If you know a little about wellness, you already know that cremini and portobello mushrooms are good for you. (Hey, they are found in the produce section, after all.) If you know a lot about wellness, you’ve likely heard of ‘shrooms like lion’s mane, reishi, and chaga. The trio are adaptogenic mushrooms, which means that when consumed regularly over time, they could help the body ward off stress. But you have to be super into the wellness scene to know the benefits of maitake mushrooms, which tend to fly under the radar.
Like lion’s mane, reishi, and chaga, maitake mushrooms are also adaptogenic and share many of the same benefits—and have some unique ones of its own. Grown in Japan, China, and North America, maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods or king of mushrooms) have been used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine for thousands of years. Here, registered dietitian Erica Ingraham, MS, RDN shares the key maitake mushroom benefits to know as well as where to find and how to consume them.
What are maitake mushroom benefits?
1. They could help the body combat stress
As previously mentioned, maitake mushrooms are adaptogenic. This means that they could help the body ward off stress better, though Ingraham says that scientifically, the jury is still out on adaptogens. “The research on adaptogens is limited, and their efficacy on human health is unclear. There is not much research on the effect of adaptogens on human health,” she says. Consider this an exciting space to watch rather than a complete given.
2. Consuming maitake mushrooms may support the immune system
Ingraham says this is traditionally how maitake mushrooms have been used in Japanese and Chinese medicine, and there’s a lot of scientific evidence to back up that they truly do support the immune system. One study found that when mice consumed maitake mushrooms in supplement form (combined with shiitake mushrooms) for two weeks, there was a “significant stimulation of defense reaction.” The reason why they’re so good for the immune system is because the compounds in maitake mushrooms have been shown to increase white blood cell activity and production. (Just note that this was a mouse study, so take its findings with a grain of salt.)
3. They could play a supporting role in cancer prevention and treatment
It’s exactly because maitake mushrooms increase white blood cell activity that led scientific researchers to experiment with them in terms of cancer prevention and treatment. The experiments are promising, shown to stimulate fighter cells into action that may be beneficial in cancer treatment. But they should not at this time be considered any kind of alternative to cancer treatment—nor should people with cancer experiment with herbs without consulting their doctors for risk of contraindications and other side effects.
4. Maitake mushrooms are good for your brain
Maitake mushrooms are high in antioxidants, which Ingraham says directly benefits the brain and cognitive health. “As research shows that antioxidants may help reduce oxidative stress, there is reason to suspect that they play a role in protecting cognitive function like memory,” she says. “The brain uses and requires a lot of oxygen for optimal functioning, which makes it at an increased risk for oxidative stress. Some studies have shown that antioxidants may inhibit cell death and help prevent memory loss.”
5. They’re good for your heart, too
The antioxidants in maitake mushrooms are also beneficial for cardiovascular health. Reducing oxidative stress isn’t just good for the brain, it benefits the whole body—including the heart. “Too much oxidative stress is associated with certain chronic conditions and diseases including heart disease, cancers, stroke, respiratory conditions, and inflammatory conditions,” Ingraham says.
Maitake mushrooms also have decent amount of the trace mineral copper, which is also good for your heart. “The human body doesn’t need a lot of copper to function well though it is a very important nutrient. Copper is important for red blood cell production, immune system function, and supports a healthy heart rate and blood pressure,” Ingraham adds.
While consuming maitake mushrooms can be beneficial in all these ways, there are some risks to be aware of. Like any other foods and herbs, some may have an allergic reaction. Also, because they increase the number of white blood cells, they may not be the best choice for anyone with a bleeding disorder or who has just had surgery. Check with your doctor before consuming to play it safe.
How to buy and consume maitake mushrooms
There are several different ways you can reap the benefits of maitake mushrooms. One is to buy them in their whole form and work them into your cooking, such as stir-fry dishes, rice, or soups. “You can find maitake fresh or dried. It also freezes well if you’d like to stock up during quarantine and limit trips to the grocery store,” Ingraham says.
You can also purchase maitake mushroom extract in powder form, which can be mixed into your tea, coffee, or other beverages. Because maitake mushrooms have an earthy taste, it will taste better if you blend it with something that has some flavor, as opposed to just mixing it in with plain H20. (Unless you’re into the idea of mushroomy water, in which case…go for it.)
Maitake mushroom supplements are also available, if you want to consume it regularly for its benefits but aren’t a fan of the taste. Keep in mind that supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so if you do choose to purchase supplements, it’s important to do your research first—good advice to follow no matter what type of supplement you’re thinking about purchasing. Check to see where the maitake mushrooms are sourced from and if they are tested for toxicity before being incapsulated, bottled, and sold.
As long as you keep these buying tips in mind, you’re green-lit to start trying out maitake mushrooms if their potential benefits interest you. And just like that, there’s another ‘shroom ready to be worked into your wellness routine.
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