What are the health benefits of shiitake mushrooms? I am a bit obsessed with mushrooms – I even wrote the my dissertation for my Herbal Medicine degree about them! These simple staples have some very powerful tricks up their sleeve, shiitake especially.
Immune system health
Shiitake mushrooms are one of a few varieties of mushroom that contain a very powerful, unique sugar called a polysaccharide. There are many of these in nature, but the type found in shiitake are beta glucans, and have been researched globally for over 40 years. One area in which there is the strongest evidence is the effect they have upon the immune system. They have been shown to cause an increase in the production of white blood cells (our immune system’s army), and their response to pathogens or damaged cells. Just a small amount of these compounds daily can really give the immune system a bit of a kick. How do they do this? It appears mushroom polysaccharides do this by interacting with peyers patches. These patches are small patches of tissue within the walls of the digestive tract that basically act like a surveillance station. They are densely packed with cells that continually monitor the contents of the gut. When you think about it, the digestive system is a direct interface between the outside world and the inner workings of our body, so a perfect route in for opportunistic pathogens. This is why its contents are so widely monitored. It is believed that mushroom polysaccharides closely resemble polysaccharides that are displayed on the outer surfaces of some pathogens. When these polysaccharides move over the peyers patches, the cell population there think that there is in fact a pathogen present that is responsible for the presence of these polysaccharides. They respond to this by instigating a biochemical cascade, releasing messenger compounds called cytokines that relay this ‘attack’ message to the rest of the immune system. This cytokine cascade encourages an increased production of certain lines of white blood cells – the army of the immune system.
Heart & circulation
The health benefits of shiitake mushrooms go beyond immunity. A decade or two ago, a substance in shiitake mushrooms called eritadenine was discovered. It was found that this compound could lower bad (LDL) cholesterol, while improving levels of the good (HDL) cholesterol. It is believed that it does it by influencing the way in which the liver produces cholesterol in the first place.