Maitake is a medicinal mushroom that has long been eaten and used to treat disease in China and Japan. While it has traditionally been used to address high blood pressure and diabetes, in more recent years research has shown that it may also help with cancer.
Maitake mushrooms can be over 100 pounds, leading some people to call it King of Mushrooms. It also goes by the names Sheepshead Mushroom or Hen of the Woods, or by the scientific name Grifola frondosa .
Health Benefits of Maitake Mushrooms
Overall, there have not been many human studies and clinical trials that test the effects of maitake mushrooms. So far, early research into the following areas shows that maitake products may help with:
- Diabetes: While maitake has traditionally been used for hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes, it has not yet been well-studied in humans . In recent mice and rat studies, maitake extracts have lowered blood sugar and improved liver function in diabetic animals [2–5].
- Cholesterol: Maitake products have lowered cholesterol in rat experiments .
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): These mushroom extracts helped decrease the amount of colon inflammation in rats with IBD .
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Maitake extracts helped patients with PCOS ovulate in one small study .
- Asthma: Mice with asthma that were fed maitake products had less inflammation in their airways in one study .
- Parasites: In test tube studies, maitake killed a parasite known as Leishmania donovani, although this hasn’t been tested in animals or humans .
- Gut Health: In studies of diabetic mice, maitake extracts have boosted levels of healthy intestinal bacteria [2,3].
- Body Weight: Mice and rats that are fed a high-fat diet have a lower body weight and more effective fat metabolism when given maitake [6,11]. It is important to know that this effect hasn’t been studied in humans yet.
Maitake and Cancer
Maitake seems to have anti-tumor properties in preclinical studies, although these mushrooms haven’t been extensively tested in human clinical trials. In laboratory studies, maitake extract slowed the growth of cancer cells and led to their death, especially when combined with chemotherapy drugs [12,13]. Treating mice with maitake extracts can shrink tumors, prevent metastases, and increase survival of the mice [14–16]. In a small clinical trial, advanced-stage breast, liver, and lung cancer patients who took maitake extracts had fewer cancer-related symptoms and some had their tumors shrink .
This mushroom is thought to affect cancer by regulating the immune system. In a few mice studies and one small human trial, maitake led to greater numbers of activated immune cells, fewer immune-suppressing cells, and higher levels of cancer-killing molecules [14,17–19]. However, in another small clinical trial, maitake products boosted some immune cells but suppressed others . More studies need to be done in order to better understand how maitake might affect the human immune system.
Maitake may also affect cancer by changing the genetics of tumor cells. Mushroom extracts can turn on and off certain genes in breast cancer cells which lead to cancer cell death and reduced growth and metastasis [21,22].
Maitake mushrooms might also help cancer patients better deal with side effects from chemotherapy. Studies in petri dishes and in mice show that treating blood cells with different maitake products protected them from chemotherapy medications and helped the immune system better recover from chemotherapy’s toxic side effects [19,23–25].
What are the Active Ingredients in Maitake?
Sometimes when researchers study maitake, they use powdered or water-based forms of the whole mushroom. Other times, researchers have tried to figure out more specifically which molecules are present in maitake and get a better idea of what each one does.
The main active ingredients in maitake mushrooms are polysaccharides, chemicals that consist of many simple sugar molecules linked together. Maitake have over 47 different forms of polysaccharides . Researchers have figured out how to extract these molecules in groups called “fractions.” Each fraction contains different polysaccharides in concentrated forms, and different fractions seem to have different health benefits.
Related: Best medicinal mushrooms for health, according to the experts
The maitake D-fraction, as well as the related extra-purified MD-fraction, contains the molecules that may be helpful in fighting cancer [14,16,21,22]. One mouse study found that this fraction could activate tumor-killing immune cells called natural killer cells .
The X-fraction, in addition to the related SX-fraction, plays a role in affecting blood pressure . This group of molecules is also responsible for maitake’s role in lowering blood sugar levels, reducing insulin sensitivity, and treating diabetes [26,27].
Maitake mushrooms also contain polyphenols, a type of chemical found in certain foods . Polyphenols can act as antioxidants, which help protect the body’s cells from damage . In addition, some of maitake’s polysaccharides can act as antioxidants . Ingesting maitake also raised the levels of natural antioxidant enzymes in rats and led to lowered levels of chemicals that cause damage to cells . In elderly rats, the antioxidant effects of maitake seemed to improve memory .
Is Maitake Safe?
Not very many human studies have been performed to look at the safety of maitake. In one small clinical trial of breast cancer patients, maitake didn’t appear to be toxic, although it did cause minor side effects such as nausea or a rash for a couple of patients .
Make sure to talk to your doctor before you start to take or eat maitake products regularly. There is a chance that this mushroom can have harmful interactions with other medicines, such as blood thinners and medicines that lower blood sugar . If you start to experience unusual side effects after taking maitake, stop taking it and talk to your doctor.
The Bottom Line
Very few studies have looked at the role of maitake in human health. However, early studies in cells and in animals seem to indicate that this mushroom may be able to help with several diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
- Maitake | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/maitake. Updated February 19, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2020.
- Guo W-L, Deng J-C, Pan Y-Y, et al. Hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic activities of Grifola frondosa polysaccharides and their relationships with the modulation of intestinal microflora in diabetic mice induced by high-fat diet and streptozotocin. Int J Biol Macromol. November 2019.
- Chen Y, Liu D, Wang D, et al. Hypoglycemic activity and gut microbiota regulation of a novel polysaccharide from Grifola frondosa in type 2 diabetic mice. Food Chem Toxicol. 2019;126:295-302.
- Kou L, Du M, Liu P, et al. Anti-Diabetic and Anti-Nephritic Activities of Grifola frondosa Mycelium Polysaccharides in Diet-Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Rats Via Modulation on Oxidative Stress. Appl Biochem Biotechnol. 2019;187(1):310-322.
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- Chen J-T, Tominaga K, Sato Y, et al. Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) extract induces ovulation in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome: a possible monotherapy and a combination therapy after failure with first-line clomiphene citrate. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(12):1295-1299.
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- Roldan-Deamicis A, Alonso E, Brie B, et al. Maitake Pro4X has anti-cancer activity and prevents oncogenesis in BALBc mice. Cancer Med. 2016;5(9):2427-2441.
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