If you’re looking for a superfood to support your immune system health and act as an overall health tonic, shiitake mushrooms are a top choice. As a bonus, they impart a savory umami flavor to virtually any meal they touch.
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes) have been prized for their anticancer and immunomodulating properties since ancient times and are a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine. Historically, shiitake mushrooms were harvested from mountainous regions in Asia, but today they’re the second most widely cultivated mushroom variety in the world—second only to the common button mushroom.
Shiitake mushrooms are also a popular culinary-medicinal mushroom in Japan, and the word shiitake comes from the Japanese words shii, or “from a hardwood tree,” and “take,” or “mushroom.”
Their rich, earthy, almost buttery flavor is packed with umami, the fifth taste that’s hard to put into words but is often described as meaty and savory. This makes them an ideal meat substitute in vegetarian dishes and a worthy addition to soups, stews, seafood, and poultry dishes. Looking for even more good reasons to add shiitake mushrooms to your meals? They’re linked to notable benefits to your health.
A Shiitake a Day …
Shiitake mushrooms are a rich source of protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, including B1, B2, B12, C, D, and niacin, as well as antioxidants and beta-glucans. They contain the most vitamin D of any plant food.
A form of beta-glucans in shiitake mushrooms, known as lentinans, are believed to play a role in mushroom’s immunomodulatory effects, while other beta-glucans have documented stimulatory effects on the immune system that are strong enough to ward off influenza in animal studies.
Lentinan extracts have also been found to produce immunomodulatory and pulmonary cytoprotective effects that can reduce oxidative stress, activate beneficial macrophages that are part of your innate immune system, and even ameliorate the inflammatory cytokine storm that causes potentially fatal acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Even eating a reasonable amount—4 ounces—of dried shiitake mushrooms daily can have a significant impact on your immune function. When researchers gave a daily four-ounce serving of dried shiitake mushrooms to healthy adults between the ages of 21 and 41 for four weeks, improved immunity resulted, including increased cell proliferation and reduced C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation.
The immunomodulatory effects of lentinans are so strong that they also reduced infection by antibiotic-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria that had led to pulmonary sepsis in rodents. Bacterial infection is a leading cause of ARDS, which in turn is often lethal in critically ill patients. Administering lentinan to bolster the immune system may be a promising solution.
Prized for Anticancer Effects
By boosting your immune system, shiitake mushrooms have notable anticancer effects. Some research also suggests they may have antitumor activity that works on cells directly, even without immune system involvement.
When taken orally, lentinan extract from shiitake mushrooms led to significant regression in tumor formation in mice with colon cancer. It also led to “remarkable” antitumor effects in mice “not only by enhancing the immunity but also by directly killing the tumor and the induction of tumor cell apoptosis,” wrote researchers in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Even in the case of advanced pancreatic cancer, lentinan increased patients’ survival time and improved quality of life. What’s more, beta-glucans from shiitake mushrooms are capable of selectively inducing cell death of breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched, while mycelia extract from the mushroom reduced the incidence of adverse effects from chemotherapy when taken by patients with advanced cancer.
Active hexose correlated compound (AHCC), a supplement that’s made from shiitake mushroom mycelia, is made up of a powerful mixture of amino acids, minerals, and polysaccharides. It acts as an immune system enhancer against tumor cells and pathogens and is the second most popular complementary and alternative medicine used by cancer patients in Japan.
Lentinan has also been singled out as a promising therapy for a number of human cancers, including lung, gastric, colorectal, ovarian, cervical, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Shiitakes as a Health Tonic
Like many whole foods, the synergistic effects of the nutrients and polysaccharides in shiitake mushrooms provide nourishing support for your whole body. Shiitake mushroom bars were described as a “nutritious food and a functional health food alternative” in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, in part because they lowered triglyceride levels by 10 percent after 66 days of consumption.
- Liver protective
- Therapeutic against ulcerative colitis
In addition, beta-glucans in mushrooms like shiitakes increase intestinal viscosity, which reduces cholesterol absorption and promotes its excretion. Therefore, they’re useful for optimizing cholesterol levels and have also been shown to have a favorable effect on other conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, and infectious diseases.
At GreenMedInfo.com, you can browse through nearly 50 diseases and conditions that shiitake mushrooms may support. Among them:
- Elevated triglycerides
- High cholesterol
- HIV infection
- Acetaminophen toxicity
- Hepatitis C
- Type 1 diabetes
- Ulcerative colitis
- Bacterial infections
- Low immune function
- Fungal infection
- DNA damage
How to Enjoy Shiitake Mushrooms
Fresh shiitake mushrooms work well sliced thickly, especially when used for their meaty flavor and texture. Look for shiitakes with thick, domed caps; it’s the cap that you’ll be eating, since the stems are quite tough. After rinsing the mushrooms gently or wiping them off with a damp cloth, trim off the stems, which you can save to add flavor to soup, pasta sauce, or stew.
Fresh shiitake mushroom caps can be quickly sautéed or stir-fried. If you choose to use the stems, add them first since they take longer to cook. Dried shiitake mushrooms are also popular, but you’ll need to rehydrate them in hot water for about 20 minutes before cooking. The liquid from re-hydrated dried mushrooms can also be used as a base for vegetable broth and is an important part of dashi, a Japanese soup stock.