Whether you’re a resolutions person or more of an evolution person, the New Year brings the possibility of a fresh start, and often more openness to making changes big and small. And while movement, rest and de-stressing are all very important, dietary changes are about the most powerful and quickest upgrades you can make. Simply by adding more plants and phasing out processed foods and sweeteners, you can start ratcheting up immunity in a matter of days, which is why I encourage everyone to get on board, no matter what time of year it is.
Whether you’re just beginning your nutritional ramp-up, or returning to a healthier routine after a hit-or-miss past few months, loading up on leafy greens at every meal is a great, impactful first step. What else? How about one of my favorite dietary ‘easy adds’ – those under-rated edible fungi, mighty mushrooms. This often-overlooked superfood is a triple threat, adding flavor and meat-like texture plus wonderful food-as-medicine effects, particularly in the immunity department. Now that so many of us are spending more time cooking at home, adding ‘shrooms to the mix will instantly raise your culinary and immunity game – and here are just a few of the wonderful things mushrooms can do for you:
Mushrooms pack loads of nutrition into a small package.
No matter which type of mushrooms you choose, you’ll get a number of goodies that help support immunity and overall health: fiber, selenium, potassium, vitamins C and D, and a range of B vitamins, to name a few. Mushrooms are also rich in minerals and compounds that are thought to deliver powerful cancer-fighting effects. But when you’re cooking with mushrooms, be sure to include the stems too. They’re effective prebiotics, terrific for feeding and fortifying the helpful bacteria in your gut, another big plus when it comes to enhancing and strengthen immunity.
Mushrooms are delicious medicine for immunity – and your brain.
Why mushrooms? Why now? Current research shows that certain medicinal mushrooms like reishi, lion’s mane and chaga contain healthy doses of the anti-oxidants ergothioneine and glutathione, compounds known to prime the immune system and to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lion’s mane in particular is known as a “nootropic,” which means it can enhance memory and cognitive function, while also serving as a delicious substitute for crab and lobster meat.
Mushrooms make meals meatier.
Think more mushrooms at every meal! Slip them whole, chopped, raw, steamed or sauteed into everyday foods like omelets, soups, salads, pastas and stews. In addition to the immunity-boost, they’ll make meals heartier and more filling, which is particularly helpful for those reducing meat consumption or opting for more vegetarian/plant-based meals. Also, remember to incorporate several types of mushrooms at a time to take advantage of their combined synergistic effects.
Dried or fresh, look for organic or farmers’ market mushrooms, instead of canned or jarred. Though the nutritional values may be similar, canned or jarred tend to be soaked in added sodium, preservatives and involve more processing, all of which can degrade some of nutrients you’re after. Ideally, the closer to the vine the better, so fresh or dried (then rehydrated as needed) mushrooms are better bets.
Do mushrooms three ways.
In addition to eating mushrooms, you can also take advantage of their benefits in capsules or in a tincture, and even in powder form, brewed into mushroom tea. Enjoy a few daily mugs as a warm, soothing, beverage – in lieu of over-doing it on coffee – or mix the powder into bone broths, smoothies, or black or green tea. In general, mushroom powders have a lovely, earthy taste. Those with a higher reishi content can have slightly bitter taste, whereas chaga has subtle vanilla undertones. Experiment a bit. One of the organic powders that makes a tasty tea is Four Sigmatic’s 10 Mushroom Blend, but if you prefer the convenience of capsules, Host Defense’s MyCommunity is an excellent blend of 17 medicinal mushrooms. What I like about these blends is that they bring together the best of so many different kinds of medicinal mushrooms, so you reap the broadest spectrum of benefits.
Meet the ‘fab four’ of fungi for immune strengthening.
When it comes to immune support, four of my favorite fungi are: turkey tail, reishi, chaga and cordyceps. Here’s a topline on the fab four:
- Turkey tail mushrooms, rich in prebiotic fiber, help aid digestion and maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, so important for optimal immune system function. There’s also preliminary research suggesting that turkey tail mushrooms –which do, by the way, resemble the shape and color of turkey feathers – may help curb metabolic problems thanks to the fungi’s protein-bound beta-glucans and soluble fiber. There is also some initial evidence that the mushroom can help protect against breast and colon cancers. What else do turkey tail mushrooms have to offer? Think free-radical-fighting antioxidant compounds and antibacterial properties. Got inflammation? Turkey tail mushrooms can help tame that too.
- Reishi mushrooms, sometimes referred to as the ‘King of Mushrooms’ for their multiple health benefits, are a widely available medicinal fungi that can be found growing plentifully on logs and trees in forests across the US. They are adaptogens, often associated with longevity and mental clarity, that help support the immune system in times of stress. If you wish to grow your own, reishi can be cultivated relatively easily indoors and out – but avoid foraging without a mycologist at your side as edible and toxic mushrooms can be extremely difficult to tell apart. Frequently used in traditional medicines as an energy and immunity booster, reishis, in edible or powder form, are excellent additions to your wintertime arsenal due to their anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, their ability to help fight off infection and support blood sugar and hormone level balance. Try adding to smoothies, broths and as a veggie pasta topper either on its own or mixed into a more traditional meat sauce.
- Chaga mushrooms: If reishis are the king, then chagas are the queen of the mushroom world, offering a boatload of benefits that virtually every body can put to good use. What’s inside? Think fiber and amino acids plus B vitamins, vitamin D, copper, selenium, zinc, magnesium and calcium, for starters. These mighty mushrooms also contain antioxidants which can help fend off visible signs of aging and may help slow the growth of some types of cancer cells. In one animal study, researchers found that chaga’s triterpene compounds caused tumor cells to self-destruct, without harming healthy cells. Though more clinical research is needed, that’s a promising feather in the chaga mushroom cap. Like turkey tail and many other edible mushrooms, chagas are also helpful for immune system support and taming inflammation – both of which are especially important as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic maelstrom. How to get yours? The most common ways are via powder or a tincture mixed into teas and beverages. (They can be tough to digest in raw form.)
- Cordyceps: Best enjoyed in powdered or supplement form, cordyceps has, for hundreds of years, gotten high marks for its ability to combat infection and inflammation, while also fighting fatigue and even improving athletic performance. What else can these ‘shrooms do? Two more very important things – namely, support cardiovascular and reproductive health, courtesy of their anti-inflammatory compounds. Cordyceps can also be helpful for relieving cough, cold and respiratory symptoms – making them an excellent health-helper in the depths of winter. What’s more, adaptogenic cordyceps has powerful anti-aging effects, and provides cancer-fighting and autoimmune support.
Manage your mushrooms.
As mushrooms of all sorts have powerful biological effects, manage your intake wisely, particularly if you’re going the powder and/or supplement route, and don’t over-do it. If you’re on meds, check with your physician to determine which ‘shrooms will work best for your particular situation, and never swap out your current medication(s) for supplementation without your doc’s OK. Think of mushrooms, in food, pill or powder form, as a healthy way to augment good habits, not as a replacement for your current treatments. If you’re pregnant, on blood thinners, being treated for high blood pressure, have blood sugar issues, cancer or suffer from allergies, again, consult with your health care practitioner first to avoid any negative interactions.