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Medicinal Mushrooms

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Medicinal Mushrooms and Their Effects on Immune Function

reishi mushrooms

Mushrooms have been valued for their medicinal and nutritional properties for five millennia. The ability of mushrooms to modulate immune functions has been scientifically studied for about 50 years and numerous studies have subsequently shown that mushrooms possess potent immune-modulating properties in addition to antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-tumorial activities.

Beta-glucans and proteoglycans are the primary biologically active compounds in mushroom fruit bodies and mycelia that impact the immune systems of mammals. Mushroom-derived beta-glucans are recognized as being potent immunological activators and modulators. In contrast to some pharmaceutical drugs which have the ability to over-stimulate the immune system, mushroom derived beta-glucans make the immune system work better without becoming overactive and thus are not contraindicated in individuals with autoimmune diseases, allergies, or yeast infections. In fact, research has shown that mushrooms can be very useful in the treatment of autoimmune and allergic conditions.

The most active forms of beta-glucans are those comprised of D-glucose units linked to one another at the (1,3) position with side chains of D-glucose units attached at the (1,6) position. Mushrooms are rich sources of these beta-1,3/1,6 glucans. Mushroom proteoglycans (also called polysaccharide peptides), consisting of a central, linear core of proteins (polypeptides) to which are attached multiple, branched chains of beta-glucans, are thought to have greater immune-modulating activity than the corresponding free glucans. Mushroom beta-glucan polysaccharides tend to be very high molecular-weight compounds. Several studies have suggested that these large, very complex polysaccharide chains have a greater immunological benefit than the isolated, derivative polysaccharides of lower molecular weight. It has been theorized that the human immune system is stimulated by the sequential decomposition of these high-molecular-weight polysaccharides into synergistic subcomponents.

The mechanism of action of beta-glucans is to actually bind to receptor sites on the cell surface of immune cells such as macrophages. The beta-glucans are recognized by our immune system as “nonself” molecules, thus stimulating and activating the immune system by their presence. Structurally different beta-glucans have different affinities to different receptor sites and thus generate markedly different results. The complexity of beta-glucan structures in higher fungi results in a broad-based immune response. While beta-glucan polysaccharides are the most well-known and researched immunomodulatory compounds found in mushrooms, they are by no means the only class of compounds that have been found to have profound and beneficial effects on the immune systems of mammals. Fungal alpha glucans, prebiotic dietary fibers, Vitamin D2, peptides, lectins, chitin, antioxidants (glutathione, ergothioneine, polyphenols, flavonoids), selenium compounds and many types of immunomodulating fungal proteins such as lectins, ribosome inactivating proteins, antifungal proteins, ribonucleases, and ubiquitin-like proteins have also been found to have supportive effects on our immune systems.

The complex nutritional matrix of nutrients, dietary fiber and fungal enzymes in medicinal mushroom mycelial biomass also has been shown to have a beneficial effect on digestion and the functioning of our gastro-intestinal tract. Science has recognized that 80 to 90% of all human diseases originate in our digestive tract. A healthy digestive system can more completely digest food molecules that can contribute to a reduction of immune “triggers” (often resulting in chronic inflammation and/or allergic reactions) and toxic loads. Mushroom mycelial biomass products which include the extra-cellular enzymes produced by the mycelium, are a rich source of a variety of enzymes that can supplement our digestive systems. In general, enzymes derived from fungi are superior to animal-derived enzymes for dietary supplementation because they are effective over a wider range of pH conditions.

Beyond the beneficial effects on digestive processes, protease enzyme complexes have been shown in in vitro studies to activate monocytes and macrophages—two early response immune cells—as well as interferon (“interferes" with pathogens) and TNF-alpha (destroys cells).

Several species of medicinal mushrooms are valued for their adaptogenic activities that support the body’s ability to cope with stress from within and without. The adaptogenic activities of mushrooms also function to support the immune system. While short-term stress can enhance immune response, chronic or long-term stress in linked to numerous immune health problems including:

  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Premature aging of the immune system
  • Enhance risk and illness and age-related diseases
  • Increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infection (URT)

The link between chronic stress and immune function is complex and involves pituitary and hypothalamic hormones along with immune system cells, predominantly the white blood cells (leukocytes). The body reacts to a stressor by releasing hormones such as cortisol to restore homeostasis. However, the continued release of cortisol negatively impacts immune function. The adaptogenic, stress-relieving activities of mushroom species such as Reishi, Cordyceps, and Lion’s Mane can help to increase the resistance of the body against stressors and therefore increase the threshold level at which stress becomes a chronic condition that adversely affects the immune system.

Scientists continue to discover “new” biologically active compounds in mushrooms on a regular basis. While extracted medicinal mushroom products may contain high concentrations of certain active ingredients present in mushrooms, many other biologically active compounds are either discarded or destroyed in the extraction process. Additionally, more is not always better in healing modalities. The activity of mushrooms against pathogens and aberrant cell growth is not direct but rather via a host-mediated response that involves a cascade of immune and cell signaling events. Just as it does not take large amounts of an injected vaccine to effect an immune response, it does not necessarily take large or concentrated amounts of mushroom beta-glucans to effect significant immune responses. “Full-spectrum”, non-extracted mushroom products contain a complex nutritional matrix of biologically active compounds that function to elicit broad-based immune and immunity-supporting responses.

Mushrooms have been valued for their medicinal and nutritional properties for five millennia. The ability of mushrooms to modulate immune functions has been scientifically studied for about 50 years and numerous studies have subsequently shown that mushrooms possess potent immune-modulating properties in addition to antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-tumorial activities.

Beta glucans and proteoglycans are the primary biologically active compounds in mushroom fruit bodies and mycelia that impact the immune systems of mammals. Mushroom-derived beta glucans are recognized as being potent immunological activators and modulators. In contrast to some pharmaceutical drugs which have the ability to over-stimulate the immune system, mushroom derived beta glucans make the immune system work better without becoming overactive and thus are not contraindicated in individuals with autoimmune diseases, allergies, or yeast infections. In fact, research has shown that mushrooms can be very useful in the treatment of autoimmune and allergic conditions.

The most active forms of beta glucans are those comprised of D-glucose units linked to one another at the (1,3) position with side chains of D-glucose units attached at the (1,6) position. Mushrooms are rich sources of these beta-1,3/1,6 glucans. Mushroom proteoglycans (also called polysaccharide peptides), consisting of a central, linear core of proteins (polypeptides) to which are attached multiple, branched chains of beta glucans, are thought to have greater immune-modulating activity than the corresponding free glucans. Mushroom beta glucan polysaccharides tend to be very highmolecular-weight compounds. Several studies have suggested that these large, very complex polysaccharide chains have a greater immunological benefit than the isolated, derivative polysaccharides of lower molecular weight. It has been theorized that the human immune system is stimulated by the sequential decomposition of these high-molecular-weight polysaccharides into synergistic subcomponents.

The mechanism of action of beta glucans is to actually bind to receptor sites on the cell surface of immune cells such as macrophages. The beta glucans are recognized by our immune system as “nonself” molecules, thus stimulating and activating the immune system by their presence. Structurally different beta glucans have different affinities to different receptor sites and thus generate markedly different results. The complexity of beta glucan structures in higher fungi result in a broad-based immune response. While beta glucan polysaccharides are the most well-known and researched immunomodulatory compounds found in mushrooms, they are by no means the only class of compounds that have been found to have profound and beneficial effects on the immune systems of mammals. Fungal alpha glucans, prebiotic dietary fibers, Vitamin D2, peptides, lectins, chitin, antioxidants (glutathione, ergothioneine, polyphenols, flavonoids), selenium compounds and many types of immunomodulating fungal proteins such as lectins, ribosome inactivating proteins, antifungal proteins, ribonucleases, and ubiquitin-like proteins have also been found to have supportive effects on our immune systems.

The complex nutritional matrix of nutrients, dietary fiber and fungal enzymes in medicinal mushroom mycelial biomass also has been shown to have a beneficial effect on digestion and the functioning of our gastro-intestinal tract. Science has recognized that 80 to 90% of all human diseases originate in our digestive tract. A healthy digestive system can more completely digest food molecules that can contribute to a reduction of immune “triggers” (often resulting in chronic inflammation and/or allergic reactions) and toxic loads. Mushroom mycelial biomass products which include the extra-cellular enzymes produced by the mycelium, are a rich source of a variety of enzymes that can supplement our digestive systems. In general, enzymes derived from fungi are superior to animal-derived enzymes for dietary supplementation because they are effective over a wider range of pH conditions.

Beyond the beneficial effects on digestive processes, protease enzyme complexes have been shown in in vitro studies to activate monocytes and macrophages—two early response immune cells—as well as interferon (“interferes" with pathogens) and TNF-alpha (destroys cells).

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