What are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Medicinal mushrooms have very recently taken center stage in the realm of health and wellbeing. Yet the medicinal use of mushrooms has a very long tradition throughout Asia and mushrooms have in fact played a vital role in protecting mankind’s health for thousands of years. Today, numerous studies have proven that mushrooms are vital, biologically active compounds with unique and significant health benefits.
Mushrooms contain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Of the 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi, science is familiar with only 10 percent. There are at least 270 species of mushroom that are known to have various therapeutic properties, and about 100 species are currently being studied for their health-promoting benefits. Of those hundred, about a half dozen really stand out for their ability to deliver tremendous health benefits. Medicinal mushrooms are some of the most prized tonic herbs in the world, and are unmatched in their ability to build immunity and adaptability in the human body.
Did you know that we are more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom?! Humans share the same pathogens, meaning bacteria and viruses, as mushrooms. As a defence against bacterial invasion, fungi have developed strong antibiotics and when humans consume these mushrooms, the body recognises these highly absorbable medicinal constituents. Interestingly, Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline all come from fungal extracts.
Although mushrooms are still harvested in their natural habitats, the ability to cultivate many different mushroom species has improved greatly over the past few decades. While much attention in recent years has focused on various immunological and anti-cancer properties of certain mushrooms, they also offer other potentially important health benefits, including antioxidants, anti-hypertensive and cholesterol-lowering properties, liver protection, as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, antiviral and antimicrobial properties.
From a nutritional perspective, these disease-fighting mushrooms check off all the boxes: they are high in B vitamins, trace minerals, fiber and even protein. Mushrooms are an excellent source of polyphenols and selenium, which are common in the plant world. Yet certain mushrooms also contain unique antioxidants, one such antioxidant is ergothioneine, which scientists are now beginning to recognize as a 'master antioxidant.' that helps to lower body-wide inflammation.(1)
Key Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
1. Fight Cancer
Mushrooms have long been prized for their unique ability to both fight and prevent cancer. They create specific type of immune cells that seek out and destroy dangerous cancerous cells. According to medical studies, mushrooms anti-cancer compounds play a crucial role as a reactive oxygen species inducer, mitotic kinase inhibitor, anti-mitotic, angiogenesis inhibitor and lead to apoptosis, and eventually checking cancer proliferation.(2) This means mushrooms can inhibit tumor formation, protect DNA from damage and stop cell mutation, all while protecting healthy cells and increasing the body’s ability to detoxify itself of dangerous substances.
2. Improve Immunity
Mushrooms have been shown to contain specific compounds and substances that can enhance almost every system in the body. Mushrooms can assist to lower inflammation and also help alkalize the body, both of which are associated with improved immunity and reduced risk of disease.(3) Mushrooms need to have strong antibacterial and antifungal compounds just to survive in their own natural environment, and these specific compounds can be isolated from many mushrooms and used to protect human cells. This is why common antibiotics are derived from fungal extracts. Long chain polysaccharides, particularly alpha and beta glucan molecules, are primarily responsible for the mushrooms' beneficial effect on the immune system.(4)
3. Improved Nutrition
One medical journal recently published nine studies on mushrooms which detailed a wide variety of health benefits. One dietary analysis found that mushroom consumption was associated with better diet quality and improved nutrition. Consuming dried white button mushroom extract was found to be as effective as taking supplemental vitamin D2 or D3 for increasing vitamin D levels. Eating vitamin D-rich foods can help reduce your risk for cancer, heart disease, mood disorders and bone loss. Adding one or two servings of dried shiitake mushrooms was also found to have a beneficial, modulating effect on immune system function and boosting overall health and vitality.
4. Protect Heart Health
Mushrooms have been shown to lower cholesterol levels naturally and keep arteries from hardening, which are risk factors for heart disease. At the same time they can raise HDL “good” cholesterol levels and also contain potent phytonutrients that help keep cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plaque buildup, which maintains healthy blood pressure and improves circulation.(5)
5. Energy and Brain Health
Mushrooms are a great source of B vitamins, which help support adrenal function, boost energy levels, support brain function, help with neurotransmitter function, support a healthy metabolism and also lower stress levels.(6) Certain types of mushrooms are also adaptogens which help to lower cortisol levels and help your body to deal with stress. Mushrooms can also support and balance mood levels and assist age-related neurodegenerative diseases.(7)
Popular Medicinal Mushrooms
As mentioned above, there are an astounding number of mushroom varieties and many are still yet to be thoroughly studied or even discovered. Half a dozen or so of the most commonly studied mushrooms though are worth looking at in more detail.
Reishi mushrooms are a type of bitter, woody fungi and are known as one of the top natural superfoods in existence. They are often called the “queen of mushrooms” due to their powerful adaptogenic effects on mind and body. Full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, reishi mushrooms have been used for thousands of years as an immune and longevity tonic to fight chronic disease. Studies have shown that Reishi mushrooms have the ability to fight inflammation, cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalances, neuro-degenerative problems, mood disorders and more.(8)
Reishi mushrooms help to regulate the hormonal system and lower cortisol levels, which enable the body deal with stress, whether physical or psychological. Therefore they are a great natural remedy for anxiety and also an all-around mood boosting food. They can help heal adrenal fatigue, improve memory and concentration and support the quality and quantity of deep sleep.
Reishi increases the immune system’s T-cell levels, which means they help lower inflammatory responses in the body. This is especially beneficial for people suffering from immune disorders or adrenal or chronic fatigue. These immune boosting properties can also help to reduce cancer cell growth and the spread of tumors.(9) Reishi is one of the great longevity tonics of Chinese Medicine used in cancer treatment to improve vitality, strength and stamina and to prolong life.
Chaga mushrooms have been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes in Europe, Asia and the Americas, and is revered for being one of the most adaptogenic substances on Earth. Chaga is well-regarded as a health tonic to assist the body's natural capacity to resist stress. With its immune-boosting beta glucans, adaptogenic betulinic acid, high amount of antioxidants and skin protecting melanin content, Chaga is a true anti-aging medicinal mushroom and an immune powerhouse. Chaga mushrooms help the body fight inflammation and scavenge free radicals in the system. Research has shown that these mushrooms can help fight off viral infections and possibly even cancer, particularly of the liver, lung and brain. It is commonly used to fight infection, support immunity and provide sustained energy.(10)
Cordyceps act as a gentle stimulant and an adaptogen used to increase energy and reduce fatigue. They support the adrenal glands and help the body produce and maintain consistent energy levels. Cordyceps increase cellular oxygen absorption, and can be beneficial for those with asthma as well as athletes as they can improve exercise performance and expedite recovery from hard workouts.
Similar to reishi mushrooms, numerous studies find that cordyceps can help as a natural cancer remedy by inhibiting cancer cell division and growth. Cordyceps interfere with how cancer cells make proteins and can stop metastatic spread of cancerous tumors. They have also demonstrated anti-tumor properties and also protect the kidneys from chemotherapy side effects.
As an antioxidant powerhouse, cordyceps are renowned for their anti aging properties. They have also been shown to have possible antidepressant effects, protect the liver and kidneys, increases blood flow, helps normalize cholesterol levels, and have been used to treat Hepatitis B. More recent studies suggest they also have potent anti-inflammatory characteristics that may be helpful for those suffering from asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and stroke damage.(11)
Lion's Mane has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a brain, nervous system, and cognitive tonic. Ancient physicians used this mushroom to treat what would now be described as neurodegenerative diseases. Lion’s Mane stimulates production of NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) - a bioprotein that plays a critical role in the maintenance, health and regeneration of neurons in the brain. Research is also looking at ways that Lion's Mane may nourish the nerve tissue and even act as a catalyst for nerve restoration. Lion’s Mane helps improve memory, boost creativity, help with concentration, improve mental clarity and is an excellent general tonic for overall health.
Shiitake mushrooms have been a symbol of longevity in Asia for more than 6,000 years. Shitake is considered both a delicacy and a medicinal mushroom and provides a great food source of B vitamins, vitamin D and zinc. Shiitakes are also unique for a plant since they contain all eight essential amino acids along with a type of essential fatty acid called linoleic acid.
Shiitake mushrooms boost the immune system and have been shown to have cancer-fighting and tumour-inhibiting properties. They contain a glucan called AHCC (Active Hexose Correlated Compound) that is widely used in alternative and complementary treatment of cancer in Japan due to its immune-enhancing functions. Lentinan, another compound found in shiitake, is used as an intravenous anti-cancer drug with antitumor properties. Clinical studies have associated lentinan with a higher survival rate, higher quality of life and lower recurrence of cancer.(12)
In addition, shiitake mushrooms have also been shown to offer antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal effects, as well as helping to control blood sugar, lower cholesterol and reduce the symptoms of inflammatory diseases.
This is one of the most well-researched medicinal mushrooms in the world. Turkey Tail has been used in Chinese Medicine as a tonic for centuries. Studies show that it acts as an immune modulator with immune stimulating and anti-tumor properties. Some studies show that it can enhance the effects of chemotherapy cancer treatment and reduce the side effects of radiation therapy.(13)
Turkey tail has strong antiviral and antimicrobial properties making it effective in preventing and/or treating common colds, flus and infections. Turkey tail may also have some gut healing benefits as it contains prebiotics, which nourish beneficial bacteria in the microbiome.
How To Take Medicinal Mushrooms
Adding mushrooms to your diet is a simple way to boost your health and immune function.
There is plenty of supporting evidence to support the fact that mushrooms contain some of the most powerful natural medicines on the planet. You may have noticed that mushroom tonics, elixirs, and coffees, are appearing in cafes, news feeds and health stores all over the globe, making it easier than ever before to enjoy these beneficial medicinal foods. Medicinal mushrooms are available in a variety of forms including powdered, capsules, extracts and whole dried or fresh varieties.
Indigenous cultures used these powerful superfoods in teas, soups, and medicinal tonics and now popular wellness companies like Superfeast and Four Sigmatic are making it easy for us to benefit from the functional fungi.
Some suggested ways to use these mushrooms in your everyday life include:
- Brew up a reishi elixir as a nightcap after a stressful day.
- Swap out your regular coffee for a medicinal mushroom brew instead, or add some powered mushrooms to your morning coffee or hot cacao.
- Add mushroom powders to your morning smoothie just as you would any other superfood blend.
- Try cooking with mushrooms - add shiitake mushrooms to your salad, stir-fry or miso soup.
- Add powdered mushroom blends to raw desserts or bliss balls.
- Stir a mushroom tonic through a juice in the afternoon for a natural pick-me-up or before a workout for greater energy and endurance.
Do some research and get creative to discover new ways these traditional healing foods can be incorporated into your diet and lifestyle.
Quality, Quantity and Considerations
When it comes to mushroom supplements, there are two primary types: mushroom concentrates/extracts, and whole food mushrooms which are either raw and ready to eat or powdered from the wholefood. Consuming the mushrooms raw or using a whole food mushroom powdered product is generally the easiest and most common option. It is generally recommended that you start taking the powdered variety in small doses, daily if possible. Start with 1/4-1/2 tsp and slowly build up your dose over a couple of weeks to as high as a tablespoon a day. Dosage can be quite personal so experiment with the dose that feels best for you. Start slow, do your research, and listen to the way your body responds to the product. If you are looking to try experimenting with mushroom tonics for a specific health issue, do seek out the professional advice of a doctor, naturopath or expert in the field.
If you choose to eat your mushrooms raw, make sure they are organically grown. Mushrooms absorb and concentrate whatever they grow in — good OR bad. This is what gives mushrooms their potency. Mushrooms are known to concentrate heavy metals, as well as air and water pollutants, so healthy growing conditions is a critical factor. Also, avoid picking mushrooms in the wild unless you are absolutely one hundred percent sure you know what you're picking. There are a number of toxic mushrooms that grow in the wild that look similar to edible varieties so it is easy to get them confused unless you are experienced and know what to look for.