Maitake, also known as hen of the woods, is a large mushroom native to Japan, North America and Europe. Often found growing in clumps around the base of oak trees, maitake can reach a weight of 50 pounds. Scientific study shows the extract of this highly prized edible mushroom may have potential benefits for cholesterol and blood sugar levels, immune function and cancer treatment and prevention.
Preliminary evidence shows that maitake may help lower cholesterol levels, notes CoxHealth Medical Center. A study on laboratory animals published in the October 2011 issue of the “Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry” found that four weeks of supplementation with maitake mushroom extract lowered liver cholesterol levels. Researchers concluded that maitake exerted its effects at the genetic level by increasing activity of genes in the liver that promote lipid transport. By contrast, Hypsizigus marmoreus, or beech mushroom, another mushroom tested in the study, did not show cholesterol-lowering effects.
Maitake may help manage blood sugar levels and prevent diabetes, according to a study published in the April 2007 issue of the “Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.” A polysaccharide molecule in maitake, called MT-alpha-glucan, decreased fasting blood sugar and insulin levels and increased levels of glycogen, a short-term storage form of glucose, in the liver. Maitake also increased the ability of insulin to bind to liver cells and improved pancreatic function. Researchers concluded that maitake may be useful for prevention and management of diabetes by decreasing insulin resistance.
Immune benefits of maitake extract include modulation of cytokines, molecules produced by white blood cells that activate the immune response, according to the University of Wisconsin Botany Department. Maitake exerts its effects by binding to the cell membranes of white blood cells known as macrophages and either activating or inhibiting release of cytokines. A study published in the Summer 2004 issue of the “Journal of Medicinal Food” found that D-fraction, a polysaccharide extract of maitake, activated several types of immune cells and molecules, including T-helper cells, macrophages and interleukins. Researchers concluded that maitake may offer immune benefits that help protect against infection.
Maitake D-fraction may inhibit cancer development and spread and also make chemotherapy drugs more effective, according to Dr. Shari Lieberman, author of the book “Maitake Mushroom and D-Fraction.” A study published in the June 2011 issue of the “Journal of Medicinal Food” found that maitake D-fraction promotes apoptosis — programmed cell death — in breast cancer cells. Maitake extract interfered with energy production in cancer cells, a discovery which, researchers note, will help scientists target potential cancer prevention and treatment approaches.