The maitake mushroom has been used for centuries as a powerful medicinal mushroom. While it may be similar to other medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and turkey tails, the maitake is different in that it is an edible mushroom (and oh so delicious)! Although it’s been beloved in Japanese cuisine and culture, the health benefits of maitake mushrooms have only gained the attention of Americans over the past 20 years. Let’s find out why maitake mushrooms are all the rage.
Facts About Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake, classified as Grifola frondosa, translates to “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. Legend tells that the name is a reaction to people dancing in the woods out of happiness when they would find the mushroom. Maitake mushroom’s medicinal benefits were believed to be so great that it was a source of excitement for those who found it.
Some other common names for maitake include hen of the woods, sheep’s head, king of mushrooms, klapperschwamm, laubporling, kumotake, and the cloud mushroom.
Maitake mushrooms are identified easily by their layers of caps that sort of look like curved spoons. The layers sprout from the base, which is a large fist-sized, gourd-like structure usually found underground near the tree that it is fruiting from. The maitake mushroom has no gills underneath the caps and as such is a polypore.
The folds can grow quite large (and some say resemble the look of a brain). An entire maitake fruited mushroom can be a few feet in diameter and weigh nearly 40-50 pounds! Some mushroom hunters have discovered maitakes that weigh up to 100 pounds, although this is extremely rare.
Primarily found near oak trees, maitake mushrooms can appear around other trees including maple or elm. Although they originally hail from Japan, maitake mushrooms are commonly found in the Northeastern corner of the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and China.
Maitake mushrooms tend to fruit in the fall, usually between September and late October, and they often appear in the same locations year after year, especially after rainfall.
The Edible Maitake Mushroom
Maitake mushrooms can cause sensitivities such as stomachaches in some people. If you’re thinking of trying a maitake be sure to introduce it slowly.
The texture is succulent and often described as “delicate” and “feathery,” unlike the traditional “squeaky” texture of other mushrooms.
The smell and flavor is distinctly fruity, and at the same time earthy and spicy, but not so overwhelming that it fails to absorb the flavors of the vegetables, meats, or spices that it’s cooked with. The maitake makes every ingredient more deliciously potent.
Maitake mushrooms can be stir fried, baked, stuffed, sautéed, and even brewed into a medicinal tea. They are a slightly fancier replacement in any recipe that calls for button mushrooms, and will enhance the flavor of the dish accordingly. They pair well with other wild mushrooms, including shiitakes, and are a welcome addition to shallots, garlic, thyme, cheese, eggs, bacon, vinegars, and cream sauces.
Unlike other mushrooms that require chopping, maitakes break easily apart by simply pulling the leaves from the base (similar to pulling leaves off an artichoke). You must wash the mushrooms first, but do so immediately before cooking. Mushrooms that are allowed to soak in water will almost always turn mushy.
Maitake mushrooms freeze well, so if you’ve found yourself with an abundance of maitake consider freezing some for another time.
Health Benefits of Maitake Mushrooms
Compared to other fungi, maitake mushrooms have been shown to provide more substantial benefits toward reducing the risk of cancer, particularly colon and breast cancers. Maitake mushrooms have also been observed to naturally lower cholesterol, as seen in a study published in the Journal of Oleo Science.
They are naturally fat and cholesterol free, low in sodium and calories, and host a variety of additional vitamins and minerals including:
- Vitamins B and C
- Amino acids
- Dietary fiber
The Medicinal Effects of Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushroom is believed to be a kind of adaptogen, which is a compound that can assist the body in alleviating several different mental and physical stressors. They actively work to regulate unbalanced systems within the body.
One of the ways this is believed to occur is through the presence of polysaccharides. Maitake mushrooms contain polysaccharides within their fruiting bodies that have been shown to stimulate the immune system. Polysaccharides are powerful antioxidants that can help stabilize blood pressure and blood sugar levels and attack free radicals.
Anti-Cancer Fighting Action
This study produced by the International Journal of Cancer found that polysaccharides known as beta-glucans stimulate immune function and act as anti-cancer agents. These molecules increase the production of T-cells and natural killer cells that then fight the cancer cells, particularly breast cancer cells and advanced renal-cell carcinoma cells, rather than actually fighting the cancer itself. These glucans are so powerful that a maitake extract has been made called maitake D-fraction, which is often included in maitake dietary supplements.
In an article published in Alternative Medicine Review, the D-fraction and MD-fraction (which is a fancy way of saying the polysaccharides found in maitake mushrooms) are believed to offer anti-tumor activity, particularly in breast, liver, and lung cancer patients.
Other Health Benefits
Evidence suggests that the medicinal effects of maitake mushrooms include helping to regulate blood glucose levels related to type 2 diabetes and aiding in the prevention of high cholesterol and the reduction of high blood pressure.
Maitake mushrooms are the first mushroom believed to possess anti-HIV activity, and maitake D-fraction can be ingested as an immune system stimulant to help patients with HIV or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
Other health conditions have also responded favorably to maitake’s medicine, including:
- Viral meningitis
- Thyroid cancer
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
- Infertility due to Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Maitake Mushroom Supplements
While drinking maitake mushrooms or eating them fresh is always a strong method for delivering medicinal benefits, there are many supplements available that include the D- or MD- fraction. Be sure to consult with a health care professional before embarking on any supplement regimen.
You’ll want to look for a 100% maitake mushroom extract that contains no fillers. Maitake supplements work best when taken regularly. It may take a few months before you notice results or see any kind of physical improvement.
Organic maitake mushrooms are always preferred, if you can find them. Be sure to consult the grower you are purchasing the mushrooms from for polysaccharide content. A reputable company will know this information and gladly share it with you.
A Word of Caution for Maitake Mushrooms
While both scientific and homeopathic evidence suggests that maitake mushrooms have the potential to provide tremendous health benefits, there are never guarantees. While the possibilities are promising, it’s essential that you speak with your doctor or homeopath before beginning a regular regimen of maitake mushrooms.
As discussed, a certain percentage of the population may have adverse side effects from maitake mushrooms, so it is best to introduce them slowly. Those with diabetes should consult their doctor before ingesting any maitake mushrooms—the combination of diabetes medications and maitake mushrooms may lower blood sugar too much.
Maitake mushrooms may have an effect on blood sugar and lower blood pressure. If you have hypotension, seek medical advice from your health care provider before loading up with maitake mushrooms. Do not ingest maitake mushrooms within two weeks of surgery or if you have a diagnosed bleeding disorder.
Likewise, patients with an autoimmune disease or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take maitake supplements or eat/drink too many maitake mushrooms.