The Maitake Mushroom is a delicious and potent medicinal mushroom. It’s commonly included in medicinal mushroom supplements although its identity is often obscured by more popular mushrooms like Lion’s Mane and Cordyceps. While Maitake has yet to become as mainstream as these other species, it does not mean it’s any less medicinal.
In fact, Maitake has been shown to have comparable or even superior immune-boosting and anti-cancer properties compared to other medicinal mushrooms. Another unique attribute is that it contains compounds that have been shown to have anti glycemic properties that could help in the treatment of diabetes.
Natural History Of Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake Mushrooms are scientifically known as Grifola frondosa and also go by the common name “Hen of the Woods”. It is a rather large mushroom that grows at the base of hardwood trees. It is a type of “butt rot” fungus whose preferential habitat is within the roots and trunks of mature old-growth trees. Ecologically, these mushrooms are considered parasites and negatively affect the health of trees, comprising structural support which can lead to mortality.
Maitake is a type of polypore mushroom with a unique structure. Its color is grey to brown and forms large cluster-like rosettes that grow 2-3 feet in diameter and easily weigh 15kg! The underside of the mushrooms is completely white with microscopic pores from which the spores are released.
While Maitake is a type of polypore mushroom, like Reishi and Turkey Tail, it is from a distinct family called Meripilaceae. At least four other species in the genus Grifola are known, including Grifola colensoi, Grifola armeniaca, Grifola acanthoides, and Grifola rosularis. The medicinal properties and edibility of these other species are largely unstudied.
Habitat, Distribution, and Season Of Maitake Mushrooms
- Habitat: Grows at the base of old and mature hardwood trees. The most common host trees are Oaks and other relatives in the Fagaceae (Oak family). It is known to associate with Maples, Chestnuts, Elm, and other hardwoods. It has also been reported on Persimmon. Plum, and Apricot. Once you find a good Maitake spot you can reliably harvest it for many seasons from the same location, although it may not fruit regularly.
- Season: Maitake season starts in August but really takes place from September to November, peaking in early October. Specimens are occasionally found as early as May and have been observed almost every month of the year, albeit it is extremely rare and unusual to see it from December to July. Individual patches of Maitake may only produce mushrooms once every 2-3 years.
- In North America, Maitake is limited to the eastern United States east of the great plains. It can also be found scarcely in south-eastern Canada. While it has been reported from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska these are rare. The highest concentrations occur in the Appalachian mountains with the highest abundance in the northern Appalachians.
- In Europe Maitake is most reported in The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Belgium. It has been found across central and eastern Europe, not limited to Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Russia.
- Maitake also occurs in China, Japan, India, and other parts of Asia.
- Maitake is unknown in South America, Australia, and Africa.
History and Traditions Of Maitake Mushrooms
The name Maitake comes from Japanese and translates to “Dancing Mushroom”. The folklore surrounding this name is said to originate because when people would find this mushroom they would dance in excitement! Others say that it refers to the fluttered edges and shape that resemble a “dancing nymph”.
Another hypothesis around the origin of the name comes from a Japanese text from the 11th century. This text, known as “Collection of Old and New Stories”, contains a story where Buddhist nuns were intoxicated with a mind-altering mushroom that caused them to laugh and dance hysterically, thus bringing light to the name “Dancing Mushrooms”. This text claims the mushroom to be the Maitake mushroom, although experts agree that the author likely meant a different species.
Maitake is highly prized in Japanese culture, largely for its edibility. It is said that Maitake spots were so secretive that pickers would not even tell their own families!
In China, Maitake has been valued for a long time and described in the classic Shen Nong’s Materia Medica from 210AD. Here it’s said it can be used for improving spleen and stomach ailments, and to calm the nerves and mind. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is considered neutral in temperature, sweet in taste, and helps to invigorate lungs, kidneys, and large intestines. It is also said to replenish the spleen, drain moisture, moisturize the lungs, protect the liver, cleanse heat, and calm the mind.
Cultivation of Maitake has only become mainstream relatively recently, making it widely available year-round. Compared to other cultivated species, Maitake mycelium is more sensitive and requires strenuous sterile technique. Its widespread cultivation was only made possible after strenuous investigation and strain selection. It is cultivated in both logs and on supplemented sawdust.
Maitake As Medicine: Uses, Active Compounds, and Research
Maitake has always been valued as a gourmet edible mushroom, but it is only recently that it has gained popularity as a medicinal. Even in China and Japan where there is a long history and tradition of medicinal mushrooms, Maitake was never glorified for its health benefits like other mushrooms.
Regardless of this, emerging research is showing that Maitake is a medicinal powerhouse. Most notably research is showing it has bioactive effects such as antivirus, antitumor, antidiabetic, anti-inflammation, immunomodulation, and cardiovascular improvement. It has also been shown to positively influence the microbiota in the gut, aiding in healthy digestive and immune health.
Nutritional and Medicinal Components
- Vitamins: B1, B2, Ergosterol (Vitamin D precursor), Vitamin D
- Minerals: Potassium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Calcium, Sodium, and Zinc
- Beta-Glucan Polysaccharides
Free Sugars such as Trehalose, Glucose, and Mannitol.
- Amino Acids such as Glutamine, Alanine, Threonine, Aspartic acid, Valine, Lysine, and Arginine.
- Malic Acid and more than 5 other organic acids.
- Lectins and Various Other Enzymes
Active Polysaccharides In Maitake For Cancer Treatment and Immune Enhancement
Much of the medicinal properties in Maitake come from a special class of polysaccharides called beta-glucans. These are omnipresent in mushrooms and largely responsible for the immunomodulating and anticancer properties found in many medicinal mushrooms. While all mushrooms produce beta-glucans they are not all equal. Different types of mushrooms produce different types of beta-glucans, some of which are particularly bioactive.
In Maitake a beta-glucan often called “D-fraction” has received widespread attention. It has been found to have promising properties for enhancing immune function and helping in the treatment of cancer. Further purification of D-Fraction has yielded a more refined product called the MD-Fraction which has shown to provide superior anti-tumor activities.
Immune enhancement is largely conducted by increasing numbers of immune cells such as natural killer cells, macrophages, t-cells, and others. It’s also increasing chemicals called cytokines which are chemical messengers of the immune system. This improves the overall functionality of the immune system by improving its internal communication process.
These same immune-enhancing properties also lend a promising potential for Maitake to help in the treatment of cancer. In particular, Maitake seems to be particularly effective when combined with conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. Maitake appears to make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy and other cancer medications, meaning that the effectiveness of treatments can be greatly improved.
How Helps In Cancer Treatment
Maitake Mushrooms have been shown to stimulate “natural killer cells” which are specialized immune cells that have direct cytotoxic effects against cancer cells (Kodama, 2004). When used in combination with chemotherapy and the conventional cancer drug Carmustine, Maitake was shown to have a “chemosensitizing” effect on cancer cells making the treatment more effective (Finkelstein, 2002). This chemosensitizing effect was also shown to be effective in reducing the effective dosage of chemotherapeutic agents in tumor-bearing mice, thus potentially helping reduce the negative side effects of the treatment (Kodama, 2005). Synergistic potentiation of these polysaccharides was also observed when taken together with Vitamin C (Konno, 2009).
Maitake SX-Fraction To Regulate Blood Sugar and Treat Diabetes
One of the attractive medicinal properties of Maitake is its ability to help lower blood sugar levels. While other medicinal mushrooms have been shown to have hypoglycemic effects, Maitake appears to be by far the most potent in this aspect.
This is particularly important as diabetes has become a widespread illness, affecting well over 5% of the world’s population. In 2019 diabetes was the ninth leading cause of death, with 1.5 million deaths directly caused by diabetes.
The strongest hypoglycemic effect is caused by a glycoprotein commonly called the SX-Fraction. Evidence suggests that it works by targetting the insulin signal pathway, particularly insulin receptors that trigger subsequent signaling effects and make it easier to uptake glucose from the blood. It is believed that this process begins to be effective within 12 hours of consuming the SX-Fraction.
One preclinical study showed that all 7 diabetic patients in their trial demonstrated over 30% and up to 63% drop in their fasting blood glucose level after using SX-Fraction for 2-4 weeks (Konno, 2013).
Maitake Has Anti-Tumor Properties and May Help In Cancer Treatment
- Maitake MD-Fraction showed symptom improvement in patients with various types of cancer. Cancer regression or significant symptom improvement was observed in 58.3 percent of liver cancer patients, 68.8 percent of breast cancer patients, and 62.5 percent of lung cancer patients. Maitake in addition to chemotherapy, enhanced immune-competent cell activities by 1.2-1.4 times, compared with chemotherapy alone. (Kodoma, 2002)
- Maitake MD-Fraction significantly inhibited tumor growth in murine tumor models and suggests it may be a useful oral therapeutic in the management of cancer. (Yuki, 2003)
- D-Fraction extracted from Maitake Mushrooms stimulates Natural Killer cells responsible for cytotoxic effects on tumor cells in cancer patients. This suggests D-Fraction can suppress tumor growth in both short and long-term treatments. (Kodama, 2002)
- How water extracted polymer from Maitake mushrooms exhibited antitumor effects activities against allogenic and syngenic tumors via oral administration on mice. (Hishida, 1988)
- Oral administration of soluble β-glucans extracted from Grifola frondosa induces a systemic antitumor immune response and decreases immunosuppression in tumor-bearing mice. (Masuda, 2013)
- Studies conducted on cancer patients showed that maitake D-fraction appears to repress cancer progression via stimulation of natural killer cells. (Kodama, 2004)
Maitake Has Immunomodulating Properties
- Studies done on normal mice show that Maitake D-Fraction enhances both innate and adaptive arms of the immune response. Studies suggest it may enhance host defense against foreign pathogens and protect healthy adults from infectious disease. (Kodama, 2004)
- Short-term oral application of natural immunomodulating glucans from Maitake and mushrooms strongly stimulated both the cellular and humoral branches of the immune system. Maitake showed stronger abilities to stimulate defense reactions than Shitake. (Vetvicka, 2014)
- Polysaccharides from Maitake mushrooms stimulate the natural immune system in normal mice. (Kodama, 2003)
- Patients with HIV administered beta-glucans from Maitake mushroom reported an 85% increased sense of well-being in regard to symptoms and secondary diseases caused by HIV. (Nanba, 2000)
Maitake Has Anti-Glycemic Properties and May Help Against Diabetes
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa) improves glucose tolerance of experimental diabetic rats (Horio, 2001)
- Diabetic mice fed 1 gram per day of powdered Maitake mushroom saw a decrease in blood glucose level compared to control. Levels of insulin and triglyceride demonstrated similar changes. This study suggests orally fed maitake has anti-diabetic activity. (Kubo, 1994)
- Studies conducted on diabetic mice show polysaccharides from Maitake mushrooms could improve type 2 diabetes and help positively regulate gut microbiota. (Chen, 2019)
- Submerged Culture Mycelium and Broth of Grifola frondosa Improve Glycemic Responses in Diabetic Rats (Lo, 2008)
- SX-Fraction isolated from Maitake Mushrooms favorably influence blood glucose levels in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. (Preuss, 2012)
Other Potential Applications
- Maitake Mushroom extract was shown to induce ovulation in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. (Chen, 2010)
- Spontaneously hypertensive rats 10 weeks in age showed a significant reduction in blood pressure after consuming Maitake mushrooms for 8 weeks. (Kabir, 1989)
- Studies done on mice suggest Maitake may help reduce cholesterol and improve lipid metabolism. It does this by inhibiting both liver lipid and serum lipid which are increased by the ingestion of high-fat foods. (Kubo, 1997)
How To Take Maitake Mushrooms
There are many options when it comes to consuming Maitake mushrooms. You can consume it in food, powders, specialized extract, and various other forms each with unique benefits. Like most medicinal mushrooms, they are most effective when taken over long periods and combined with healthy lifestyle choices.
Choosing A Quality Maitake Product
When using Maitake to help treat a serious illness like diabetes or cancer, it is important to get your product from a trusted producer. The best way to do this is by working with reputable providers who do thorough testing on the bioactivity of their products. They should be able to provide laboratory analysis of their products, showing the types and quantities of medicinal components found in their products. Aside from this, they should also confirm that there are no heavy metals or toxic compounds in the product that could bioaccumulate in mushrooms grown in contaminated environments.
This being said, do not hesitate to support small and grass-roots producers. Even if they cannot provide laboratory results their product could still be of great quality. Inquire about the sourcing of their materials and how they process them to get a better idea of their product quality.
Mycelium vs Fruiting Bodies
The raw materials used for the production of medicinal mushroom products are derived from either mycelium for mushroom fruiting bodies. Mycelium is the “spider web” looking roots of the fungus. The fruiting bodies are the reproductive structures, or mushrooms, that we are all used to consuming.
Most studies conducted on Maitake have been done using the mushrooms themselves or extracts derived from them. The mushroom bodies have been proven to be highly bioactive and a reliable source of the medicinal compounds produced by the fungus. Various studies have also been conducted on the mycelium of Maitake and have shown that they too contain bioactive compounds.
Mycelium products are often criticized because they can contain high quantities of starches and undigested materials from the substrate it’s grown in. If your product does not mention it is made with 100% Fruiting Bodies or if the ingredient list mentions grains (like wheat, rice, or millet) then it is made with myceliated grain. These are less effective and potent than products made with fruiting bodies.
In the case of Maitake, it is recommended to stick with products made directly from the fruiting bodies. This is especially true if the mycelium products do not offer laboratory analysis that confirms the potency of their products.
Are Maitake Mushrooms Safe?
Maitake mushrooms are completely safe and have no known negative side effects. Maitake has been enjoyed throughout history as a choice edible mushroom and consumed at much higher doses than needed to be medicinally effective. This being said caution should be taken in individuals with autoimmune diseases due to potential threats of over-stimulation of the immune system, although this has not been reported. Diabetics already taking diabetes medications should also be careful not to lower their blood sugar levels too much. Symptoms of this include dizziness and lightheadedness.
Ways To Consume Maitake Mushrooms
Fresh Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake is a delicious edible mushroom. Incorporating Maitake into your diet, along with other edible mushrooms, can be a great way to support your health and receive many of its health benefits. Slow-cooked at low temperatures in soups or stews can be a great way to preserve the active compounds and make them bioavailable. Dose: Around 25-50 grams of fresh mushrooms.
Dehydrated Maitake Mushrooms
Dehydrated Maitake can be rehydrated by cooking it in a stew or soup. Alternatively, it can also be powdered and cooked into food. Dried Maitake may be chewier and more difficult to digest than fresh Maitake mushrooms. Dose: Around 2.5 to 5 grams of dried mushrooms.
Maitake Mushroom Powders
Mushroom powders can be a great and easy way to incorporate Maitake into your diet. These differ from powdered extracts because they are composed of 100% powdered Maitake. These come in two forms, activated and nonactivated. Dose: Around 2.5 to 5 grams of whole powdered Maitake.
- Activated powders have been treated via heat or extreme pulverization which makes the bioactive compounds available. These can be consumed directly, mixed in water, smoothies, or other food items.
- Unactivated powders are made from raw dehydrated mushrooms and thus require heating to make the medicinal properties bioavailable. These are great to use in soups or other hot food items.
Extracts are refined products that isolate bioactive components from the otherwise inert fungal biomass. Specialized extracts only containing D-Fraction or SX-Fraction of Maitake are also made by reputable producers. These can be particularly effective for those with specific diseases they are hoping to treat.
- Tinctures are typically double extracted with both water and alcohol. These tend to contain all the different water-soluble and insoluble compounds. These are some of the most common forms of Maitake mushroom extracts on the market. Dose: About 1 dropper full but may vary depending on the product. Consult product labels or producers directly.
- Powdered Extracts are highly potent and condensed forms of the active compounds in Maitake. They are taken in relatively small quantities and can be easily added to food items or mixed with another supplement. Dose: About 1 teaspoon but may vary depending on the product. Consult product labels or producers directly.
Maitake Capsules or Pills
Capsules or pills either contain activated mushroom powders or powdered extracts. They can be particularly easy to adapt for those who already consuming medications in this form. They are useful in the fact that they come pre-dosed and are easy to consume. Dose: 2-4 Capsules a day but consult packaging or producer directly.
Maitake Coffee, Chocolate, and Other Food Items
Many medicinal mushrooms are made into value-added food items and maybe an easy way to consume these medicines. After all, if you are already consuming coffee daily switching to medicinal mushroom coffee makes it easy to incorporate them into your routine.
Giving Maitake Mushrooms A Try
If you are curious about taking Maitake mushrooms don’t hesitate to give them a try. They are extremely safe and pose no risk to your health, so there’s nothing to lose when choosing this supplement. It is important to monitor your health thoroughly to make sure this product is working for you. As mentioned before, the effects of Maitake are potentiated when taken over long periods and combined with healthy lifestyle choices.
- Environmental Science and Mycology Researcher, Author, Contributor
- Humboldt State University Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Environmental Science with focus on Ecological Restoration.
- Former President of the Mycology Club at Humboldt State University
- Learn More