How do Mushrooms Support the Immune System? (SQ-132)
More than ever, we are motivated to strengthen our immune system to prevent the common cold and the more troublesome flu. The immune system not only protects against illness, but it also supports healthy moods, gastrointestinal processes, and more.
You may have dabbled in several natural alternatives to bolster your immune system, and you wouldn’t be alone in doing so. However, there are very few supplements, foods or vitamins that can reduce the duration of an infection, let alone prevent it from occurring altogether.
In saying that, one organism, the oldest on land, is a powerhouse of survival. It possesses an array of sophisticated compounds that can effectively strengthen the human immune system.
Yes, we are talking about Fungi, mushrooms to be specific.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used by many different cultures for thousands of years. For example, practitioners of Eastern medicine have understood and harnessed the regenerative properties of mushrooms for millennia, with the West only catching up recently.
Mushrooms, particularly when utilised in conjunction with other therapies, can help your body to bounce back faster and more thoroughly after an illness or injury.
How Does The Immune System Fight Viral Infections?
The body has different methods of response to illness: the innate and the adaptive immune systems.
Innate Immune Defense Systems
Think of the symptoms you commonly battle when a cold or flu strike: chills, cough, blocked sinuses, fever, and more. This is evidence of the body’s innate immune system hard at work.
Our first line of defense against illness and infection in the innate immune system includes protection against pathogens that enter through our skin, mucous membranes, and the gut. If a virus manages to get past this first line of defense, the innate immune system gets to work using the second line of defense.
Specifically, inflammatory cells are sent to the site of the infection. Or more specifically, defense cells that are already present at the site are activated.
Then, soluble protein substances are activated, offering further defense. The result? An inflammatory reaction that causes increased blood circulation, which you may experience as a fever.
Scientists have discovered that medicinal mushrooms contain bioactive compounds that can stimulate the production of immune system cells. These cells are known as Natural Killer cells, T cells, B cells, and macrophages.
Adaptive Immune Defense Systems
Luckily, there is a back-up plan if the innate immune system can’t manage to fight the infection. The adaptive immune system is there to offer extra defense. This secondary system takes about four to seven days after the exposure to the pathogen to kick into action. While the initial action is delayed, it fights infection in a much more targeted and precise way, when compared to the innate immune system.
It’s important to note that the innate and adaptive systems aren’t mutually exclusive, as they often work together.
The adaptive immune system features different methods of reacting to infection, depending on where in the body the infection resides. For example, if the pathogens are circulating in the blood and bodily fluids (outside the cells), the adaptive immune system will create antibodies to destroy these pathogens. If the pathogens are inside the tissue, the adaptive immune system will launch a cell-mediated response. The adaptive immune defense system includes weapons such as T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, antibodies (as soluble proteins in the blood), and cytokines in the tissue and blood.
How Your Body Develops Immunity to a Pathogen?
Your adaptive immune system is where immune defenses develop to fight specific infections. Immune cells can remember foreign invaders they have dealt with in the past, making the defense response faster and more efficient. This explains why you only get certain viruses once, such as chickenpox, as only one bout makes you immune to the virus.
This is how vaccinations work; by introducing a version of the virus to the body, so those smart “memory cells” can develop. If you do encounter the virus later down the track, your natural defense system is ready and waiting to eliminate it.
Medicinal mushrooms can increase the activity of key immune system cells, supporting the immune system in the fight against foreign pathogens.
Medicinal Mushrooms Can Modulate & Stimulate Immune System Cells & Processes
Research has proven that medicinal mushrooms can effectively modulate the immune system and immune cell activators. For example, they impact the production and application of T cells, B cells, antibodies, macrophages, and cytokines, all part of the adaptive immune system.
Specifically, certain types of mushrooms can modify cytokines, pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory messengers which the immune cells release. Interestingly, certain cytokines can suppress white blood cells, making you more vulnerable to illness. However, mushrooms can reduce the body’s inflammatory response to cytokines and allow T cells, B cells, and antibodies to be more effective. Studies show that mushrooms have the ability to stimulate or suppress anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory cytokines according to what the body requires. Your immune system can respond to any biological occurrence in your body: this is called immunomodulation:
“Mushrooms can increase inflammatory cytokines at the start of an infection (which is what you need to fight off a virus naturally) but afterwards they become anti-inflammatory, to the extreme, in the next phase of the illness. Herbs and mushrooms are immune modulators, meaning they can adjust how they are affecting the body based on need in the moment.”
What’s more, evidence shows that active compounds in mushrooms can help with influenza viral modulation. They do this by inhibiting the enzymes that viruses use to replicate themselves. It is this mechanism that most antiviral drugs are based on.
Not only do medicinal mushrooms stimulate the immune system, but they regulate it.
Key Compounds in Mushrooms: Polysaccharides and Beta-glucan
Mushrooms are excellent sources of polysaccharides, (bioactive compounds), such as beta-glucans. These help to build and maintain the structure of cells. The innate immune system can identify infections by using pattern-recognition receptors (PRR). These receptors read and recognize the molecular patterns of infection-specific molecules.
Polysaccharides (such as beta-glucans) are large, meaning they cannot penetrate cells. Instead, cells bind to pattern-recognition receptors on other cells. The immune system recognizes beta-glucans as “non-self molecules”, stimulating the innate and adaptive immune systems to respond, protecting against attacks from pathogens.
Reishi mushrooms are a well-researched mushroom variety proven to boost the innate and adaptive immune systems. You can eat reishi mushrooms as part of your balanced diet or take a mushroom supplement that does not contain fillers or by-products. Another great aspect of medicinal mushrooms is that they can support your immune system no matter your age.
How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
Evidence suggests that medical mushrooms can greatly strengthen the immune system. However, they cannot do it alone. It is best to take a holistic approach to your overall health, including diet, sleep, exercise, and smart lifestyle choices.
Nutrition and Immune Defense
Your body requires proper nutrition to fight off infection. After all, over 70% of your immune function is located in your gastrointestinal system, (the stomach, small, and large intestines). These are the sites where your body produces and regulates the hormones and neurotransmitters that are responsible for keeping you healthy.
The best way to support your health and immunity is to eat a diet filled with whole foods including complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and veggies, meat and fish, and healthy fats.
Mushrooms, either in food form or as a supplement, are a prebiotic food. This means that they provide fuel for the healthy bacteria living in your gut. Prebiotics and probiotics work together to create an optimal environment for healthy bacteria to thrive.
Excellent sources of prebiotics include:
- Garlic, onions, and leeks
- Jerusalem artichoke and asparagus
- Bananas and apples
- Barley, oats, wheat bran, and flaxseed
Great sources of probiotics include:
- Yogurt, kefir, and kombucha
- Pickles and sauerkraut
- Fermented foods such as tempeh, kimchi, and miso
- Gouda, cheddar, mozzarella and cottage cheeses that contain live or active cultures
Combined with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat, seafood, and healthy fats (like extra virgin olive oil), these foods can greatly improve your immune system. However, sleep is just as important as nutrition when it comes to helping your body fight pathogens and “snap back” after illness.
The Importance of Sleep for Bolstering Immune Function
Sleep deprivation can cause damage to the immune system as it interferes with cytokine modulation. When you are sleep deprived, your body is slow to respond to foreign invaders and is impaired in its ability to react to pathogens. Not only does this mean you are more likely to get sick, but you may be sicker for longer.
To optimize your immune system and overall health, aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
Tips for optimizing your sleep quality and schedule:
- Drown out distracting noises in the home by using a white noise machine.
- Check the temperature of your bedroom. It should be between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius. Excess heat can cause restless sleep.
- Create and stick to a sleep/wake schedule and try not to deviate from it on weekends and holidays. This will support and optimize your circadian rhythm.
- Build a workout into your day, even a 10-minute blast will relieve stress and reduce cortisol levels, both of which can disrupt sleep.
- Steer clear of coffee and alcohol before bed, as these can disrupt your sleep patterns, and they can compromise immunity and cause digestive issues.
- Find ways to induce restfulness and relaxation, such as meditation or stretching.
- Avoid artificial light, (especially from phones and computers) past sunset, as it can hinder melatonin secretion. Melatonin is the “sleep hormone” that is also a strong antioxidant that supports the immune system.
Keeping your immune system strong is a crucial aspect of maintaining good overall health. You can provide your body with the tools it requires (some of which are covered here) to combat infection and recover more quickly if you do get sick.
Specifically, medicinal mushrooms can boost immunity effectively, a fact based on thousands of years of practice in medicine around the world. Now that you’re informed of the power of mushrooms, you can make food and supplement choices to incorporate these wonderful Fungi.