by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Is it too early to start thinking about cold and flu season? Not at all. Vacations are over, the kids are back in school, and doctor’s offices have already ordered this year’s flu vaccine. The inevitable wave of viral infections can’t be far behind. Even a mild cold or flu can mean time away from work and schedules thrown into disarray. Fortunately, we have a number of ways to support strong immunity, which can help us fight these infections or—hopefully, with diligence—avoid them altogether.
First, you need to give the immune system what it needs: nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods, quality sleep, reduced stress, and exercise. On the food side, focus on low-sugar fruits and green vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables. Choose lean proteins and healthy fats and avoid sugary and processed foods. Research is also showing that maintaining healthy gut flora is vital to strong immunity, so be sure to include cultured foods in your daily fare, such as unsweetened yogurt or kefir or fermented vegetables like raw sauerkraut or kimchi.
There are many herbs and nutrients that are known for their abilities to boost immunity and help prevent illness. Echinacea is quite popular, as are zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, D, C, and E. I also recommend modified citrus pectin and astragalus root, as both have extensive research behind them and offer additional health benefits. Perhaps not surprisingly, Grandma’s traditional remedy, chicken soup, has been shown to provide immune benefits against viruses.
However, if you need to pick one category of foods or botanicals that provides the most comprehensive immune support, choose medicinal mushrooms, the kings of immune modulation.
Mushrooms and Immunity
One secret to mushrooms’ success is found in their cells’ walls, which contain complex carbohydrates called beta-glucans. Once inside the body, beta-glucans have a powerful impact on the immune system. For example, these molecules can attach to and activate macrophages, the immune cells that search and destroy pathogens and other invaders. Beta-glucans also influence lymphocytes, T-cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and other immune components. They seem to energize them, making them more effective at fighting off disease. Because beta-glucans interact with such a wide variety of immune cells, they have a broad effect on the immune system.
If mushrooms only super-charged the immune system, that by itself would be an important benefit. But their activity is a lot more nuanced. They don’t simply boost immunity; they also optimize it. In other words, they seem to train immune cells to respond appropriately to any perceived threats. If the threat is a pathogen, mushrooms aid the immune system to attack efficiently and appropriately, neither underreacting nor overreacting.
This can be helpful for people who are trying to build up their immunity, as well as those who might be concerned about an autoimmune response. Mushrooms “modulate,” or regulate, rather than stimulate—which is an important distinction.
For example, medicinal mushrooms can help control over-activity of certain immune cells including T-helper cells, which when imbalanced, are linked to the rampant inflammation that characterizes some autoimmune disorders. That’s why mushrooms can have a beneficial impact on patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and similar inflammatory immune conditions.
A Wide Range of Benefits
Because mushrooms provide broad immune support, they are key adjuncts in any effort to ward off disease. Intelligent and strong immunity lifts all boats. In addition to regulating immunity, medicinal varieties also provide direct antiviral activity, which can be helpful against colds, flus, and other pathogens. This is obviously important as we approach the winter season.
A number of studies have found that some mushrooms have a powerful therapeutic effect against cancer, too. Specifically, they seem to reduce cancer cell proliferation and angiogenesis, the processes by which tumors grow and attract new blood vessels, ultimately spurring metastasis.
Finally, mushrooms can be quite helpful in detoxifying the body. Their porous structure acts like a sponge and allows them to absorb toxins, which also means that we need to pay attention to where and how they are grown.
Medicinal Mushrooms Offer Unique Benefits
Because beta-glucans are a diverse family of carbohydrates, and because different mushrooms contain different beta-glucans, along with numerous other therapeutic compounds, it’s helpful to blend a variety of mushrooms to support different aspects of immunity and long-term health.
Here are some brief descriptions of several prized medicinal mushrooms and their attributes:
- Agaricus blazei modulates immunity by promoting interferon and interleukin activity. This species also helps control cholesterol and blood sugar.
- Cordyceps sinensis supports phagocyte, macrophage, and natural killer cell activity. These mushrooms are also good for cardiovascular health, increasing oxygenation and good HDL cholesterol and lowering harmful LDL cholesterol.
- Coriolus versicolor contains beta-1 and beta-4 glucans, and is known for its anti-cancer activity. Coriolus can also synergize with radiation therapy and protect against side effects.
- Ganoderma lucidum contains beta-D-glucans and supports cardiovascular health and offers anti-inflammatory and immune supporting benefits in conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.
- Grifola frondosa slows tumor growth and reduces cancer proliferation. This mushroom also regulates blood sugar and supports a strong metabolism.
- Polyporus umbellatus has shown anti-cancer activity and is also known to reduce the side effects associated with chemotherapy. Polyporus can also reduce the symptoms associated with hepatitis.
All of these mushrooms can be purchased individually, and some are part of formulas. I particularly recommend a six-mushroom formula that is grown on a substrate of organic brown rice and immune-supporting herbs, a matrix that gives even more power to the mushrooms’ immune benefits. Particularly important, the mushrooms in this formula are grown in a controlled indoor environment, preventing their contamination by environmental toxins.
When preparing for the winter season, it’s best to take a multi-pronged approach. That means fine-tuning your lifestyle with the right foods and nutrients, exercising regularly, practicing healthy stress relief, and supplementing wisely. With a long history of use in traditional medicinal systems and recent research supporting their numerous benefits, medicinal mushrooms are an integral part of any immune-enhancing program.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.