Immune modulation for autoimmune recovery
Our immune system is primary defense mechanism which works tirelessly to protect us from all sorts of illnesses and diseases. When we have autoimmune condition, our immune system attacks healthy cells in our body by mistake. In the case of alopecia areata, our immune system attacks our hair follicles. Most treatments out there focus highly on treating the symptoms, but few if any at all looks at fixing the underlying cause of the problem.
Autoimmune and the immune system
Our immune system needs to be strong in order to be effective in its job. But more than that, it needs to have just the right balance and ratio of different immune cells in order to function correctly. Various autoimmune conditions are linked to an immune system that does not function correctly. So, restoring the balance of our immune function is key to fixing autoimmune condition by tackling the problem at its source.
Natural Killer (NK) cells go into action when our body senses that it needs to fend itself from infectious agents — virus, bacteria, and so on. When their job is finished, suppressor cells are supposed to send signals for these NK cells to stop the inflammation (aka the fight). When they don’t, NK cells continue their fight, turning the attack on our own tissue. As a result, autoimmune disease develops.
Merely strengthening our immune system at this time could be a problem and make symptoms worse. Modulating the immune system increases the number and activity of suppressor cells and is very well the answer to treating the autoimmune condition.
What is Immune Modulation (or Immunomodulation)
Modulation of the immune system refers to altering our immune response, and it includes stimulation as well as inactivation of some stage of the immune response. Immuno-modulators are materials that can modify our immune system response to a threat, and they consist of (1) immuno-stimulators and (2) immuno-supppressors.
Certain plants have been studied to posses potential bioactive compounds that are capable of immuno-modulation. Polysaccharides from certain plants have prompted researchers to study their physical properties and potential use.
Foods that have immune modulating properties
Mushrooms are distinguished as an important food containing immuno-modulating compounds. These compounds belong mostly to polysaccharides, especially β-Glucans (beta-glucans).
Mushrooms containing polysaccharides with immuno-modulating activity include:
- Lentinula edodes (Shiitake mushroom)
- Agaricus blazei (ABM mushroom)
- Grifola frondosa (Maitake mushroom)
- Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi mushroom)
- Cordyceps sinensis or Cordyceps mycellium
- Flammulina velutipes (Enoki mushroom)
- Hericium erinaceum (Lion’s Mane mushroom)
Food sources of immune modulators to resolve autoimmune conditions and allergies
Polysaccharides from reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have been shown to activate and modulate multiple immune reactions, so that our immune system reacts more effectively to foreign invaders such as virus and bacteria, and calm down when it is overactive, attacking the body’s own healthy cells.
The ganoderic acids in reishi have been shown to fight hyperactive immune system, including autoimmune and allergies, by slowing down histamine release, improving the flow of oxygen, and boosting liver functions.
Reishi is particularly able to help bring our immune system back into balance, which is especially important for treating autoimmune conditions.
Cordyceps contains many powerful phytochemicals that positively affect the heart, lung and kidneys.
Cordyceps also possesses a variety of immuno-regulatory properties, and has been studied to effectively support the treatment of a number of autoimmune diseases including Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Cordyceps is so effective in modulating the immune function that it has also shown in studies to benefit those with moderate to severe asthma.
More and more evidence is showing that cordyceps is a bidirectional modulator with both activating and suppressive effects on the immune system through regulating innate and adaptive immunity. This is key to restoring balance and resolving autoimmunity.
ABM mushroom has the highest levels of blood-building iron available in plant foods with 9.65mg per 100g. It is also high in phosphorus, potassium and zinc as well as antioxidants.
ABM has higher concentration of long-chain polysaccharides for effective immune modulators than other mushrooms, making them very effective in stimulating a weak immune system and regulating immune overreactions.
A study concluded that consumption of shiitake mushroom for a period of time “improved immunity, as seen by improved cell proliferation and activation and increased sIgA production. The changes observed in cytokine and serum CRP levels suggest that these improvements occurred under conditions that were less inflammatory than those that existed before consumption”.
Shiitake mushrooms also have antimicrobial properties, making it an effective natural antibiotic. A study showed that unlike prescription antibiotics, shiitake only killed disease-causing microbes, leaving beneficial bacteria unharmed.
Maitake mushrooms are highly desired for their immune-regulating effects due to polysaccharide beta-glucans that support macrophage and natural killer cell activity. A study showed that polysaccharide extract from Maitake showed immuno-modulatory effects in preclinical studies and therefore the potential for clinical use.
Several major substances with immunomodulatory and/or antitumor activity have been isolated from mushrooms. These include mainly polysaccharides (in particular β-D-glucans), polysaccharopeptides (PSP), polysaccharide proteins, and proteins. Furthermore, other bioactive substances, including triterpenes, lipids, and phenols, have been identified and characterized in mushrooms with proven medicinal properties. The major immunomodulating effects of these active substances derived from mushrooms include mitogenicity and activation of immune cells, such as hematopoietic stem cells, lymphocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells (DCs) and natural killer (NK) cells, resulting in the production of cytokines. The therapeutic effects of mushrooms, such as anticancer activity, suppression of autoimmune diseases, and allergy have been associated in many cases with their immunomodulating effects. 
The problem with Immunosuppressive drugs
Standard treatments that are commonly prescribed for autoimmune diseases have frequently involved suppressing the immune system, often in a way that is almost identical to standard treatments for organ transplantation. In fact, many drugs specifically developed for transplantation, are now used to treat autoimmune diseases.
Transplant medications must be very powerful immune suppressants in order for them to work and prevent organ rejection. Therefore the use of these medicines to treat autoimmune conditions is considered a heavy-handed approach, and is not a desired approach to go about resolving autoimmunity by many patients. In some cases, these medicines are simply unsuitable as is the case for children.
Methotrexate, for example, has long been used for autoimmune diseases. The following is in the ‘Warning’ section of Methotrexate on one of Canadian health network websites:
Methotrexate has rarely caused serious (sometimes fatal) side effects. Therefore, this medication should be used only to treat cancer or severe diseases caused by an overactive immune system (such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis).
Methotrexate formulations with preservatives must not be used for high-dose treatment or injected into the spine (intrathecal).
Methotrexate has caused birth defects and death in unborn babies. Women must avoid becoming pregnant while using this medication. Pregnant women who have psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis must not use methotrexate. (See also Precautions section.)
If you have kidney problems or excess body water (ascites, pleural effusion), you must be closely monitored and your dose may be adjusted or stopped by your doctor.
Methotrexate (usually at high dosages) has rarely caused severe (sometimes fatal) blood/bone marrow problems (decreasing your body’s ability to fight infections) and stomach/intestinal disease (such as bleeding) when used at the same time as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as indomethacin, ketoprofen). Therefore, NSAIDs should not be used with high-dose methotrexate. Caution is advised if you also take aspirin. NSAIDs/aspirin may be used with low-dose methotrexate such as for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis if directed by your doctor. If your doctor has directed you to take low-dose aspirin for heart attack or stroke prevention (usually at dosages of 81-325 milligrams a day), you should continue taking it unless your doctor instructs you otherwise. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more details on the safe use of these drugs (such as close monitoring by your doctor, keeping the same doses of NSAIDs).
In rare instances, this drug may also cause liver problems when it is used for long periods of time. If you are using methotrexate long term, a liver biopsy is usually recommended.
Methotrexate use has rarely caused serious (sometimes fatal) side effects, such as lung problems, lung infections (Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia), skin reactions, diarrhea, and mouth sores (ulcerative stomatitis). (See also Side Effects section.)
Lumps (tumors/abnormal growths) may very rarely appear during methotrexate use. The drug must be stopped and treatment may be needed. Tell your doctor right away if new lumps/growths occur.
When used to treat tumors, methotrexate sometimes causes side effects due to the rapid destruction of cancer cells (tumor lysis syndrome). To lower your risk, drink plenty of fluids unless your doctor directs you otherwise. Also, your doctor may prescribe an additional medication. Tell your doctor right away if you have symptoms such as irregular heartbeat, low back/side pain, signs of kidney problems (such as pink/bloody urine, change in the amount of urine, painful urination), or muscle spasms/weakness.
When this medication is used with radiation treatment, it may rarely increase the risk of tissue and bone damage. Discuss the risks and benefits of your treatment with your doctor.
Medicinal mushrooms as natural immunosuppressant
The problem with drugs are their inherent side effects and limitations. Our immune system is a very complex network of cells, organs and functions all working together in synergy. It is much better to give our immune system the food and substances it needs in order to perform the work it’s supposed to perform, as no man-made medication can replace that.
Many immunosuppressant drugs are derived from medicinal mushrooms, for example, cyclosporine is actually derived from the Cordyceps mushroom. A much better way to reap the immune-modulating benefits of these mushrooms is by consuming the different types of these mushrooms in whole foods form, allowing them to work in synergy and enabling our immune system to regulate itself overtime and resolving the autoimmunity problems right from the source.
- Immunomodulatory and Natural Immunomodulators
- Immunomodulation in autoimmune diseases
- Immunomodulating Activities of Ganoderma, a Mushroom with Medicinal Properties
- Effect of Cordyceps sinensis on the Treatment of Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis: A Pilot Study on Mice Model
- Autoimmune disease: Lessons from the field of transplantation
- Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug
- Herbal Medicine Cordyceps sinensis Improves Health-Related Quality of Life in Moderate-to-Severe Asthma
- Antiinflammatory and Immunomodulating Properties of Fungal Metabolites
- Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults
- In vitro assessment of shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes) extract for its antigingivitis activity
- A phase I/II trial of a polysaccharide extract from Grifola frondosa (Maitake mushroom) in breast cancer patients: immunological effects
- Reishi and Autoimmune Disease
I originally wrote this article for “Natural Alopecia Wellness“, a website that is dedicated to helping others resolve autoimmune-triggered hair loss condition called Alopecia Areata.