There are many natural agents that can modulate the immune system. And when it comes to autoimmunity, some of them are controversial, such as the herb Echinacea. I decided to do a deep dive into some of the more common medicinal mushrooms to see if they can benefit those with Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s, and I must say that I was impressed.
Many people are aware of the nutritional value of mushrooms, but they are also recognized for their medicinal properties. Medicinal mushrooms have actually been used since ancient times. Research has shown them to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, antidiabetic, cytotoxic, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, anticancer, antioxidant, antiallergic, antihyperlipidemic, and prebiotic properties (1) (2) (3). These activities are attributable to many bioactive metabolites (1).
The Significance of Polysaccharides
In this blog post I’ll mention a few times the importance of polysaccharides, as these are structural components of the fungal cell wall. It’s the diversity in monosaccharide composition and structure that causes them to have different biological activities (R1), including antitumor, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antidiabetic activity. The best known and most abundant are α- and β-glucans (4). Heteroglycans, peptidoglycans, and polysaccharide–protein complexes also contribute to biological activity (5) (6) (7). They are mainly responsible for immunomodulatory effects due to their ability to bind to specific cell wall receptors and stimulate specific immune responses.
Here are some of the most popular medicinal mushrooms:
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Before diving into some of these medicinal mushrooms, I’d like to first discuss some of the health benefits they offer:
- Anti-cancer effects. Although the focus of this post is how medicinal mushrooms can help with autoimmunity, they are actually more well known for their anti-cancer effects. One study showed that a water-soluble extract from a cultured medium of Ganoderma lucidum mycelia suppresses the development of colorectal adenomas (8). Another study showed that Ganoderma lucidum might prevent some cases of skin cancer (9). Yet another study involving Cordyceps sinensis shows that it inhibited breast cells in mice (10).
- Cardiovascular/metabolic health. A number of studies show that medicinal mushrooms can benefit those with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. One study looked to see if the medicinal components in edible mushrooms can benefit those with diabetes mellitus (11). Out of 23 edible mushrooms studies, 13 varieties were found to have anti-diabetic properties, including Ganoderma lucidium, Hericium erinaceus, and Agricus bisporus. Another study showed that Agaricus brasiliensis and Ganoderma lucidum can potentially treat and prevent diabetes mellitus (12). Yet another study showed that Ganoderma lucidum can provide beneficial effects in treating type 2 diabetes by lowering the serum glucose levels (13).
- Hepatoprotective benefits. We all know how important the liver is, as it plays an important role in drug elimination and detoxification. There are a lot of things that can cause liver damage, including infections, and many medications, including antithyroid medication (i.e. methimazole and PTU), which is commonly prescribed to those with hyperthyroidism. A few different studies show that Ganoderma lucidium has hepatoprotective effects (14) (15). Another study showed that the mushroom Agaricus blazei normalized liver function in patients with chronic hepatitis B (16).
- Neurological benefits. Evidence shows that culinary-medicinal mushrooms may play an important role in the prevention of many age-associated neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (17) (18). The action mechanisms include reducing oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and modulation of acetylcholinesterase activity, protecting neurons or stimulation, and regulating neurotrophins synthesis (18). Ganoderma lucidum, Grifola frondosa and Sarcodon scabrosus have been reported to have neurite outgrowth and neuronal health benefits (19).
- Respiratory benefits. One study looked to see if medicinal mushrooms can have a prophylactic or therapeutic effect against the pneumonic superinfection and severe lung inflammation that often complicates COVID-19 infection (20). This involved the mushrooms Basidiomycota Agaricus blazei Murill, Hericium erinaceus, and Grifola frondosa. Another study showed that β-glucan polysaccharides isolated from different species of mushrooms (including Lentinus edodes and Hypsizygus tessellatus) can help with inflammatory lung conditions (21)
5 Medicinal Mushrooms That Can Benefit Thyroid Autoimmunity
Now that you know some of the health benefits that medicinal mushrooms have to offer, let’s go ahead and take a look at some of the individual medicinal mushrooms.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). You might have noticed that Reishi was mentioned a lot above, as it is probably the most widely studied medicinal mushroom. It has been widely used for the prevention and treatment of various health conditions, including gastric cancer (22), hypertension (23), arthritis (24), hepatoxicity (25), diabetes (26), asthma (27), nephrosis (28), and immunological disorders (29).
So how can Reishi benefit people with Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s? Well, autoimmunity is characterized by an imbalance of regulatory T cells (Tregs) and Th17 cells. In order to suppress autoimmunity you want to have an abundance of Tregs and a lower amount of Th17 cells. And numerous studies show that Reishi can help with this Th17/Treg balance (30) (31).
Cordyceps Sinensis. Although there are multiple species of Cordyceps, C. sinensis is the most documented one. Research has shown that its properties include antiaging, reparative, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and as an antioxidant (32). One study showed that C. sinensis has a protective effect on rats with gastric damage (33), while another study showed that it can also benefit the kidneys by reducing proteinuria, improving renal function, and inhibiting glomerular sclerosis (34).
As for it’s effects on the immune system, one study showed that C. sinensis reduced IL-17 (35). Earlier I mentioned how Th17 cells play a role in autoimmunity, and they secrete IL-17 cells. So essentially C. sinensis reduces IL-17 by decreasing Th17 cells. Another study showed that it can increase the antioxidant Superoxide dismutase (SOD) (35).
I came across a very interesting journal article that looked at the effects of C. sinensis on autoimmune thyroid disease (36). This included 44 patients with Graves’ disease and 56 patients with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. The study showed that at the end of treatment TPO antibodies and TSH receptor antibodies decreased by 40.06% and 46.94% of baseline in the Graves’ disease patients. TPO antibodies and anti-thyroglobulin antibodies decreased by 51.30% and 39.49% of baseline in the Hashimoto’s patients.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus). Hericium erinaceus is a medicinal-culinary mushroom widely found in East Asian countries, and it is well known for supporting nerve and brain health (37) (38). Not only can it improve cognitive function and possibly prevent dementia (39), but it also might be an option for the treatment of depression (40). In addition, it can treat certain neurological conditions, as it contains neurotrophic compounds that can pass through the blood-brain barrier (41) (42). It has also been used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (43) and ischemic stroke (44).
This wouldn’t be my first choice of mushroom to help with autoimmunity, as I definitely would prioritize Reishi and Cordyceps. That being said, it does have some immunomodulatory properties. One study showed that Hericium erinaceus improves immune function by enhancing cell-mediated and humoral immunity, macrophage phagocytosis, and natural killer cell activity (45). In addition, this mushroom was found to upgregulate the secretion of secretory IgA. Another study showed that extracts from Hericium erinaceus can relieve inflammatory bowel disease by regulating the immune system and the gut microbiota (46). One way it accomplished this was by increasing regulatory T cells (Tregs), which as mentioned earlier, can help to keep autoimmunity in check.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa). This is an edible mushroom with both nutritional and medicinal properties, and is also known as “hen-of-the-woods”. While it is increasingly found in many nutritional supplements, it’s also considered to be a healthy food, as it is a good source of protein, fiber, and minerals (47). The different polysaccharides from G. frondosa possess various bioactive effects including immunomodulation (48), antitumor (49), antivirus (50), antidiabetic (51) and anti-inflammation (52).
From an immune system standpoint, I just mentioned that some of the polysaccharides from this mushroom have shown significant antitumor, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory activities. But when it comes to autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s, having a healthy gut is important. And the reason for this is because most of the immune cells are located in the gut. And G. frondosa (along with some other medicinal mushrooms) has been shown to regulate the gut microbiota (53).
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). This mushroom is widely used by people in China, Russia, and Korea, and like the other mushrooms discussed so far, it has numerous health benefits. Perhaps the main bioactive compound is Inonotus obliquus polysaccharide (IOPS), which possesses antitumor, antioxidant, anti-virus, hypoglycemic, and hypolipidemic activities (54). Of these, it seems like many of the studies focus on how chaga can help with the treatment of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
I didn’t come across any studies which showed that Chaga can specifically help with Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s. However, it does have immunomodulatory effects, and a couple of studies show that it can regulate the Treg/Th17 balance (55) (56). One of these studies also showed that oral administration of IOP in mise can help with the tight junction proteins occludin and zonulin, which are associated with a leaky gut (56).
Are Mushrooms Safe For Autoimmunity?
There has been controversy over whether mushrooms are safe to consume in those with autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s. This is especially true with mushroom extracts found in supplements. The concern is that some label them as being “immunostimulatory”, and thus might exacerbate the autoimmune response.
However, the research I presented in this post suggests that they don’t necessarily “stimulate” the immune system, but instead “modulate” the immune system and in many cases help with the Treg/Th17 balance, which explains why they can be beneficial in helping people with autoimmunity. So based on my research I not only think it’s fine for people with autoimmune conditions to eat mushrooms and consume certain mushroom extracts, but in many cases it can actually be beneficial in modulating the immune system. That being said, if you eat a certain food or take a specific supplement and don’t feel right, then listen to your body and stop consuming it.
Can Mushrooms Directly Impact Thyroid Health?
I wasn’t able to find any research showing that any of these medicinal mushrooms have any direct effects on thyroid health. This doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from these if you have a non-autoimmune thyroid condition, as they can improve one’s immune system health in different ways. Plus I mentioned how they have other health effects that can benefit those without a thyroid or autoimmune thyroid condition.
Are There Any Risks With Taking Medicinal Mushrooms?
With any supplement there is a concern over safety, especially with long term use. But overall medicinal mushrooms seem safe to consume…especially the ones discussed in this post. One study showed that Reishi is well tolerated and could be safely used continuously for long periods of time (57). And anecdotal use of Cordyceps in the treatment of cancer patients has produced promising results at 3–5 g of Cordyceps daily with zero reports of Cordyceps related toxicity (58).
Another study looked to evaluate the safety of erinacine A-enriched Hericium erinaceus in rodents over a 13-week period using different dosages, and revealed no mortalities nor noticeable toxicological effects in all the rats (59). Another study looked at the cytotoxicity of IOPS, and the results also showed that 20–160 μg/mL of IOPS administration was safe and would not produce drug toxicity (60).
In summary, medicinal mushrooms in both food and extract form can potentially be a good option for immune support for those with Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s. This is especially true with Cordyceps Sinensis, as I mentioned the study which showed how this can potentially benefit people with Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s. But I also discussed how other mushrooms can help with the Treg/Th17 balance, which is a key factor in addressing any autoimmune condition.
Have you taken medicinal mushrooms? If so I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.