Mushrooms! Can They Really Help Your Immune System?

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In light of the apparently epic demise of my immune system over winter, I finally decided it was time to investigate a seemingly simple way of ‘boosting my immune system’ that I caught wind of some time ago: mushrooms.

Always somewhat partial to a bit of self-experimentation, I got hold of some ‘Coriolus versicolor’ tablets that were recommended to me by a nutritionist. According to the back of the packet, these tablets consist quite literally of Coriolus versicolor biomass. In other words, the tablets seem to simply be a convenient way of ingesting the mushroom.

Lo and behold! After successfully contracting a flu-like illness from my parents during a weekend away, I returned to uni and upped my intake to the maximum dose (as instructed by said nutritionist) and beat the both of them to full recovery within a few days, whilst they were still suffering more than a week later. Of course, this is totally unscientific. However, it has sparked my curiosity, and I thought I would take the opportunity to see if I could find some more information about whether mushrooms truly can benefit your immune system and, if so, how this is possible.

Coriolus Versicolor. Credit: Dake via Wikimedia Commons

Though fairly unexplored in Western medicine, there have been a huge number of claims that certain mushrooms have a beneficial effect on the immune system and can even inhibit tumour growth. Both wild and cultivated varieties are a rich source of both nutritional as well as antimicrobial and antifungal compounds. These compounds may even be of great use when it comes to tackling the current issue of drug resistance in pathogenic bacteria.

The medicinal properties of mushrooms have long been recognised in traditional Chinese medicine. Multiple studies also evidence the antitumour and immunomodulatory effects of various extracts from a number of mushrooms such as the polysaccharide-protein complex (PSPC) isolated from the edible mushroom, Tricholoma lobayense, and lectins from another edible mushroom, Tricholoma mongolicum. Interestingly, in an experiment from the 90s, preparations of the mushroom I took (Coriolus versicolor) appeared to activate cells of the immune system (specifically lymphocytes and macrophages) in mice. Furthermore, a 2015 study showed that Coriolus versicolor mushroom polysaccharides can also bind and activate B cells (important white blood cells of the immune system) in mice, and the results of a study carried out in 2012 suggested that this mushroom enhanced the ‘innate immune response’ in a species of fish and gave them protection against a specific bacterium.

In 2001 Dr John Wilkinson of the herbal medicine department at Middlesex University told the BBC:

The West is now well aware of herbal medicines. The next class of natural medicines will be mushrooms.

In fact, my basic internet research brought a whole load of studies to my attention detailing the fabulous antitumour and immunomodulatory effects of various mushroom extracts. So why, in 2018, do we still not come across their use by doctors more often? Unfortunately, whilst mushrooms are being recommended by practitioners of more alternative medicines, we still need more clinical trials to thoroughly assess their efficacy before they can be marketed as ‘medical treatments’ for preventing and curing illnesses. Of course, it’s really important that we thoroughly study new remedies in people before they can be prescribed. Nicholas P. Money, a professor of botany at Miami University, stresses that,

We should be very wary when we read about the seemingly miraculous properties of lingzhi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, chaga, and other fungi.

However, many seem to agree that mushrooms have great potential. One such individual is Paul Stamets, who has not only received great recognition for his work as a mycologist but is also the founder and president of a company who distribute mushroom supplements. So, while we may not be seeing ‘shrooms crop up at the doctor’s at the moment, perhaps it is something to look forward to in the future.

For now, anyway, I’m happy to continue playing guinea pig and carry on taking my handy-dandy Coriolus versicolor tablets. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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