Mighty Mushrooms: Boost Immune Function and Brain Health and Guard Against Cancer

May 07, 2020 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

Mushrooms seem to be almost magical in promoting health benefits. From fighting respiratory infections to cancer, this asssortment of small fungi are gigantic warriors.

Strengthen the Immune System

Mushroom’s phytochemicals, such as beta-glucan, enhance the activity of several different types of immune cells including natural killer cells, which attack and destroy virus-infected and cancerous cells.

The immune-enhancing actions of mushrooms are thought to help the body to more effectively attack microbial invaders and developing tumors.1-3 According to a study on healthy volunteers who ate white button mushrooms daily, mushrooms may also help to prevent infections by  enhancing salivary immunoglobulin A production;  immunoglobulins are antibodies secreted by mucosal surfaces (such as the digestive system and respiratory tract) to protect  against infection.4 Similar results were found for shiitake mushrooms in healthy people: after 4 weeks of eating 5-10 g dried shiitake mushrooms daily, there was an increase in salivary immunoglobulin A.5 The immune system protects us against infection and also cancer. Many clinical trials have investigated concentrated mushroom polysaccharide extracts as an adjunct treatment for improving immune function in patients with cancer.6-9

Mushrooms are unique in their breast cancer preventing effects.

One notable study found frequent consumption of mushrooms (10 g, or approximately one button mushroom per day) has been linked to a 64 percent decrease in the risk of breast cancer.10 A meta-analysis estimated that mushroom intake  results in a 4-6 percent risk reduction per gram of mushrooms eaten per day.11   Another meta-analysis of 17 observational studies concluded that high mushroom intake was linked to 34% lower risk of any cancer and 35% lower risk of breast cancer compared to low mushroom intake.12 Mushrooms are thought to protect against breast cancer particularly because they inhibit an enzyme called aromatase, which produces estrogen. Several varieties of mushrooms, especially the commonly eaten white button and portobello mushrooms, have strong anti-aromatase activity.13

Consumption of mushrooms does not only protect against breast cancer. Some mushrooms contain specialized lectins (such as ABL in common white, cremini, and portobello mushrooms) that recognize cancer cells, and prevent the cells from growing and dividing.14,15  Mushroom beta-glucans interact with immune cells, promoting an anti-tumor immune response.1,2 In addition, white, cremini, portobello, oyster, maitake, and reishi mushrooms each contain bioactive compounds with the potential for anti-cancer activity. These mushroom phytochemicals have anti-angiogenic, anti-proliferative, and other anti-cancer effects, which have been studied in relation to stomach, colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers.16-25

Mushrooms protect the brain from oxidative stress 

Mushrooms are the richest dietary source of the specialized antioxidant ergothioneine; all mushrooms contain some ergothioneine, but oyster mushrooms contain the most. Other significant dietary sources of ergothioneine include oat bran, black turtle beans, and red kidney beans.26-28 Many human cells have a transporter protein whose main known function is to bring ergothioneine into the cell.29

Studies on dietary factors and cognitive health in older adults, particularly in Asia, have found that greater mushroom consumption or ergothioneine levels in the blood were associated with better brain health.30-32

Ergothioneine is found in almost all human cell and tissue types and tends to accumulate in tissues exposed to high levels of oxidative stress.27,28  The brain is one of those tissues; there are high levels of oxidation products because of its high metabolic activity, and the mitochondria in particular is the site of highest oxidative stress. Mitochondrial DNA does not have the same robust protection and repair mechanisms as regular DNA, so mitochondrial DNA is more susceptible to oxidative damage.  Oxidative damage to mitochondria is thought to be a major contributor to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.27  Ergothioneine’s protection of the mitochondria may protect the brain from oxidative damage, helping to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

Mushrooms should only be eaten cooked. Several raw culinary mushrooms contain small amounts of a potentially carcinogenic substance called agaritine, and cooking mushrooms significantly reduces agaritine content.33-35 Mushrooms add unique flavors and textures to vegetable dishes, and are delicious paired with fresh herbs. Combining mushrooms with the onion family, green and cruciferous vegetables, and beans, creates delicious, healthful, and powerfully protective meals.

I discuss the unique health benefits of mushrooms in detail in my book Super Immunity.For the latest research on how mushrooms promote health, read my new book Eat for Life.

  1. The immunobiology of mushrooms. Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 2008, 233:259-276.

  2. Vannucci L, Krizan J, Sima P, Stakheev D, Caja F, Rajsiglova L, Horak V, Saieh M. Immunostimulatory properties and antitumor activities of glucans (Review). Int J Oncol 2013, 43:357-364.

  3. Akramiene D, Kondrotas A, Didziapetriene J, Kevelaitis E. Effects of beta-glucans on the immune system. Medicina (Kaunas) 2007, 43:597-606.

  4. Jeong SC, Koyyalamudi SR, Pang G. Dietary intake of Agaricus bisporus white button mushroom accelerates salivary immunoglobulin A secretion in healthy volunteers. Nutrition 2012, 28:527-531.

  5. Dai X, Stanilka JM, Rowe CA, Esteves EA, Nieves C, Jr., Spaiser SJ, Christman MC, Langkamp-Henken B, Percival SS. Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults. J Am Coll Nutr 2015, 34:478-487.

  6. Torkelson CJ, Sweet E, Martzen MR, Sasagawa M, Wenner CA, Gay J, Putiri A, Standish LJ. Phase 1 Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer. ISRN Oncol 2012, 2012:251632.

  7. Jin X, Ruiz Beguerie J, Sze DM, Chan GC. Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi mushroom) for cancer treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2016, 4:CD007731.

  8. Zhang Y, Zhang M, Jiang Y, Li X, He Y, Zeng P, Guo Z, Chang Y, Luo H, Liu Y, et al. Lentinan as an immunotherapeutic for treating lung cancer: a review of 12 years clinical studies in China. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 2018, 144:2177-2186.

  9. Ina K, Kataoka T, Ando T. The use of lentinan for treating gastric cancer. Anticancer Agents Med Chem 2013, 13:681-688.

  10. Zhang M, Huang J, Xie X, Holman CD. Dietary intakes of mushrooms and green tea combine to reduce the risk of breast cancer in Chinese women. Int J Cancer 2009, 124:1404-1408.

  11. Li J, Zou L, Chen W, Zhu B, Shen N, Ke J, Lou J, Song R, Zhong R, Miao X. Dietary mushroom intake may reduce the risk of breast cancer: evidence from a meta-analysis of observational studies. PLoS One 2014, 9:e93437.

  12. Ba DM, Ssentongo P, Beelman RB, et al. Higher Mushroom Consumption Is Associated with Lower Risk of Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Adv Nutr 2021.

  13. Grube BJ, Eng ET, Kao YC, Kwon A, Chen S. White button mushroom phytochemicals inhibit aromatase activity and breast cancer cell proliferation. J Nutr 2001, 131:3288-3293.

  14. Yu L, Fernig DG, Smith JA, Milton JD, Rhodes JM. Reversible inhibition of proliferation of epithelial cell lines by Agaricus bisporus (edible mushroom) lectin. Cancer research 1993, 53:4627-4632.

  15. Carrizo ME, Capaldi S, Perduca M, Irazoqui FJ, Nores GA, Monaco HL. The antineoplastic lectin of the common edible mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) has two binding sites, each specific for a different configuration at a single epimeric hydroxyl. The Journal of biological chemistry 2005, 280:10614-10623.

  16. Hara M, Hanaoka T, Kobayashi M, Otani T, Adachi HY, Montani A, Natsukawa S, Shaura K, Koizumi Y, Kasuga Y, et al. Cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, and gastrointestinal cancer risks in a multicenter, hospital-based case-control study in Japan. Nutr Cancer 2003, 46:138-147.

  17. Zhang CX, Ho SC, Chen YM, Fu JH, Cheng SZ, Lin FY. Greater vegetable and fruit intake is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer among Chinese women. Int J Cancer 2009, 125:181-188.

  18. Martin KR, Brophy SK. Commonly consumed and specialty dietary mushrooms reduce cellular proliferation in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. Experimental Biology and Medicine 2010, 235:1306-1314.

  19. Fang N, Li Q, Yu S, Zhang J, He L, Ronis MJ, Badger TM. Inhibition of growth and induction of apoptosis in human cancer cell lines by an ethyl acetate fraction from shiitake mushrooms. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine 2006, 12:125-132.

  20. Ng ML, Yap AT. Inhibition of human colon carcinoma development by lentinan from shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes). Journal of alternative and complementary medicine 2002, 8:581-589.

  21. Adams LS, Phung S, Wu X, Ki L, Chen S. White button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) exhibits antiproliferative and proapoptotic properties and inhibits prostate tumor growth in athymic mice. Nutrition and Cancer 2008, 60:744-756.

  22. Lakshmi B, Ajith TA, Sheena N, Gunapalan N, Janardhanan KK. Antiperoxidative, anti-inflammatory, and antimutagenic activities of ethanol extract of the mycelium of Ganoderma lucidum occurring in South India. Teratogenesis, carcinogenesis, and mutagenesis 2003, Suppl 1:85-97.

  23. Cao QZ, Lin ZB. Antitumor and anti-angiogenic activity of Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides peptide. Acta pharmacologica Sinica 2004, 25:833-838.

  24. Lin ZB, Zhang HN. Anti-tumor and immunoregulatory activities of Ganoderma lucidum and its possible mechanisms. Acta pharmacologica Sinica 2004, 25:1387-1395.

  25. Patel S, Goyal A. Recent developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: a review. 3 Biotech 2012, 2:1-15.

  26. Feeney MJ, Dwyer J, Hasler-Lewis CM, Milner JA, Noakes M, Rowe S, Wach M, Beelman RB, Caldwell J, Cantorna MT, et al. Mushrooms and Health Summit proceedings. J Nutr 2014, 144:1128S-1136S.

  27. Paul BD, Snyder SH. The unusual amino acid L-ergothioneine is a physiologic cytoprotectant. Cell Death Differ 2010, 17:1134-1140.

  28. Ames BN. Prolonging healthy aging: Longevity vitamins and proteins. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2018, 115:10836-10844.

  29. Grundemann D, Harlfinger S, Golz S, Geerts A, Lazar A, Berkels R, Jung N, Rubbert A, Schomig E. Discovery of the ergothioneine transporter. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2005, 102:5256-5261.

  30. Zhang S, Tomata Y, Sugiyama K, Sugawara Y, Tsuji I. Mushroom Consumption and Incident Dementia in Elderly Japanese: The Ohsaki Cohort 2006 Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2017, 65:1462-1469.

  31. Feng L, Cheah IK, Ng MM, Li J, Chan SM, Lim SL, Mahendran R, Kua EH, Halliwell B. The Association between Mushroom Consumption and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Community-Based Cross-Sectional Study in Singapore. J Alzheimers Dis 2019, 68:197-203.

  32. Cheah IK, Feng L, Tang RMY, Lim KHC, Halliwell B. Ergothioneine levels in an elderly population decrease with age and incidence of cognitive decline; a risk factor for neurodegeneration? Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2016, 478:162-167.

  33. Toth B, Erickson J. Cancer induction in mice by feeding of the uncooked cultivated mushroom of commerce Agaricus bisporus. Cancer research 1986, 46:4007-4011.

  34. Schulzova V, Hajslova J, Peroutka R, Gry J, Andersson HC. Influence of storage and household processing on the agaritine content of the cultivated Agaricus mushroom. Food Additives and Contaminants 2002, 19:853-862.

  35. Roupas P, Keogh J, Noakes M, Margetts C, Taylor P. Mushrooms and agaritine: A mini-review. Journal of Functional Foods 2010, 2:91-98.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, seven-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 30 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.


Comments (0):



05/15/2020 01:26 AM

Perhaps mushrooms aren't the best thing to eat if you're on HRT, since they reduce your estrogen levels?

Dr. Ferreri replies:

05/19/2020 11:20 AM

Mushroom components inhibit aromatase, an enzyme that produces estrogen, but there isn't any research on whether mushrooms interfere with hormone replacement therapy.

Dr. Fuhrman does have a position paper on HRT: https://www.drfuhrman.com/elearning/position-papers/4/hormone-replacement-therapy


05/22/2020 04:29 PM

Are mushrooms supplements such as Stametz 7 ( a blend of 7 mushroom types) providing the same benefits as eating mushrooms?


Dr. Ferreri replies:

06/04/2020 11:39 AM

Mixed mushroom supplements may provide some additional benefits by supplying mushroom varieties you wouldn't typically get in your diet. However, Dr. Fuhrman recommends eating mushrooms regularly also, and using supplements to complement the diet rather than replace mushrooms in the diet. 


05/22/2020 05:07 PM

I've been putting mushrooms in my daily salad for quite a while now, but I see that I may be negating the positive effects of the mushrooms due to eating them raw.  Short of doing a daily water saute, can you give some suggestions on how I might be able to prepare the mushrooms in advance so they are readily availabke to add to my daily salad?  If I water saute them in advance how long will they keep in the refrigerator?  Would one of your Superfood Powders (Mushroom Chai or Pro-Boost) be a suitable mushroom alternative to sprinkle on top of the salad?

Ferrice replies:

05/31/2020 10:41 AM

I toss them with vegetable stock and italian herbs and roast whole on a sheet pan at 475 for 20 minutes.  Store in airtight container and use within about 5 days.

This reply was last edited on 05/31/2020 11:13 AM

Dr. Ferreri replies:

06/04/2020 11:48 AM

I wouldn't recommend Mushroom Chai or Pro-Boost on your salad, only because of the chai and vanilla flavors, which probably would not mix well with salad. The superfood powders are better in smoothies. 

The potential for risk from agaritine is very low. Dr. Fuhrman recommends cooking as an extra precaution. Water-sauteeing a batch of mushrooms, refrigerating, and using them over the next 3-5 days would be appropriate.


10/03/2020 11:54 AM

Are mushrooms purchased in cans and glass containers as beneficial as cooked fresh mushrooms? Fresh mushrooms tastes better but there is more waste since they perish very quickly.

This comment was last edited on 10/03/2020 11:55 AM

vaporz replies:

06/27/2022 09:01 PM

Canned/jarred mushrooms have the same nutritional content as fresh mushrooms. However, the added sodium from the canning brine (saltwater) makes them off-limits for Nutritatians.

This reply was last edited on 06/27/2022 09:06 PM


09/17/2021 06:50 PM

Chaga or any mushroom powder, should it be only ingested if items being cooked?


Dr. Ferreri replies:

09/21/2021 09:57 AM

Agaritine is only produced by Agaricus genus mushrooms (such as Agaricus bisporus, etc.). Most mushroom powders have been heated during their processing. 


01/31/2022 11:47 PM

I would love to see more recipes using dried mushrooms.  I see a variety of dried mushrooms at Whole Foods, in the soup aisle.  I think you just soak them in water for a while, then drain and rinse (to remove any dirt).  They have Porcini, Wood Ear, Morels, to name a few.  Maybe I just need to be more adventurous?  Whole Foods also sells a package variety where the fresh mushrooms are, and those were good (a variety in the same package).  Any recipes any one?