Thanks to their antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobal, and antibacterial compounds, these potent fungi help fight a full spectrum of ailments-and research also shows that certain mushrooms can play a role in cancer treatment and prevention. We've singled out three of our favorites here: shiitake, maitake, and reishi. Read on to learn the benefits of each and how you can reap the rewards.
The shiitake mushroom is one of the most widely cultivated species in the world, and is valued for its medicinal effects, as well as its delicious flavor. It contains enzymes and vitamins that do not normally appear in plants, like all eight essential amino acids and one essential fatty acid, linoleic acid. The caps contain more nutrients than the stems.
This superstar mushroom contains a particular chemical component worth noting: lentinan, also known as beta-1,3 glucan. This polysaccharide is known to have potent immune-stimulating effects.
Maitake comes from the Japanese word meaning "dancing mushrooms." According to urban legend, foragers danced with joy when they found it. In addition to being loaded with vitamins, maitake contains beta-1,6 glucan, a close relative of the beta-1,3 glucan in the shiitake. Beta-glucans in general stimulate the immune system.
Sometime in the third century B.C.E., the Chinese emperor Shih Huang was reputed to have sent a fleet of ships to search for a mushroom called the "Elixir of Immortality." That mushroom? Reishi. Its chemical makeup was thought to be a tonic for a long and healthy life. The mushroom has a high level of antioxidants. In traditional Chinese medicine, reishi is still considered to be among the highest class of tonics.
Reishi has also earned a cancer-fighting reputation. The highly regarded Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York lists reishi on the "about herbs" section of its website, where it says that reishi mushrooms stimulate the immune system through their positive effect on macrophages and other immune compounds. Sloan-Kettering also references clinical studies showing that reishi increases antioxidant capacity and enhances the immune responses in advanced-stage cancer patients.
Reishi may also be a natural stress-buster-the mushroom is often recommended for people under physical or emotional stress.