Your gut and your immune system are intimately linked. In fact, about 80% of your immune system exists in your gut! (1) Your digestive system, among other functions, determines what is friend or foe—food or poison. Many auto-immune issues begin or are accompanied by digestive issues. You may be familiar with mushrooms for immune health, but what about mushrooms and digestive health? As you are about to find out, your immune system and your gut are closely connected and many medicinal mushrooms benefit your immune system and your gut!
Your Digestive Immune Cells: Walking A Fine Line
The immune cells in your gut play a nuanced role. They need to be tolerant of the many varied bacteria that live there, and at the same time, know how to swiftly deal with invaders (1). Invaders may be harmful viruses or bacteria. This job on the part of our immune cells is done all the time without our knowledge. But when our immune system takes more extreme measures, we are aware of it. Vomiting and fevers are the result of your body calling in the troops in an extreme way to escort out harmful pathogens.
The Immune System: Multiple Lines of Defense
Your immune system is multi-layered. Part of your immune response is innate; this innate response consists of stomach acid, mucous, sneezing, and functions such as producing a fever. These are your natural lines of defense and they are necessary for survival. On the other hand, we have another layer of immune response that is learned, called the adaptive immune response (2). This is why some people are allergic to certain foods and others are not and why some people experience seasonal allergies and others don’t.
For some people, their cells learn to react to antigens in or on specific substances and their immune cells may become overreactive. This could lead to autoimmune disease—the body’s cells attacking its own tissues. Many factors contribute to whether or not you develop allergies to foods, dust, pollen, or other potential allergens. Managing your gut health and supporting a healthy, balanced immune response are two key ways you can support your overall wellness and vitality. Basically, you want a healthy (but not overreactive) immune response. This will help your immune cells deal with real threats and stay relaxed in the face of pseudo-invaders.
Mushrooms and Digestive Health
There are many herbs and supplements that can support digestive function and wellbeing. Probiotic foods and supplements are very helpful and have become immensely popular. Also, for acid reflux and burning indigestion, moist, soothing herbs such as marshmallow, licorice, and aloe can help bolster the gut’s protective lining and calm down excess acid and heat.
Certain types of mushrooms are also incredibly helpful for supporting your immune response, and many of these mushrooms benefit your gut too—either directly or indirectly. Medicinal mushrooms train your immune cells so that they are smarter about what to attack and when to leave well enough alone. They do this through the presence of certain types of complex starches that your body reacts to as a threat (2). As mycologist and scientist Christopher Hobbs, PhD, explains, “Additionally, ß-glucans [in medicinal mushrooms] bind to macrophages associated with the gut barrier, acting on several immune receptors.” (3) Once again, we observe the connection between the gut and the immune system.
You may wonder why you would want to consume anything that your immune cells view as a threat, but there is a benefit to this. The complex starches in mushrooms give your immune cells a workout in a good way, making them more apt to effectively separate the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Friendly Fungi for Your Gut: A Few Favorites
There are many medicinal mushrooms on the market these days. From reishi to cordyceps, shiitake to turkey tail, oyster to maitake, each friendly fungi has unique benefits. However, pretty much all of these super mushrooms support a healthy immune response.
Let’s take a look at just a few medicinal mushrooms and how they can benefit your immune response and digestive health. This is by no means a complete list, but rather a few ideas to get you started!
Reishi mushrooms are known for their power in supporting longevity. However, these beneficial mushrooms serve many functions. Among their usages, reishi mushrooms help your body and mind adapt to stress, decrease inflammation, protect liver function, lower blood pressure, support the function and structure of the respiratory system, and fight viruses and bacteria (2). For those interested in a healthier digestive system, do you see anything in the above list that supports digestive health? Assisting liver function, decreasing inflammation, supporting immune response, and easing stress all support a healthy, happy digestive system.
Enjoy reishi mushroom as a tincture, capsule, or simmered down into a broth. Or, try incorporating reishi powder into chocolate treats such as these!
Some of the tougher medicinal mushrooms, such as turkey tail, reishi, and chaga need to be cooked down into a broth, tinctured, or pulverized into powder to be consumed. However, you can easily cook and eat the softer mushroom varieties, such as oyster mushrooms. Simply Google “oyster mushroom recipes” and you will come up with a plethora of tasty options ranging from garlic butter oyster mushrooms to various plant-based recipes.
Oyster mushrooms directly benefit your digestive system by providing valuable fiber which has a positive impact on your immune health and gut microflora. These little delights are also easy to digest and rich in protein (4).
You may notice shiitake mushrooms being incorporated into soups, salads, stir fries, pasta dishes, and even pizzas. These tasty mushrooms are easy to cook with and boast numerous benefits. Studies show that shiitake mushrooms benefit depressed immune systems and are effective in subduing candida overgrowth, calming environmental allergies, and soothing coughs, flus, and colds (4). In addition, shiitake mushrooms can calm bronchial inflammation and are used in cases of urinary incontinence and high cholesterol (4).
In Conclusion: The Goldilocks Immune Response
I hope that learning about these medicinal mushrooms and their important role in supporting immunity and digestive health will help get you inspired to incorporate mushrooms in the kitchen as dietary supplements. Remember, we want the goldilocks of physiological reactivity. You want your soldiers to react to real pathogens, such as dangerous viruses and bacteria. However, you don’t want them charging to the front lines every time you sniff a flower or touch a peanut. For more on cooking with beneficial mushrooms, you may want to read my article Cooking with Edible Mushrooms: A Beginners Guide.
- Enders, G. (2015). Gut: The inside story of our body’s most underrated organ. Greystone Books.
(2) Groves, M.N. (2016). Body into balance: An herbal guide to holistic self-care. Storey Publishing.
(3) Hobbs, C. (n.d.). Mushroom medicine: Challenges and potential. Retrieved from https://www.christopherhobbs.com/library/featured-articles/mushroom-medicine-challenges-and-potential/
(4) Hobbs, C. (n.d.). Medicinal mushrooms III. Retrieved from https://www.christopherhobbs.com/library/articles-on-herbs-and-health/medicinal-mushrooms-3/