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Fun fact: I have a whole basket of mushroom coffees and drinks on my coffee bar. One of the powerhouse mushrooms you’ll find in there is maitake.
This humble mushroom is also called “hen of the woods.” Its overlapping fronds resemble the feathers of a nesting hen, hence the name. Over the centuries, maitake’s many benefits have sparked the interest of researchers and health enthusiasts alike. Not only is it a medicinal mushroom, but its delicious umami flavor makes it a prized culinary ingredient.
What Are Maitake Mushrooms?
The maitake mushroom, also known as Grifola frondosa, is an edible mushroom native to China. It also grows in the mountains of northeastern Japan, Europe, North America, and other parts of Asia. Besides hen of the woods, another common name for this mushroom is “sheep’s head.”
“Maitake” means dancing mushroom in Japanese. The name supposedly comes from people dancing for joy upon finding it. People have known for centuries how beneficial this type of mushroom is. It’s one of the mushroom varieties considered a “medicinal mushroom.” Maitake has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use: “Let food be thy medicine.”
Nutrients in Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushrooms are an excellent source of amino acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, phosphorus, and potassium. They also provide dietary fiber to feed beneficial gut bacteria. Their cell walls are rich in anti-inflammatory beta-glucans that help support the immune system.
Maitake mushrooms are a natural source of vitamin D, but the amount can vary due to growing conditions, sun exposure, and maturity. When Maitake mushrooms are exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet (UV) light during their growth, they can synthesize vitamin D. It’s kind of like what human skin does when exposed to sunlight. The type of vitamin D found in fungi is D2 rather than D3.
Maitake mushrooms also have phosphorus. Our body uses this essential mineral for lots of different physiological processes. A few examples include bone health, energy metabolism, cell membrane structure, and DNA/RNA synthesis.
Potassium is present in most plants and fungi and is crucial for the human diet. This essential mineral plays an important role in maintaining health, including fluid balance.
Along with sodium and magnesium, potassium is an electrolyte. These elements carry an electric charge and are involved in thousands of several critical processes. Beyond its role in fluid balance, it supports nerve function, muscle function, and heart health.
Healing Benefits of Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushroom has gained attention for its potential health benefits.
It has many bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides, beta-glucans, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. These compounds likely contribute to its medicinal properties, making it a sought-after mushroom.
Medicinal mushrooms are known for supporting the immune system. Maitake mushrooms are no exception. Like other medicinal mushrooms, Maitake mushrooms contain beta-glucans. These mushroom-based polysaccharides help support a healthy immune response. Polysaccharides in general are complex carbohydrates made up of smaller sugar molecules. These sugars may support a variety of processes that make the body more resilient.
A 2014 animal study looked at the immune-enhancing effect of both maitake and shiitake mushrooms. The researchers found maitake mushrooms stimulated an intense immune response. However, they worked synergistically with shiitake for a more potent effect. The mushroom blend was the most powerful, while the maitake alone came in at a close second.
Provide Cancer Support
Because they’re good at modulating the immune system, maitake mushrooms may support the body in fighting against cancer. Research shows the beta-glucans in maitake have an antitumor immune response. In some scientific studies, maitake blocked tumor growth in mice.
The beta-glucans may enhance the activity of specific immune cells, such as natural killer (NK) cells and macrophages. These cells play a crucial role in identifying and destroying cancer cells. By supporting immune function, maitake mushrooms may help our ability to combat cancer.
Another way maitake mushrooms can help with cancer is by promoting apoptosis. Apoptosis is programmed cell death that eliminates damaged or abnormal cells (like cancer cells). Some studies suggest maitake mushroom extracts could induce apoptosis in bladder and breast cancer cells.
A promising extract is maitake D-fraction, which is available in supplement form. Vitamin C enhances the action of both D-fraction and MD-fraction maitake mushroom extracts.
Maitake mushrooms shouldn’t necessarily replace other cancer treatments. However, they can complement other therapies. Always follow the medical advice of a healthcare professional you trust.
May Balance Cholesterol Levels
Another way Maitake mushrooms may help ward off chronic illness is by balancing cholesterol levels. While LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, it’s not quite so simple. Lipoprotein expert Dr. Cromwell explains more here in this podcast episode. Other health factors (especially insulin resistance) play a big role in our cholesterol levels.
Maitake’s antioxidants may also reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. As inflammation decreases, there’s less accumulation of cholesterol in the arteries. The result is protection against heart disease.
May Reduce Blood Pressure
Finding ways to consume maitake regularly may reduce high blood pressure. In one animal study, researchers gave maitake extract to rats and reduced age-related high blood pressure. The researchers were surprised to find the D-fraction extract also improved insulin sensitivity. This could help explain why maitake also helps with cholesterol balance.
In an older animal study (1989), researchers fed maitake mushrooms to rats for eight weeks. At the end of the study, blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels all went down. Maitake mushrooms’ ability to lower these markers implies they may help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Helps Blood Sugar Balance & Diabetes
A Japanese study tested a powdered maitake fruiting body on diabetic mice. The maitake mushroom powder had powerful anti-diabetic properties. The improvements occurred over four months — the duration of the study.
Another study looked at the effects on diabetic rats. Feeding this mushroom to the rats improved their glucose tolerance and blood glucose levels by the end of the study. The researchers concluded that the bioactive compounds in the mushrooms may be able to reduce the symptoms of diabetes.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes the ovaries to develop cysts around their outer edges. These fluid-filled cysts contain follicles, but they don’t regularly release eggs. This results in infrequent periods, lack of ovulation, and excess hair growth. Women with PCOS may have other hormone-related symptoms, but the most discouraging one is infertility.
Maitake mushrooms may be able to help. A 2010 Japanese study followed women with PCOS who took either maitake extract or the drug clomiphene citrate. The result was that maitake extract induced ovulation for 77% of PCOS patients. The mushroom was almost as effective as the prescription drug.
Risks & Precautions of Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushrooms are generally considered safe to eat. They have a long history of culinary and medicinal use in Asian countries. However, it’s critical to be aware of potential risks and side effects and take necessary precautions. Here are a few considerations for maitake mushrooms:
Because maitakes can lower blood sugar levels, it’s essential to be careful when on blood sugar-lowering medications. In some cases, maitake lowered blood sugar levels too much, which can lead to hypoglycemia.
How to Use Maitake
Your local grocery store may carry fresh maitake mushrooms in the produce section. If not, you can often find dried maitake in a natural foods store or online. To store, keep maitake mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator to allow them to “breathe” and absorb excess moisture.
Maitake mushrooms are delicious in soups, stir-fries, omelets, and casseroles. You can also enjoy them sauteed in butter or olive oil. This hen of the woods is also excellent when paired with an actual hen, like roast chicken. Here are some more ways to enjoy Maitake mushrooms:
- Sauteed or Stir-Fried: Cook them in butter or olive oil over medium heat until tender and slightly browned. Use as a side dish or add them to salads, rice (risotto), or your favorite type of pasta.
- Roasted: Roasting maitake mushrooms enhances their flavor and creates a delightful texture. Toss the mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, and herbs, then spread them out on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until golden brown and crispy at the edges.
- Grilled: Maitake mushrooms are excellent for grilling. Simply brush them with oil and season with salt and pepper. Then grill them until tender and slightly charred. Grilled maitake mushrooms make a delicious and savory addition to any BBQ or cookout.
- Tea and Broths: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sometimes uses maitake mushrooms in herbal teas or broths. These are easy ways to get the health benefits of maitake.
- Mushroom Coffee: You’ll often find powdered mushrooms or maitake mushroom extract in mushroom coffees. Check out this blog post to learn more about mushroom coffee.
A Few Tips For Eating Maitake
When cooking with Maitake mushrooms, clean them properly before use. Gently wipe them with a damp cloth or use a soft brush to remove dirt or debris. Avoid washing them as they absorb water easily. When they take on too much water, it can affect their texture and flavor.
Maitake mushrooms are available fresh, dried, or in supplement form. If you’re using dried Maitake mushrooms, rehydrate them in warm water before cooking to restore their texture and flavor. If you want the benefits of Maitake mushrooms without eating them daily, you can find them in supplement form. Ideally, they’re standardized to 30% D-fraction.
Maitake and other medicinal mushrooms are an excellent addition to your health regimen.
What I Do
I regularly drink medicinal mushrooms in tasty mushroom “coffees” and teas. The kids and I also love Four Sigmatic’s hot chocolate and Golden Chai Latte featuring medicinal mushrooms!
To learn more about other types of medicinal mushrooms and their benefits see:
Have you eaten or taken maitake mushrooms in some form? What were your results? Share below!