Can mushrooms improve your health? Eastern medicine has used the reishi mushroom for years because it is common in hot and humid areas of Asia. Reishi mushrooms include triterpenoids, polysaccharides and peptidoglycans, each of them contributing certain health benefits when they are eaten fresh or in powders and extracts added to other foods and drinks.
More studies are needed to prove the efficacy of these benefits, but reishi mushrooms have some solid science behind them when it comes to body health. So, how can they help you?
1. Boost Immune System
The triterpenes in the mushrooms might help lower blood pressure and anti-allergy effects, and their sterols can help the development of hormones, all of which boost immune system function.
Some studies show that reishi can affect the genes in white blood cells to boost immune function. Those genes and their pathways also contribute to anti-inflammatory effects. Some cultures go so far as to treat HIV patients with reishi mushrooms, as an immunostimulant through their beta glucans, which are complex sugars.
The beta-glucans mentioned above have been shown in studies to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. Polysaccharides and triterpenes also have cancer-preventing effects, according to multiple studies. Tumors shrunk in cancer patients taking reishi mushrooms in one small study published in the Journal of Oncology. In addition to cancer prevention, the reishi mushroom may even alleviate chemotherapy-related nausea and improve radiation therapy.
Larger studies have shown that the mushroom can lead to the death of cancer cells, and other cancer-fighting measures. Keep in mind that most of these studies have been done in test tubes and have not been measured in terms of human or even animal success.
Reishi may have better effects on certain types of cancer than others. Prostate and colorectal cancers can respond to reishi mushrooms’ effects on testosterone, but more studies are needed for conclusive evidence.
3. Fatigue and Depression Reduction
As adaptogens, reishi mushrooms help the body fight off stress. Studies have shown the mushrooms have reduced pain, body aches and mental irritability.
After taking supplements for two months, a small cohort of 132 people with neurasthenia improved in terms of headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Breast cancer survivors reported improved quality of life after one month of taking the mushroom powder, in addition to lower levels of anxiety and depression.
4. Helps Heart Health
Reishi mushrooms could increase good cholesterol and decrease triglycerides, according to a small 12-week study. Important to note that another study showed no change in those risk factors, which means more research is needed.
5. Regulates Blood Sugar
Though mostly animal studies, many have shown the reishi mushroom can decrease blood sugar, and preliminary research in humans has confirmed the findings, possibly through a glucose-producing enzyme inhibition. Other research noted that the mushrooms could reduce kidney stress, which could help complications in diabetes patients. Again, there are other studies that show no benefits here, so more research is needed.
6. Antioxidant Benefits
Antioxidants have been shown to protect cells from damage, decreasing cell mutation and carcinogenesis, while protecting immune cells. Reishi mushrooms have exhibited antioxidant activity in vitro, in many studies. Eating them in supplemental form could increase those antioxidant benefits.
Keep in mind that reishi mushrooms may have some drawbacks, as well. They can cause toxicity in some immune cells, and they could cause toxicity in the liver. The reishi could have side effects like upset stomach or digestive trouble, too. With the limited information available, use caution when deciding if reishi is for you, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have low blood pressure or other blood disorders.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and a professor at the University of Florida, with degrees in communications and ecology.