Autoimmune conditions have been steadily rising in the modern era, beckoning us as a collective to deepen our understandings of the body and explore both novel and ancient approaches to healing. From a Western medicine perspective, it’s understood that these conditions entail an overactive immune system mistaking healthy bodily tissues or organs for an external threat, which it therefore organizes against. In very simple terms, autoimmunity refers to the body attacking itself.
The late TCM practitioner, teacher, and expert, Giovanni Maciocia, shared: “What causes the immune system to no longer tell the difference between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory is that some microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) or drugs may trigger some of these changes, especially in people who have genes that make them more likely to get autoimmune disorders.” In effect, Maciocia utilizes the framework of epigenetics to help explain immune function as dependent upon both our inherited genetics, as well as environmental and lifestyle factors that can activate those predispositions.
TCM Perspective on Autoimmunity
Traditional Chinese Medicine does not really have a theory for autoimmune conditions beyond the notion that any manifestation of dis-ease stems from an imbalance that necessitates treatment on a bio-individual basis. Indeed, there are over 80 autoimmune conditions with a huge variety of symptoms, pathology, and patterns but, even beyond those differences, classically trained Chinese Medicine practitioner Yaelle Dery explains that “each Western diagnosis could be comprised of five Chinese Medicine diagnoses.”
Thankfully, TCM diagnoses point to some connective threads that can help in supporting those dealing with autoimmune conditions. Chronic inflammation is one widespread commonality resulting from the immune system’s attacks on the body’s own tissues. Beyond that, Maciocia adds that treatment must be given to the Kidneys (the so-called root of the autoimmune process), as well as checking for Latent Heat or Yin Fire, which seem to be two common Chinese Medicine diagnoses underlying autoimmune conditions.
Mushroom Allies for Autoimmunity
Chaga and Reishi are two of the medicinal mushrooms considered very helpful for those dealing with autoimmune conditions, primarily due to their immunomodulating properties. Because both of these ancient allies have a particularly intelligent bidirectional effect, the medicinal constituents will perform as needed in order to help return the stressed physiological conditions to a balanced state, rather than, for example, stimulating an immune system that is already overstimulated.
Both Chaga and Reishi can help reduce inflammation, partially explained by their indicated ability to regulate the production of cytokines, which are specialized proteins that balance immune function, and are also inflammatory markers considered crucial in the pathogenesis of autoimmune conditions. The rich antioxidant contents of Chaga and Reishi can further help tame inflammation by protecting the cells from free radicals; in fact, Chaga is known to have one of the highest antioxidant concentrations in any food. Finally, the triterpenes found in both of these mushrooms have also been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory actions.
As for Maciocia’s directive to treat the Kidneys, both Reishi and Chaga act upon the Kidney channels. There is support for the classification of Reishi as a renoprotective, meaning protective to the Kidneys, and even support for its ability to help improve renal function. Meanwhile, Chaga is classified in TCM as a Kidney tonic herb with thousands of years of tradition supporting its benefit in nourishing this organ system. If you attempt to research how Chaga benefits the kidneys, however, you will be inundated with warnings about the dangers it poses due to its “high oxalate content,” actually indicating the importance of sourcing as mushrooms cultivated on substrates high in heavy metals may form oxalates at a higher rate, a problem for individuals with kidney stones. Our Chaga is wildcrafted and tested for heavy metals by a third party lab. It is also important to observe serving size recommendations.
In continuing to address the connective threads of autoimmune conditions from the perspective of Chinese Medicine, let’s touch upon the diagnoses of Yin Fire and Latent Heat. Yin Fire is a Qi (vital life force) deficiency intimately related to inflammation; both Reishi and Chaga are considered yin-nourishing tonics, and, as we covered, potent inflammation-taming agents. Latent Heat refers to the entry and invasion of a pathogen that the body does not mobilize against, allowing it to bury deeper. It’s related to Kidney deficiency, which, as explained by Maciocia “causes the immune system not to react to the initial external invasion,” and injures Yin. Just by understanding what Latent Heat is, we can see how Reishi and Chaga may be helpful in its prevention, and, quite likely, just as helpful in its treatment.
Further research: A 2016 clinical trial also explored the potential benefit of Cordyceps to people diagnosed with Autoimmune Thyroid diseases. Read more here.
Contraindications: If you are taking immunosuppressant medications for an autoimmune condition, please consult with your healthcare provider prior to introducing Reishi or Chaga.
1. Giovanni Maciocia on autoimmune conditions: https://giovanni-maciocia.com/the-treatment-of-autoimmune-diseases/
2. Immunomodulating properties of mushrooms: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1160565/
3. Chaga’s regulation of cytokine production: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411020309809