Maitake translates from it’s Japanese name to ‘dancing mushroom’ and for good reason. Finding a cluster of these immune boosting mushrooms brings such elation that foragers often dance with joy. Folklore suggests that the person lucky enough to stumble upon these mushrooms in the forest was able to trade them for their weight in silver.
Also known as hen-of-the-woods, maitake mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries. In traditional herbalism, maitake is classified as an adaptogen, a substance which produces a balancing effect on the immune system as well as helping the body to resist the negative effects of stress.
Recently, modern medicine is starting to take note of the healing properties maitake mushrooms have to offer. Medicinal mushrooms, including but not limited to maitake, are rich in polysaccharides. These long chain carbohydrate molecules hold within them many medicinal wonders. Specifically, beta-glucans, which offer a profound anti-inflammatory effect and can be used in treating a wide range of diseases, from cancer to high cholesterol.
Many studies point to maitake’s ability to enhance the immune system and halt cancer growth. At a time in history when cancer is affecting more and more people, it’s safe to say we should be adding as many cancer-fighting substances to our arsenal as possible. This task could be much easier than you think, since maitake mushrooms grow in much of the Eastern U.S. and Canada and are relatively easy to grow yourself.
[Note: Do not consume any wild mushroom until you’ve identified them with 100% accuracy.]
“Maitake can achieve humongous sizes, sometimes up to 50 pounds per specimen! Massive maitake can form annually from dying dendritic tree roots for many years, even decades, ” notes Paul Stamets, author of Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms and educator of mushroom cultivators world-wide.
Maitake mushrooms are a seriously healthy food, they have an abundance of b-vitamins and a shocking amount of potassium. To compare, one banana contains approximately 422 mg of potassium compared to 10 times that amount in the same measurement of maitake. Maitake for the win!
- 377 calories per 100 grams dry weight
- 25 percent protein
- 3-4 percent fats (1 percent polyunsaturated fat; 2 percent total unsaturated fat; 0.3 percent saturated fat)
- 60 percent carbohydrates (41 percent are complex carbohydrates)
- 28 percent fiber
- 0 percent cholesterol
- B vitamins (mg/100 g): niacin (64.8); riboflavin (2.6 mg); and pantheonic acid (4.4 mg)
- High concentration of potassium: 2,300 mg/100 g (or 2.3 percent of dry mass!)
Source: International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, vol. 7, p. 109-116.
Mushrooms contain substances called beta-glucans, a complex sugar noted for its ability to modulate the immune system. D-Fraction, a beta glucan extract from the maitake mushroom, has been tested in numerous clinical trials because of its ability to activate cellular immunity. The reason that maitake shows such great effectiveness is it’s ability to stimulate the white blood cells of the immune system, which are needed to fight cancers and immunological diseases.
One study showed that by activating NK (natural killer) cells, maitake inhibited colon, lung, and melanoma cancer growth. It’s also been shown to activate the T-helper cells which play an important role in modulating the immune system and allowing other white blood cells to do their jobs fighting off cancers and other foreign invaders.
Like most healing protocols, it can be helpful to combine with other therapeutic substances for maximum effect. Maitake is often consumed with vitamin C, which has been well studied for its ability to kill cancer cells. There are even studies that have shown high levels of Vitamin C given intravenously kill cancer without harming healthy cells. A study done in vitro using both the bioactive maitake extract PDF and vitamin C gave researchers hope for a potential alternative to conventional cancer therapy.
“These studies showed that PDF was indeed capable of modulating immunologic and hematologic parameters, inhibiting or regressing the cancer cell growth, and even improving quality of life of cancer patients, ” writers study author Sensuke Konno in a paper published by the International Journal of General Medicine.
Perhaps the most well-known human study on maitake mushrooms is the one done by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in 2009. Published in the Journal of Cancer Research, it showed that polysaccharide extract from the maitake mushroom significantly stimulated the immune system of women with breast cancer — effectively halting progression in its tracks for some.
Another study exposed mice to a known carcinogen, N-butyl-N’-butanolnitrosoamine (BBN), that causes bladder cancer every day for a period of eight weeks. All of the mice that were given BBN developed bladder cancer. The mice were divided into three groups, and each group was fed a different type of mushroom: maitake, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. “While each of the mushrooms reduced the number of bladder cancers,” the researchers found “maitake was clearly most effective.” The results of their study showed that “carcinomas were observed in 46.7 percent of the maitake-treated mice compared to 52.9 percent and 65 percent for shiitake and oyster, respectively.”
Diabetes rates continue to grow, and while allopathic medicine struggles to find a cure, nature has offered us an abundance of substances that have been proven to be quite effective.
There have been various studies that point to maitake’s ability to lower blood glucose, increase insulin sensitivity, and help control diabetes. This makes perfect sense, since many other beta-glucan rich substances have shown a similar effect.
Maitake isn’t the only medicinal mushroom that can help with diabetes. Reishi mushrooms, cordyceps, agaricus and even the common button mushrooms are all useful. Taking a combination of these medicinal mushrooms, including maitake is a good idea for anyone looking for a natural solution to diabetes.
More Reasons To Dance
Our livers are hard workers in a modern age full of environmental toxins that we somehow need to process. Environmental factors can be compounded by substance abuse and unhealthy food choices — which, when combined, are a recipe for fatty liver disease.
One animal study showed that maitake has the capacity to inhibit an accumulation of liver lipids quite drastically. Other studies have indicated that maitake could perform well in conjunction with allopathic treatments for both lowering high blood pressure and certain types of cholesterol, as well as treating food poisoning caused by listeria bacteria.
A small Japanese study showed that maitake increases ovulation by normalizing the insulin-glucose feedback system in women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Typically an insulin sensitizing drug is given to induce ovulation, but maitake proves to be a good natural alternative. If you’ve experienced infertility and you have diabetes, know that there is a link between the two.
At the root of all disease and discomfort there is one thing in common — and that is inflammation. Anytime the body is under stress our inflammatory response kicks in. This can be life saving or it can become chronically debilitating. Increasing the anti-inflammatory substances in our diets is preventative medicine at its best.
Maitake and it’s mushroom allies are all anti-inflammatory. One reason that maitake is so effective at eliminating cancers ferocious attack on the body is its anti-inflammatory effect.
How To Take Maitake Mushroom
Maitake mushrooms are a delicious addition to any diet. You might be able to find fresh maitake at your local Asian grocery store. They’re also fairly easy to grow (growing kits can be found online). They’re lovely sautéed by themselves in butter or olive oil and are a beta-glucan rich addition to soups, sauces, and stews. You can find some great maitake recipes here.
Supplementing with maitake is another good way of incorporating this powerful mushroom. Maitake can be procured in a pure alcohol tincture form, dual-extraction tincture form, and in capsules. The benefits differ depending on which form you choose to consume.
Purely alcohol based tinctures don’t contain beta-glucans, because they aren’t alcohol soluble. However they do contain other components that are otherwise difficult to extract such as sterols and certain antioxidants.
To extract the beta-glucans one must take either a dual-extraction (a type of tincture which extracts the compounds using both alcohol and water) or a decoction. Decoctions can be made by simmering the dried mushroom for an extended period of time, typically anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours. Most decoctions are made using a ratio of 20 parts water to 1 part herb or mushroom. The longer you simmer, the stronger your decoction will be.
Powdered maitake mushroom is another option that many find more convenient than taking a tincture or making a decoction. When choosing a maitake mushroom supplement, it’s wise to look for a product that contains both the mycelium and the fruit bodies in order to get maximum benefits.
“Much has been written about extraction methods for isolating single classes of constituents,” writes Stamets. “Extraction necessarily excludes other derivatives. Hot water, for example, has been used for centuries in teas and soups. Hot water isolates soluble sugars, including certain beta-glucans, glycoproteins and triterpenoids. Alcohol extraction, also proven effective for more than two millennia, on the other hand, can solubize many sterols, ergothioneines, glycosides and flavonoids.”
Maitake is also included in many medicinal mushroom blends. Combining several medicinal mushrooms such as chaga, reishi, cordyceps and others is like the multi-vitamin version of mushroom supplementation. For overall maintenance and prevention these types of formulas are a good option.
Chantelle Zakariasen spent three years studying at The Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary and is a Certified Herbalist. She spent a further two years studying Raw Food Nutrition at the Body Mind Institute and has 200 hours of yoga teacher training under her belt. When she’s not writing, she works as a nutritional consultant, and shares the healthy recipes she loves at nakedcuisine.com.