) also suggests that active compounds in mushrooms may play a role in influenza viral modulation by inhibiting the enzymes viruses use for replication. This mechanism is the basis for most antiviral drugs.15, 16
One of our Real Mushrooms’ Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners put it this way, medicinal mushrooms are powerful because they regulate, not just stimulate, the immune system.
Key Compounds in Mushrooms: Polysaccharides and Beta-glucan
Mushrooms are rich in bioactive compounds called polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, which act as biological response modifiers.The innate immune system cells found in the gut area called the M cells in the peyer’s patches, express receptors such as dectin-1, TLR3 and CR3.5
It is here in the gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT) that the beta-glucans andmetabolites bind to pattern-recognition receptors (PRR) on key immune cells like macrophages and dendritic cells. Beta-glucans are recognized by the immune system as “non-self molecules,” acting as pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs),which stimulate innate and adaptive immune responses.17
Well-researched mushroom varieties that can help to boost the innate and adaptive immune systems include Reishi, Turkey Tail, Chaga, Shiitake, Cordyceps, and Maitake. Consume these fungi as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet, or through a high-quality mushroom supplement that is free from added fillers, and other by-products from the growing process.
Strategies to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
There is scientific evidence to support using medicinal mushrooms to strengthen your immune system. However, you’re more likely to achieve a better result by taking a holistic approach to your overall health and wellness. This includes addressing other parts of your lifestyle, like diet, regular exercise, and sleep.
Nutrition and Immune Defence
Proper nutrition and digestion plays a crucial role in giving your body the right fuel it needs to fight off infection. Over 70% of your immune system by weight occurs in your gastrointestinal system, including your stomach and small and large intestines. It’s here that your body produces antibodies, T and B lymphocytes that keep you balanced and healthy.6 Medicinal mushrooms also support short-chain fatty acids, which are fuel for the cells found in your gut.18
A whole-foods based diet that includes complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, along with healthy fats, can provide you with the nutrients needed to support your health.
Consider that mushrooms, whether eaten as food or taken as a supplement, are a form of prebiotic fiber, meaning that they act as fuel for healthy bacteria in your gut.7 Prebiotics work in concert with probiotics and create an optimal environment for healthy bacteria to flourish.8
Prebiotic foods that you can incorporate into your diet include:9
- Garlic, onions, and leeks
- Jerusalem artichoke and asparagus
- Greens and fiber rich vegetables
- Barley, oats, wheat bran, flaxseed, and whole grains
Excellent sources of gut-friendly probiotics include:10
- Yogurt, kefir, and kombucha
- Tempeh, kimchi, and miso
- Lacto-fermented pickles and unpasteurized sauerkraut
These foods, together with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, meat, and seafood, along with healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil will go a long way towards enhancing your immune system.
Sleep to Bolster Immune Function
While eating right and ensuring that you’re getting the right nutrients goes a long way towards healthy immune function, proper sleep is an essential component of fighting off infections. Sleep deprivation harms the immune system by interfering with key hormone actions.
A lack of sleep can slow your body’s response to foreign invaders and interfere with its ability to mount a strong reaction to pathogens.11 This means that you may be sicker for a more extended time.
Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night for optimal health benefits.
Strategies to optimize your sleep:
- If you live in a place with a lot of external noise, try using a white noise machine to drown out loud and ambient noise that may interrupt sleep.
- Ensure that your bedroom is between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit as a cold room encourages deeper sleep.
- Keep a consistent sleep/wake time, even on weekends and holidays, to support your circadian rhythm.
- Exercise during the day to help relieve stress and balance cortisol levels which could impact sleep. Even 10 minutes of moderate activity can help.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed. Not only do these interfere with your sleep patterns, but they also hurt your digestive and immune health.
- Practice stress reduction techniques like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, 4-7-8 breathing, or meditation to help you relax and fall into a restful sleep.
- Reduce artificial light past sunset to ensure proper melatonin secretion. Melatonin is an important antioxidant for immune health.12
Building a strong immune system is an integral part of maintaining good health. With the strategies outlined here, you can give your body the tools it needs to fight infections and bounce back quicker when you do get sick.
By understanding the role that medicinal mushrooms can play in boosting your immune system, you can make more informed choices about the food and supplements you take. Medicinal mushroom benefits for health in general and for your immune function are well-established and supported by considerable scientific evidence and thousands of years of practice in Eastern medicine.
Visit our online store to explore our complete line of mushroom supplements that can help support your immune system, and enhance your overall energy, resilience, and wellness.
*Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.
- NCBI 2016, The Innate and Adaptive Immune Systems, viewed 16 June 2020, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/>
- Spelman, Kevin et al. 2006, Modulation of cytokine expression by traditional medicines: A review of herbal immunomodulators, Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic 11(2):128-50,<https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6972255_Modulation_of_cytokine_expression_by_traditional_medicines_A_review_of_herbal_immunomodulators>
- Lull, Cristina, & Wichers, Harry J. and F. J. Huub, 2005, Anti Inflammatory and Immunomodulating Properties of Fungal Metabolites, Source: Mediators Inflamm. doi: 10.1155/MI.2005.63 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1160565/>
- Jayachandran, Muthukumaran, Xiao, Jianbo, and Xu, Baoju, A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota, 2017, Journal of Molecular Sciences <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618583/>
- Mallard B, Leach DN, Wohlmuth H, Tiralongo J (2019) Synergistic immuno- modulatory activity in human macrophages of a medicinal mushroom formulation consisting of Reishi, Shiitake and Maitake. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0224740. <https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0224740&type=printable>
- Zeratsky, Katherine, What are Probiotics and Prebiotics, viewed June 2020, <https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/probiotics/faq-20058065 >
- Semeco, Arlene, June 2016, The 19 Best Prebiotic Foods You Should Eat
- Palsdottir, Hrefna, Aug 2018, 11 Super Healthy Probiotic Foods, 2020
- Chan, Amanda, May 2013, 5 Experts Answer: Is Lack of Sleep Bad for Health?
- Klien, Sarah, April 2019, How to Sleep Better: 37 Hacks
- Zhu, Q., Bang, T., Ohnuki, K. et al. Inhibition of neuraminidase by Ganoderma triterpenoids and implications for neuraminidase inhibitor design. Sci Rep 5, 13194 (2015). <https://doi.org/10.1038/srep13194>
- Jayachandran, M.; Xiao, J.; Xu, B. A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2017, 18, 1934. <https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/18/9/1934>
- Yu, Z., Liu, B., Mukherjee, P. et al. Trametes versicolor Extract Modifies Human Fecal Microbiota Composition In vitro . Plant Foods Hum Nutr 68, 107–112 (2013). <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11130-013-0342-4>
- Guggenheim, A. G., Wright, K. M., & Zwickey, H. L. (2014). Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 13(1), 32–44. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26770080/>
- Kim, J. Y., Kim, D. W., Hwang, B. S., Woo, E. E., Lee, Y. J., Jeong, K. W., Lee, I. K., & Yun, B. S. (2016). Neuraminidase Inhibitors from the Fruiting Body of Phellinus igniarius. Mycobiology, 44(2), 117–120. <https://doi.org/10.5941/MYCO.2016.44.2.117>
- Zhu, Q., Bang, T. H., Ohnuki, K., Sawai, T., Sawai, K., & Shimizu, K. (2015). Inhibition of neuraminidase by Ganoderma triterpenoids and implications for neuraminidase inhibitor design. Scientific reports, 5, 13194. <https://doi.org/10.1038/srep13194>
- Batbayar, S., Lee, D. H., & Kim, H. W. (2012). Immunomodulation of Fungal β-Glucan in Host Defense Signaling by Dectin-1. Biomolecules & therapeutics, 20(5), 433–445. <https://doi.org/10.4062/biomolther.2012.20.5.433>
- Macfarlane, G. T., & Macfarlane, S. (2012). Bacteria, colonic fermentation, and gastrointestinal health. Journal of AOAC International, 95(1), 50–60. <https://doi.org/10.5740/jaoacint.sge_macfarlane>