For centuries, mushrooms have been regarded in the East as supreme health tonics. In natural food stores, mushrooms are carving out a niche as unique dietary supplements apart from vitamins and botanicals. Thousands of scientific studies demonstrate their unmatched ability to support immunity, cardiovascular health, blood sugar, sexual function and energy. In numerous experiments and clinical trials, mushrooms have also demonstrated antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic actions.
You might be surprised that certain mushrooms can be effective treatments for allergies and other respiratory problems. But when you look at their diverse actions, it makes perfect sense since mushrooms address several underlying factors involved in the allergic response.
Allergy, stems from a hypersensitivity to substances in the environment that, in most individuals, cause no problem. These environmental substances, known as allergens, are inhaled or penetrate the skin. The most common allergens are dirt, dust, pollen, cigarette smoke and animal dander. The offending substance, also called an antigen, triggers an immune response known as an allergic or hypersensitive reaction. The most common allergic disorders are hay fever, asthma, eczema and hives. The body’s production of histamine and other chemical mediators in these reactions may cause reactions ranging from mild to life threatening.
The Liver’s Role
In traditional Chinese medicine, liver distress (excessive liver heat) is said to cause hypersensitivities and allergic reactions as well as a wide range of symptoms, including headache, irritability, menstrual difficulties and hypertension. As our organ of detoxification, the liver must clear the blood of leftover histamine from allergic reactions. Other substances dealt with by the liver include drugs, chemicals, alcohol, food additives and preservatives, and toxins released by bacterial infections. However, if the liver is too congested with fatty tissue and excess toxins, allergies may be the result.
Maitake and reishi mushrooms are among the best liver tonics. In Chinese medicine, they are commonly used to protect and fortify liver functions. Animal studies indicate that maitake and reishi extracts protect against liver injury experimentally induced by toxic chemicals. In hepatitis patients with elevated liver enzymes, reishi was able to restore levels to normal range.
The liver also plays a role in blood sugar management by helping to prevent hypoglycemia. This is important because we are most likely to experience allergic reactions when the blood sugar level falls. Often, allergies can be relieved by maintaining a balanced blood sugar level. The liver counteracts low blood sugar by releasing glucose into the bloodstream. It does this by breaking down its glycogen (stored carbohydrate). To further boost a low blood sugar level, it converts noncarbohydrate molecules such as amino acids into glucose.
Maitake has a balancing effect on the blood sugar and insulin. Studies show that it helps prevent high blood sugar by enhancing insulin sensitivity. For example, a clinical study found that Type 2 diabetics taking a maitake extract, called SX-fraction, for two months were able to significantly reduce their fasting glucose, triglycerides, insulin, and body weight. Conversely, physicians report that SX-fraction also improves chronic hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can result from over-stimulation of insulin.
When we breathe in something we are allergic to it irritates membranes in the nose, causing inflammation and swelling. Allergic rhinitis is the term for this condition. A natural approach to inflammation is to eat more foods with anti-inflammatory qualities such as fish, flaxseed, fresh fruit, green tea, garlic, leafy greens and ginger. In addition, we can use natural products such as reishi to modify the inflammatory response.
Reishi contains steroid-like anti-inflammatory compounds that inhibit inflammation and histamine, the chemical responsible for allergic symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, hives and bronchial constriction. One study found that reishi extracts compared favorably with Prednisone®, a steroidal anti-inflammatory drug with potentially serious side effects. Reishi had few, if any, side effects.
In Chinese clinical studies, more than 2,000 patients with chronic bronchitis were treated with reishi. Within two weeks, 60-90 percent of patients showed significant improvement, with older patients and those with asthma benefiting the most.
It’s important to know that the anti-inflammatory constituents of reishi, called triterpenes, are fat-soluble. These ingredients are concentrated by alcohol extraction. So, use tablets that contain both hot-water and ethanol (alcohol) concentrated extracts in order to achieve the maximum range of beneficial constituents.
One common property of medicinal mushrooms is their ability to strengthen the immune system and inhibit tumors, making them promising anti-cancer treatments. Much anti-cancer research favors maitake D-fraction, an extract containing a concentration of the immune enhancing beta glucans. It may seem counter-intuitive then that maitake and reishi would be effective treatments for allergies, which are described as an overactive immune response.
The reason maitake and reishi are beneficial to both overactive and underactive immune systems are that they are adaptogenic. Adaptogens are defined as substances that help the body adapt to various types of stress by adjusting altered body conditions back to normal. For example, adaptogens help maintain healthy levels of blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and body weight. Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes that reishi has double direction activity, meaning that it improves functioning of the immune system whether it is deficient or excessive. It doesn’t stimulate the immune system. Rather, it regulates it. As such, reishi is considered an immune modulator. Similarly, maitake helps to balance the immune system. A study at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital concluded that a crude version of maitake D-fraction enhances activity of some immune cells while inhibiting those of other immune cells. While D-fraction is recognized as the product of choice for depressed immune systems, I suggest whole maitake mushroom caplets for best adaptogenic activity since they contain all constituents (fractions) of the mushroom.
One more note about reishi: Allergies, like many other health problems, can be exacerbated by stress. Reishi is an excellent choice as an anti-stress herb to ease tension. It has been used routinely by monks, sages, shamans and spiritual seekers. Many people who take reishi regularly notice the peacefulness that it brings, which cannot be explained by science.
No one should deny the benefits of drugs for emergencies and acute conditions. But for chronic conditions and establishing optimum health, it is essential that we recognize the long term adaptogenic advantages of mushroom supplements.
Ken Babal is a consultant to the natural food and supplement industry and has a nutrition counseling practice in Los Angeles. He is the author of Maitake Mushroom and D-Fraction and Seafood Sense: The Truth About Seafood Nutrition and Safety. His latest book is “Mushrooms for Health and Longevity.”