The Link Between Mushrooms and Immune Function

The Link Between Mushrooms and Immune Function

nutrients for immune function seriesThis blog is sixth in my Nutrients for Immune Function Series on nutrition and its impact on immune function. If you missed the previous entries in this series, I would make sure you check them out!

Part 1: “What Foods Boost My Immune System?”

Part 2: “Vitamin E and Your Immune System”

Part 3: “Do Low Vitamin B6 Levels Harm My Immune System?”

Part 4: “Is Fish Oil Beneficial or Detrimental?”

Part 5: “Probiotics and Prebiotics”

This content is based on information hosted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), called Cancer Prevention Through Immunomodulation: Does Diet Play a Role? You can listen to the entire presentation here (click “View this webinar” under the Meeting Materials heading).

This week I am exploring the topic of mushrooms and immune function. Susanna Cunningham-Rundles, a PhD and professor of immunology at Cornell University spoke about this topic during the NCI presentation.

mushrooms and the immune system

To give you some background, mushrooms are edible fungi (not vegetables). They have been studied for their health benefits and their bioactive components. Bioactive means biological activity or, in other words, the substance can have an effect on an organism.

The health benefits of consuming mushrooms include:

  • Weight maintenance or loss when consumed in place of high fat meats
  • Positive changes in the microbiota
  • Glucose regulation
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Risk reduction for obesity, metabolic syndrome, colitis and cancer

The components of mushrooms that are bioactive (have biological activity or effect on us as organisms) are:

  • Prebiotics (see my previous blog on probiotics and prebiotics),
  • Polysaccharides such as beta glucans
  • Lovastatin
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
  • Ergothioneine

The focus of this portion of the NCI presentation was on the beta glucan portion of mushrooms. Because of this, all the data presented used beta glucan extracts and not whole mushrooms.

Health Benefits of Beta Glucans

The studies showed that beta glucan extracts were able to reduce inflammation as measured by TNF-alpha and a decrease in nitric oxide levels. This is good news for you as a cancer thriver, as inflammation is linked to cancer.

Seven different clinical trials were highlighted that showed beneficial effects of mushroom beta-glucan extracts given along with chemotherapy. The mushroom extract either improved survival, improved immune cell response or bone marrow recovery after chemotherapy. However, it was noted that overdoses are also possible.

Meta analyses of mushroom extract have also been done. A meta analysis is a study of studies. This is done by compiling the results of several studies so that the sample size becomes larger and it gives more statistical strength to the results. Professor Cunningham-Rundles highlighted this quote from one of the studies:

“Scientific investigations and case studies from Asian medicine show that fungi have very promising pharmacological potential.”

Lindquist et al, 2013.

Bone Marrow Recovery

Myelodysplastic syndrome is a type of cancer in which blood cells do not mature properly and therefore do not become fully functioning red blood cells. Susanna Cunningham-Rundles set out to see if mushroom beta glucans could help in this disease. She found that maitake mushroom beta-glucan did show an improvement in immune response in a group of patients with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). However, this study has been submitted for publication but is yet unpublished).

What could this mean for you?

This is most relevant if you have myeloblastic syndrome but it could even be relevant for any cancer patient who experiences neutropenia as a result of their cancer or their treatment. Neutropenia is a common side-effect of cancer treatments, resulting in low white blood cell count. Once Cunningham-Rundles’ study is published, your doctor or pharmacist will have access to the results and be able to see if maitake mushroom beta glucan might be effective for you too.

But I eat mushrooms, not mushroom extracts

One question was nagging at me as I watched this presentation:

I don’t eat mushroom extracts, I eat mushrooms—will mushrooms help? do they provide the same benefits?

The answer to this question finally came in the Q and A section, which was asked this way:

“Is the benefit of mushroom extract equal with benefits of eating mushrooms?”

Cunningham-Rundles provided the following answer

Considering the huge power that mushrooms apparently have and considering the benefit to the microbiome, I believe those components you would not get in an extract, I would advise both

I’ll break this quote down for you. The huge power she is referring to is the totality of all the evidence that has been published on beta glucans, such as the studies discussed above that show mushroom beta glucans could improve survival. Considering the benefit to the microbiome: she didn’t get into detail in this presentation on the microbiome effects, she only listed it as one of the many proven benefits of mushrooms. But what this means is that when you consume mushrooms, there are improvements in the number and/or type of healthy bacteria that live in your intestines. We know that improving the microbiome in our intestines is a benefit for our immune system. When she says that she would advise both, she means that she recommends eating mushrooms and taking a beta-glucan supplement.

Bottom Line

So, there you have it, straight from the mouth of the immunology professor and researcher—she is advising you to eat your mushrooms.

What type of mushrooms should I eat?

All mushrooms appear to have health benefits, even the common white mushroom. But because different mushrooms have different strengths – some are better at boosting the immune system, while others are stronger anti-inflammatories and still others are better at improving the type and quantity of good bacteria in our intestines, I would suggest your hedge your bets and include a variety of mushrooms in your diet and not just eat the same type all the time.

What do these studies mean for me as a cancer thriver?

Most of the studies that Dr. Cunningham-Rundles included in her presentation were performed either on cells in a petri dish or animals. We don’t know for sure if the effect will be the same in our bodies, but I’m willing to add more mushrooms to my diet regardless. I don’t see a downside to eating more mushrooms, especially since mushrooms have other proven health benefits such as improved microbiota (healthy gut bacteria) and better blood sugar control.

Mushrooms and the immune systemI am going to choose mushrooms that are readily available in my local market; white, brown, Portobello, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. I’m going to cook them because that’s how I prefer to eat them. And when they are cooked I eat more because they shrink when they cook! So, I figure, even if an anti-inflammatory compound is lower after I cook it, I will eat more of them so that may just equalize the amount. When I see some other exotic ones like Maitake (ram’s head, sheep’s head or dancing mushrooms), I will give those a try too (although I have to admit they are kind of intimidating).

In addition, I think people who have neutropenia, either from chemotherapy or myeloblastic syndrome, could consider using a beta glucan mushroom extract. However, before doing so, I would suggest you do further research and speak with your pharmacist at your cancer centre to consider the source of the mushroom beta glucan (i.e. which species of mushroom), the proper dose and duration, and any interactions it could have with your current medication.

The seventh and final blog in my Nutrients for Immune Function Series will cover the topic of soy. Make sure you don’t miss it! If you’re not already signed up to receive Thriving After Cancer updates, including new posts on my Cancer Bites Blog, you can sign up right here on my website! Plus, you will receive your very own copy of the Immune Boosting Quick Start Guide!

Want to do some additional reading on this topic?

I suggest you take a look at these resources:

Mushrooms and Health Concerns by Mushrooms Canada

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Information on Mushrooms


Cunningham-Rundles (unpublished), Effect of MBG supplementation in MDS on immune function of neutrophil and monocytes ex vivo.

J Nutr. 2014 Jul;144(7):1128S-36S. Mushrooms and Health Summit proceedings.Feeney, MJ et al.

Food Chem. 2014 Apr 1;148:92-6. Anti-inflammatory effects of five commercially available mushroom species determined in lipopolysaccharide and interferon-γ activated murine macrophages. Gunawardena D et al.

BMC Immunol. 2009 Feb 20;10:12. The effects of whole mushrooms during inflammation. Yu S et al.

Biotech. 2012 March; 2(1): 1–15. Recent developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: a review. Seema Patel and Arun Goyal

Edible mushrooms: improving human health and promoting quality life. Int J Microbiol. 2015;2015:376387. Valverde ME1, Hernández-Pérez T1, Paredes-López O1.

Dietary mushroom intake and the risk of breast cancer based on hormone receptor status. Shin A, Kim J, Lim SY, Kim G, Sung MK, Lee ES, Ro J. Nutr Cancer. 2010;62(4):476-83.

β-Glucans and their applications in cancer therapy: focus on human studies. Aleem E1.Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2013 Jun;13(5):709-19.