Mushrooms sure have come a long way. Not long ago, they were for the most part a squishy, tasteless pizza topping. But in recent years, mushrooms have become one of the most prized foods in functional medicine. Learn how edible mushrooms can boost your health.
If you’ve ever needed motivation to eat healthier, hopefully a pandemic will serve as the catalyst. And one of the healthiest foods you can consume these days (and for the rest of your life) to support your immune system is edible mushrooms.
Are you familiar with the quote attributed to the Greek physician, Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”?
Over 2,500 years later, the quote has proven to stand the test of time and couldn’t be more appropriate these days. And out of any food, few have proven themselves to be as therapeutic as mushrooms. In research studies, dozens of health conditions have been improved by regular consumption of them.
In fact, approximately half of all edible mushrooms contain therapeutic value. And before we dive into the medicinal benefits of mushrooms, here’s a fun fungal fact: Mushrooms are more genetically related to humans than they are to plants!
Mushrooms for a Balanced Immune System
Mushrooms support optimal health in many different ways. But these days, people are especially interested in learning about foods that boost the immune system. Edible mushrooms are one of the best foods to consume for supporting a healthy, balanced immune system.
Let’s focus on the word “balanced” in the previous sentence.
Some people may assume that a healthy immune response is a hyper, aggressive one. However, autopsies of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) patients reveal an immune response gone berserk. What causes mortality in coronavirus patients is a “cytokine storm.”
Cytokines are proteins involved in immune-cell communication. Just like just about everything else in life, you can always have too much of a good thing. And with a cytokine storm, that’s precisely what happens.
The coronavirus enters the cells and starts replicating. In a healthy immune system, cytokines mobilize immune cells to wage war against the rogue viral cells. However, in patients with compromised immune systems, cytokines flood the lungs, essentially drowning the patients. Even mucus-suctioning equipment and ventilators are powerless to prevent a fatal cytokine storm.
So what we want is a balanced immune response, one in which the “Goldilocks” amount of cytokines and other pathogen-fighting immune cells come to the rescue.
How Do Mushrooms Support a Balanced Immune System?
Reishi mushrooms have become quite popular in recent years. Although you’ll be hard-pressed to find whole, raw reishi at your local supermarket, natural supplements with reishi are readily available.
Here’s how reishi supports a balanced immune system: it encourages the production of macrophages. Think of macrophages as mini vacuum cleaners that suck up harmful microorganisms. Reishi also boosts the levels of protective white blood cells called natural killer cells (NK cells).
Many edible mushrooms are considered adaptogenic herbs (which you can learn more about in this blog post.) Adaptogens are the gold-standard of medicinal plants (and fungus). They help the body adapt to stressors of all kinds, including viral attacks. And by normalizing the body’s response to stress, mushrooms encourage a balanced immune response.
And as mentioned in this blog post, in which Miracle Noodle founder, Dr. Jonathan Carp lists the ultimate immune-boosting foods, one of the health-promoting compounds in mushrooms is beta-glucan. Beta glucan is a soluble fiber that helps your immune system stay young by balancing the levels of T cells.
Another way in which mushrooms benefit the immune system is by increasing cell-to-cell communication within the immune system.
While that may not seem very critical, especially in the fight against a pandemic, consider that the strength of your immune system very much depends on intracellular communication.
Cells need to communicate with each other to find cells that have been overtaken by the virus, as well as to rally the perfect amount of immune cells to neutralize the viral attack.
Another popular mushroom, and one that you can find in supermarkets is shiitake. Shiitake activates a particular antibody called immunoglobulin A, which plays a vital role in maintaining balanced moisture levels in mucous membranes.
Do Mushrooms Have Lots of Nutrients?
Mushrooms are very nutrient-dense. They contain B vitamins, essential amino acids, and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, potassium, and copper. Very few foods contain natural sources of vitamin D. But mushrooms, just like humans, can obtain vitamin D from sunlight. This makes mushrooms one of the only vegan sources of vitamin D.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking eating a serving of mushrooms is enough for optimal vitamin D levels. Especially between November 1 and March 31, if you don’t live in a warm climate, you should take supplemental vitamin D3—if your blood levels are already low. (Most people are deficient in vitamin D).
The best studies on functional foods have been done on veggies, especially cruciferous ones such as broccoli. However, promising research on edible fungus reveals that they may play a critical role in preventing respiratory infections (something of interest to the global community at present).
Do you want to maintain a healthy, balanced immune system? If so, start eating and/or supplementing with edible mushrooms—don’t pick them off your pizza.