Medicinal Mushrooms: Immunological Adaptogens and Gut Health Helpers

Medicinal Mushrooms: Immunological Adaptogens and Gut Health Helpers

Mushrooms have been eaten by humans for thousands of years. There are tens of thousands of different mushrooms species, of which six are cultivated for food in North America. There are about ten “choice edibles,” wild mushrooms for which people forage because they’re especially tasty. In Asia, they cultivate approximately twenty different mushrooms. At any time, you might see at least a dozen of those in an Asian market.

Jeff Chilton, co-author of The Mushroom Cultivator*, founder of NAMMEX (North American Medical Mushrooms Extracts), and my most recent guest on The Perfect Stool podcast, introduced medicinal mushrooms to the supplement market in the United States in 1990. He started NAMMEX in 1989, at a time when no U.S. company offered mushroom-based supplements, even though mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. This is partly due to the high cost of cultivating mushrooms in the United States. Developing mushroom supplements is even more expensive. For example, while fresh mushrooms may sell for $5 a pound, once they’re dried, it’s $50 per pound because the process of drying is more involved. Mushrooms, like a lot of vegetables, are 90% water. So the economics of mushrooms as supplements do not work in the United States. For this reason, no mushrooms are grown the United States for supplement use; NAMMEX grows all of its mushrooms in China.

The most important attribute for medicinal mushrooms is their ability to modulate the immune system. Mushrooms contain compounds called beta-glucans. In fact, their cell walls are made up of approximately 50 percent of these beta-glucans. A large body of scientific research has demonstrated that beta-glucans express immunological activity. Mushrooms are often working in the background – so when your immunity is low and you get frequent colds, that’s when mushrooms can stimulate the production of immune cells, including macrophages, NK cells, or T killer cells. The key takeaway is that mushrooms modulate our immunity, which means they help potentiate and strengthen our immunity when we need it; but if our immunity is fine, they don’t do anything.

This is why many people would call mushrooms adaptogens. Adaptogens are non-specific: they sit in the background, available to help when needed. That’s why it’s so important to either include mushrooms in your diet or supplement regularly to enjoy their benefits. It’s not recommended that you supplement with mushrooms for a week or two, stop for a week or two and then start again. Rather, Jeff Chilton recommends that before considering supplementation, everyone include mushrooms in their regular diet as a very healthy food.

There has not been a lot of specific research about gut health issues with medicinal mushrooms. However, chaga mushrooms have been used traditionally for gut issues. Chaga is interesting because it doesn’t even look like a mushroom. It is not cultivated, but wild-crafted. It comes about very irregularly from what is called a canker that grows off of trees when a fungus has attacked a tree. Jeff Chilton suggests chaga as potentially helpful for Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Crohn’s disease, for example. Mushrooms also have a very high level of fiber, which directly feeds the microbiome. Some species are so high in fiber that scientists have suggested they should be processed and sold as a fiber supplement. So that’s a key way in which they help the gut microbiome.

Information in this article was adapted from my interview with Jeff Chilton on episode 33 of my podcast: The Perfect Stool: Understanding and Healing the Gut Microbiome.

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