Mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years. The primary reason that we use mushrooms for medicinal purposes is that they contain beneficial compounds called beta-glucans that boost immune function. On their own, beta-glucans deliver antiviral and immunity-strengthening properties. Taking beta-glucans reduces the length and severity of upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold and flu.
What Are Beta-Glucans?
Beta-glucans are a group of polysaccharides found in the cell walls of mushrooms, seaweed, and whole grains. Beta-glucans derived from yeast and fungi are known for their immunomodulating properties. They also help nourish the gut microbiota and augment the action of immune cells.
There are hundreds of strains of mushrooms. The three that most effectively support the immune system are shiitake, maitake, and chaga.
Shiitake mushrooms have long been used in traditional Asian medicine. They increase the number of immune cells, including T-cells, which fight specific kinds of viruses, and natural killer cells, which kill a variety of virally infected cells and tumors. Shiitake also boosts the secretion of antibodies that protect the digestive tract and reduces C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
Commonly used in cuisine, maitake mushrooms were shown in preclinical studies to activate some of the first immune cells to fight an infection, including natural killer cells and macrophages Extracts of maitake also induce the secretion of interferons, proteins that improve the body’s ability to defend against infection.
Chaga mushrooms are one of my favorites. Chaga mushrooms that are grown on alder, beech, birch, and various other hardwood trees, are powerful immunomodulators. When scientists treated mice with a drug that inhibits immune system activity, chaga extract returned levels of immune cells almost back to normal. It also kept down levels of tumor necrosis factor, a marker of inflammation. In preclinical studies, chaga demonstrated antiviral activity against a wide range of viruses, including influenza, herpes, hepatitis C, HIV, and others.
Activating the Immune System
Mushrooms contain numerous health-promoting compounds. But the most powerful and bioactive immune supporters are beta-glucans. Beta-glucans bind to receptors found on an assortment of cells important for immunity. This boosts the functions of these cells, helping them defend against infection and other threats.
Two types of immune responses are:
- Innate immunity, which forms the body’s first line of defense, is accomplished by immune cells including macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells.
- Adaptive immunity cells include lymphocytes, such as B-cells and T-cells. These are the specialists brought in later to fight off specific threats, like a particular bacteria or virus. Adaptive immunity helps the body develop long-term immunity to a pathogen.
Stronger Gut Defenses
The gut microbiota is made up of the trillions of microorganisms in the digestive tract. Beneficial populations of these microorganisms are critical to fighting infections and maintaining optimal overall health. Mushrooms and beta-glucans encourage the growth of healthy microbiota. The benefits don’t stop there. When beneficial bacteria consume beta-glucans, they produce short-chain fatty acids as a byproduct. Among other benefits, these fatty acids:
- Reduce harmful inflammation,
- support a healthy gut lining,
- defend against cancer, and
- help regulate appetite and metabolism.
Combining beta-glucans with immune-supporting mushrooms may help maximize the function of the immune system and much more.
Beta-glucan is a type of sugar you can find in medicinal mushrooms, oats, seaweed, and more. This little-known ingredient could help ensure a healthy gut and support the immune system. By enhancing the activity of natural killer cells, beta-glucan can stimulate the immune system and potentially lead to a more effective defensive barrier. Whether you add some shitake mushrooms to a soup or whip up a smoothie with a complete mushroom powder, you can start experiencing the benefits of beta-glucan.
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