When we predicted nearly a decade ago that medicinal mushrooms would take off as science revealed the basis behind Traditional Chinese Medicine’s (TCM) extensive embrace of fungi for health, “pandemic” had not become a household — or housebound — word. 

When mushroom teas, powders, and concentrates did indeed start to take off in the late 2010s, the timing could not have been more efficacious. American consumers had an awareness of medicinal mushrooms that gave food and beverage developers targeting immune health an easier task in marketing such products.

In addition to TCM, virtually all ancient cultures — from South and Central American to African and Middle Eastern, as well as ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman — all turned to the thousands of known species of fungi to make potions, powders, and extracts, or even just a side dish designed to treat every known ailment.

In addition to macronutrients like protein, mushrooms contain minerals such as potassium and selenium, an antioxidant. They also are a source of several B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, folate, and B12) plus C, D, and E. In fact, they are one of the only viable non-animal sources for vitamin D, now recognized as a major component in immunity. Decades of modern research have revealed mushrooms to be repositories of not only multiple nutrients but also powerful medicinal bioactive mycochemicals. These include various alkaloids, flavonoids, and phenolic and terpenoid compounds.

There’s more: mushrooms and their distant cousins, yeasts, contain beta-glucans, which give dual support to the immune system by having prebiotic action to promote digestive health as well as enhancing the performance of macrophages and the natural killer cells known as lymphocytes.
A review of the research published in the clinical journal Integrative Medicine, “Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms,” pointed to Agaricus blazei (royal sun agaricus, matsutake), Cordyceps sinensis, Grifola frondosa (hen-of-the-woods), Ganoderma lucidum (reishi), and Trametes versicolor (turkey tail) as having special properties for protecting the body against cancer.

The authors of the review pointed out that, “it is well-established that mushrooms are adept at immune modulation, and affect hematopoietic stem cells, lymphocytes, macrophages, T cells, dendritic cells, and natural killer cells.” They also noted that research supports these and other mushroom species as having “antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular-protective, antidiabetic, hepatoprotective, and anticancer properties.”

Of the five mushrooms listed, only the matsutake and hen-of-the-woods are practical for food products; the others are often used in teas and other decoctions. But other mushrooms that exhibit immune-protective capacity and are not only edible but flavorful include oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) shiitake (Lentinula edodes), enokitake (Flammulina velutipes), and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus).