The Real Science behind the Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are hella trendy nowadays, but how do they even work? From powders in your coffee to vitamins with mushrooms added, the shroom-boom continues to mushroom — but as a skeptic of, well, everything, I needed to know how exactly these immune-boosting fungi work.
Thankfully, I’ve got a few friends in the pharmaceutical and molecular biology space that were willing to very patiently walk me through the science behind it all. In order for their patience and time to be properly accounted for, I do believe it’s in everyone’s best interest to have access to this information, so, without further ado — here are the 9 most common medicinal mushrooms you’ll likely hear about these days, along with just how they work in the body (and how they’ve been used in the past).
Disclaimer: I’m neither a mycologist nor a doctor. I fully respect Paul Stamets and all the mycophiles out there, as well as all the researchers and doctors. I am, however, an incredibly anal human being that wants to know exactly how the things I consume affect (or don’t affect) my body — and that is how this document came to be.
These mushrooms are listed in no particular order of importance.
#1: Turkey Tail
Scientific: Trametes versicolor (coriolus versicolor)
English: Turkey tail
Chinese: Yun Zhi
How it works:
Turkey tail mushrooms activate an immune response that can be exploited for global health purposes. Turkey tail mushrooms are rich in 2-specific types of sugars (in the beta-glucan family) called polysaccharide-k (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP). Both PSK and PSP are of beta-glucans and are recognized by the body’s immune system and trigger an immune response. Importantly, this immune response is not too potent and can be harnessed to support tissue repair and naturally increase your body’s immune activity.
PSK is a protein polysaccharide consisting of a beta-glucan β-1,4 main chain with β-1,3 and β-1,6 side chains. The approximate molecular weight of PSK is 100,000 Dalton, and the protein component is reported at the β-1,6 side chain. PSK is isolated from the “CM-101” strain of Turkey tail fruit bodies. The analogous compound PSP is derived from the “COV-1” strain of Turkey tail fruit bodies.
Fun fact: PSK is approved for clinical use in Japan under the brand name Krestin. It’s used as an adjunctive therapy (aka in conjunction with chemo/radiation) for cancer patients to naturally support the body’s immune system. Similarly, PSP is used as a dietary supplement for the same purposes.
Scientific: Cordyceps sinensis and militaris
English: Caterpillar fungus
Chinese: Dong Chong Xia Cao
How it works:
In addition to beta-glucans and triterpenes, Cordyceps contain several nucleoside analogs (the building blocks of DNA/RNA) including cordycepin that interrupt DNA/RNA synthesis in humans. Inhibiting DNA/RNA synthesis (aka cellular division and protein synthesis) and reverse transcription (incorporating RNA into the genome in the form of DNA) is particularly useful in helping your body flight viruses (including Corona) and can be helpful in inhibiting the growth of cancer.
Cordyceps are also thought to stimulate several species of T-helper cells, prolong the survival of lymphocytes (white blood cells), enhances TNF-alpha (TNF-a) and interleukin 1 (IL-1) production, and increase the activity of natural killer cells. There is additional evidence to suggest that cordyceps also enhance the proliferation of erythroid progenitor cells (the cells that make red blood cells) in the bone marrow (perhaps as a compensation mechanism to inhibited cell proliferation or via immune signaling).
DNA is made from 4 types of nucleotide bases: adenosine, cytidine, guanosine, and thymidine1 (ATGC) and RNA contains uridine (U) in place of thymidine. Cordycepin, scientifically/chemically known as 3'-deoxyadenosine, is a form of adenosine that is missing an oxygen-hydrogen (-OH) group on the ribose sugar (structural backbone).
Because cordycepin is similar to adenosine, some enzymes cannot discriminate between the two. It can therefore participate in certain biochemical reactions including the incorporation into a DNA/RNA molecule, resulting in premature termination of protein synthesis or cell division.
Fun fact: Additionally, the Chinese government approved Cordyceps CS-4 for use in hospitals and recognizes it as a safe.
Another fun fact: Cordyceps have been shown to improve measures of exercise performance in older and younger adults, but not in well-trained athletes. They were also used in the 1993 Olympics by Japan who won gold.
Scientific: Ganoderma lucidum
Japanese: Reishi or Mannetake
Chinese: Ling Zhi
How it works:
Reishi mushrooms contain complex sugars known as beta-glucans and the building blocks for essential oils called triterpenes. Lab studies suggest that beta-glucans can stimulate the immune system to became more active. Limited data from clinical studies suggest reishi can strengthen immune response in humans. Similarly, triterpenes (specifically ganoderic- and lucidenic- acids) found in reishi mushrooms may have blood pressure-lowering and anti-allergy effects.
Reishi mushrooms use polysaccharides (beta-glucans) and triterpenes to deliver physiological benefit. Specifically, the species of beta glucans within the Reishi mushroom demonstrate antitumor and immune stimulating activities by activation of several species of immune cells such as natural killer cells and CD8+ cytotoxic T-cells. Reishi polysaccharides were also shown to increase expression of the major histocompatibility complex I (MHC-I), a key communicating protein complex that allows our cells to communicate their health with our immune system. Additionally, Reishi contains an array of triterpene compounds that are highly bioactive. Some of their functions may include the inhibition of tumor invasion by limiting attachment to endothelial cells.
Fun fact: Reishi mushrooms are one of the oldest known biological agents used for medicinal purposes.
#4: Lions Mane
Scientific: Hericium Erinaceus
English: Lions Mane
Chinese: Hou Tou Gu
How it works:
In addition to polysaccharides, Lions Mane mushrooms are rich in diterpenes that stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is necessary for neuronal survival and synaptic development, the name given when neurons connect arms with one another. Hericenones and erinacines are two of the diterpenes found in Lions Mane that can cross the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) — a protective membrane used to shield the brain from the body — to support brain health and potentially increase connectivity, which is paramount for improved cognition (memory…). Further, Lions Mane was shown to increase myelin sheath formation, aka the insulation used in nerve cells to increase the strength of their messages.
Fun fact: Lion’s mane was used topically by native American’s to stop cuts from bleeding.
Scientific: Inonotus Obliquus
Chinese: Bai Gua Rong
How it works:
Chaga mushrooms are high in beta-glucans and a specific triterpene called betulinic acid. Betulinic acid has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties and likely has synergistic effects with the naturally occurring beta-glucans. Interestingly, betulinic acid was once placed onto the National Cancer Institute’s cancer institute’s (NCI) Rapid Access to Intervention Development program for its promising results in managing cancers via direct inhibition of DNA maintenance enzyme topoisomerase and/or its activation of CB1 and CB2 (similar to cannabis). Inotodiol is another triterpene found in Chaga mushrooms and inhibits the expansion of several cancer cell lines via the mitochondria (caspase 3 mechanism).
Fun fact: Chaga was made famous in western culture via Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book Cancer Ward.
Scientific: Lentinus Edodes
Chinese: Xiang Gu
How it works:
Shiitake mushrooms contain a specific type of beta-glucan called Lentinan. In laboratory tests, lentinan did not kill cancer cells directly. Instead, it enhances the immune system, which may aid in slowing the growth of tumors. Lentinan was also shown to have direct kill power against viruses and microbes in a lab setting. Additionally, shiitake mushrooms contain a class of organic molecules called purines (similar to Reishi and likely all mushrooms). Specifically, they contain:
- Lentinan — Enhances T-helper cell function and increase stimulation of interleukin, interferon, and normal killer cells.
- Eritadenine — Competitive inhibitors of HMG-CoA reductase, the statins (Lipitor®), are produced in a large scale as cholesterol reducing pharmaceuticals. Unlike the statins, eritadenine does not inhibit the biosynthesis of cholesterol in the liver but enhances removal of blood cholesterol. The exact mechanism by which eritadenine elicits its hypo-cholesterol-emic action is not yet fully understood
Fun fact: In some countries, parenteral (preemptive use of) lentinan is classified as an antineoplastic polysaccharide and is available for clinical us1.e in Japan for the treatment of gastric cancer.
Scientific: Grifola Frondosa
English: Hen of the Woods
Chinese: Hui Shi Hua
How it works:
Maitake mushrooms contain numerous polysaccharides that are highly bioactive. Specifically, maitake mushrooms contain an alpha and beta-glucans that modify immune response and insulin sensitivity:
- MT-alpha-Glucan — MT-α-glucan are recognized by and activate dendritic cells (DC), a type of immune cell called an antigen presenting cell (APC) that activates other immune cells, particularly in the lymph nodes. It was also shown to effect enzymes related to glucose metabolism and help lower elevated blood sugar.
- Maitake-D-fractions (MDF [beta glucan]) — Is an orally effective beta-glucan that stimulates the activity/activation of immune cells including macrophages, dendritic cells, and natural killer cells. Further, it induces the activation of the Th-1 dominant responses.
- Maitake Z-fractions (MZF [beta glucan]) — Stimulates TNF-a and IL-12 secretion by dendritic cells (DC) that causes inflammation (which is synonymous with the recruitment of blood vessels that bring more immune cells, building materials and repair signals). Further, it upregulates biomarkers that are used to activate and sustain active T4 immune cells.
- GFPBW1 (beta glucan) — Stimulates TNF-a and IL-6 secretion by macrophages, a first line defense immune cell, that can aid in immune cell recruitment and/or tissue remodeling. (2mg/kg)
- GRN — Stimulates macrophages to product chemical inflammatory/repair signals called cytokines in addition to NO via the complement system2. (2mg/kg)
Scientific: Pleurotus Ostreatus
Chinese: Ping Gu
How it works:
Oyster mushrooms contain a variety of compounds with an array of benefits:
- Lovastatin3 (Mevinolin) — lowers cholesterol via by inhibiting the supply chain that feeds into cholesterol synthesis. Specifically, lovastatin inhibits HMG CoA reductase, which is the rate-limiting enzyme in cholesterol biosynthesis.
- Pleurostrin — is an antifungal peptide that is found in the fruiting bodies of oyster mushrooms.
- Ostreolysin — is a cytolytic protein isolated from oyster mushroom, caused bradycardia, myocardial ischemia and ventricular extrasystoles following intravenous injection in mice.
- Pleurotus ostreatus lectin (POL) — A lectin isolated from the fruiting bodies of oyster mushroom may contain anti-tumor activity in mice bearing sarcoma and hepatoma. The mechanism of action involves interactions with phosphatases, but the details are currently unknown.
- Pleuran — a beta-glucan isolated from oyster mushroom may reduce the risk of upper respiratory track infection.
Fun fact: Oyster mushrooms have the most characterized compounds used for therapeutic purposes. Specifically, cholesterol lowering compounds).
Scientific: Laricifomes officinalis
How it works:
F. officinalis produces a variety of secondary metabolites, a majority of which exert promising biological activities, from antiviral to anti-inflammatory, (including topically!); its methanolic extract was able to reduce the production of nitric oxide (NO), which is implicated in several inflammatory diseases including asthma.
Agarikon mushrooms contain:
- Chlorinated coumarins — antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic and antielmintic
- Lanostane-type triterpenoids — possess antitumor properties as well as antimicrobial. Specifically, fomitopsin D showed activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)
Fun fact: Agarikon was used by the Ancient Greeks to treat tuberculosis
And why does all of this matter? My journey into mushrooms began when I was quite literally overdosing on them (medicinal — nothing magical or psychological here).
Turns out, all the adaptogenic mushrooms I was putting in my coffee in the morning were really not good for me (at least in those amounts); during an annual exam, my blood markers came back so off that the nurse quite literally told me I could potentially have blood cancer, as everything else was completely normal.
I was absolutely terrified — and even more *shook* when when the hematologist had no answer either… It was only my primary physician suggested I completely stop taking the mushroom supplements daily that the blood markers returned to normal.
What was most terrifying of all, however, was that I didn’t feel bad or as though anything was wrong — so if I was not constantly on top of my annual exams, I wouldn’t have noticed this at all — which is pretty freakin’ scary when you look at how trendy mushroom supplements are these days. That’s why I only trust certain brands that I know dose mushrooms safely and effectively (MD is a fave) — because it is indeed possible to over-support (and thus, over-stress) the immune system.
Too much of any good thing makes it a bad thing — including supershrooms!