When most of us ponder the mushroom, we tend to think along the lines of either yummy garlic sautéed mushrooms, trippy psychedelics, or poisonous death fungus. The truth is that mushrooms come in all of these varieties, and so many more!
A class of mushroom that has been underutilized in the past, and are finally coming to the fore, are medicinal mushrooms. These are truly superhero mushrooms. Though they have long been used in Chinese, Japanese, and Eastern European medicine traditions as adaptogens, Western medicine is just catching up to the health benefits of these mushrooms.
Thought to impact our immune system, even common edible varieties like the Shiitake and the Oyster, mushrooms have compounds that resemble microbes. Our vigilant immune cells sense this and respond by increasing innate immune activity (our front-line immune response). On high alert, our immune system gets a “workout”, making it stronger over time.
It is in this sense that mushrooms tend to prime or support immune function, and they do so in a way that is normalizing to the immune system, as opposed to being an aggressive stimulant. Mushrooms have a lot to offer in terms of overall health.
You can think of them as immune tonics that are applicable in a wide variety of situations, including-
- Lowered resistance and “catching things” easily, so they work to build you up
- Chronic or persistent infections, they strengthen your immune system
Rock Stars for our immune systems, mushrooms also help support other areas of the body. The nervous system, liver, cardiovascular system all benefit. They are packed with antioxidants and anti-cancer fighting properties.
When drinking or taking medicinal mushrooms the first thing to know is that they have to be heated in order to be bioavailable.
The fungal cell wall is indigestible, and heat allows the cell wall to break down in order to access their nutrients. There are supplements available on the market in the form of capsules and extracts.
You can also prepare teas using mushrooms. In fact, this is the traditional way that they were prepared as immune tonics. Mushrooms are easily obtained in dried and sliced forms, which is perfect for making tea.
Adding a spoonful of mushroom powder to your favourite recipes is a great way to reap their magical health benefits. It’s also best to keep the dosage just at that — a spoonful, or 1 to 2 tablespoons per day. Even if you do feel a boost in your health, keep to small dosages. Mushrooms are still waiting more trials to verify their benefits and some studies raise concerns that large doses of reishi extract, for example, may be associated with liver damage. Certain mushrooms may also cause upset stomach or allergies if taken in large doses.
- source organic mushrooms: mushrooms can accumulate heavy metals organic really is best here
- make sure that the mushrooms have been heated for nutrient bioavailability
- if purchasing an extracted product, make sure that both water as well as alcohol are used – alcohol is important to extract many of the important compounds
If you’re using certain medications, you are pregnant or breastfeeding always talk to your doctor beforehand to confirm if adding medicinal mushrooms to your diet is safe.
Let’s now take a closer look, into some of the key mushroom species that are frequently used and their suggested health benefits.
While there are references for some of the health claims below, bear in mind for the purposes of this blog this list is not extensive by any means. We recommend that if you wish to use mushrooms for medicinal purposes rather than a simple wellness boost, you explore health claims further, and speak with a medical or holistic health practitioner. Eastern medicine has utilised several varieties of mushroom for centuries, and you’ll easily find a number of published reviews and studies with a little research.
Cordyceps – the pep me up!
Tired? Try some Cordyceps – this mushroom is known for being very stimulating for both energy and the libido.
Cordyceps can help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently and enhance blood flow1. This can be especially helpful for athletes or those who regularly work out. This mushroom has been shown to not only improve exercise2 and athletic performance3, but also speed up post-workout muscle recovery.
Try it: Use a spoonful to make a hot, healing cup of tea, add it to your hot chocolate or add it to your favourite pre- or post-workout meal for a boost in energy or quicker recovery.
Reishi – the take the edge off mushroom!
Reishi is probably the most well-known medicinal mushroom. It’s called “The King of Mushrooms, the “Mushroom of Immortality” and the “Mushroom of Longevity”. So nothing to live up to there, then.
While this mushroom can be used on an acute as well as long-term basis to support immune functioning. This restorative mushroom also appears to help support the adrenal glands. Some people think of this mushroom like nature’s Xanax. It’s recommended for when you’re stressed out, run down, and getting sick frequently.
These unique calming properties are thanks to the compound triterpene, abundant in the Reishi! These mood-boosting compounds may help alleviate anxiety, ease depression4, and encourage better sleep5 , as seen in mice. But triterpenes’ positive effect on the nervous system doesn’t stop there. Reishi seems to promote healing6 by modulating the production of ROS (reactive oxygen species which harm our cells) in the wound microenvironment, accelerating the process of tissue repair.
The Reishi mushroom also appears to act as a unique prebiotic, changing the composition of the intestinal microbial community in a way that seems to aid biological weight loss7 (as seen in a mouse study). That said, leaving our weight loss plan soley to these friendly little mushrooms may be a tad optimistic. Eating clean and exercising won’t be completely replaced by the Reishi any time soon, although one CAN dream.
Some also claim that Reishi may even fiercely fight cancer cells 8 sharpen our focus and help with allergies and hay fever (as it seems to reduce the histamine response to environmental triggers.)
Please Note : Thus far, most human research has shown little to no impact in lowering cholesterol, blood sugar or antioxidants, but it may be effective at reducing fatigue or depression.
Try it: Use a spoonful to make a hot, healing cup of tea, add it to your hot chocolate or your favourite chocolate dessert. If taking medicinally for immune and adrenal support, follow recommended daily dosages.
Lion’s Mane is a beautiful white mushroom that resembles a white pom pom with elongated spines. It too supports immunity, but Lion’s Mane is really best known for its neurological and mental health benefits. It contains compounds that protect and promote growth in neurons because it seems to foster the production of the bioprotein nerve growth factor (NFG)9 and myelin (an insulation around nerve fibers). Both NFG and myelin10 are absolutely crucial to brain health. An imbalance in them can contribute to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s11 and multiple sclerosis12.
Clinical research with Lion’s Mane has demonstrated efficacy for cognitive function. so if you have a bad case of brain fog try lion’s mane for some natural mental clarity as his miraculous mushroom has also been shown to improve cognition13 in a small human study, memory in mice14, increase concentration, and alleviate anxiety15 and irritability.
This is a mushroom to consider for overall nervous system health, anxiety, depression, and focus and attention.
Try it: Add a spoonful to your turmeric latte for energy and mental clarity. Lion’s Mane mushroom powder is often found as an encapsulated product for medicinal purposes and be sure to follow recommended daily dosages.
All mushrooms are nutrient-dense, but the Chaga takes things to a whole new level. Chaga mushrooms are an antioxidant powerhouse, making them excellent contenders for fighting free radicals and inflammation.
- B vitamins
- Vitamin D
- Amino acids
This dark black mushroom combats oxidative stress which is linked to skin aging and cell damage. Antioxidants are essential for warding off cellular damage caused by free radicals in the environment. This cellular damage happens to everyone.17 The USDA uses a measurement known as ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) to measure the antioxidant potency of foods. One of the most famed antioxidants in health and wellness is the acai berry, which has a rating of 102,700 on the ORAC scale. But how about the Chaga mushroom’s rating? Well, the Chaga has a whopping ORAC value of 146,700.18
Chaga may also prevent or slow the growth of cancer, and has been found to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol. Most of the studies on chaga are done on human cells and mice, but the signs point to this shroom being good for you — inside and out.
Try it: Add Chaga to your morning smoothie or make a frothy, warming latte.
Shiitake (She-ta-key) mushrooms are particularly good for the heart and have been shown in some studies to lower LDL19 in mice, and they contain compounds that inhibit the absorption and production of cholesterol in the liver. These mushrooms also contain phytonutrients20, which aid in preventing plaque build-up (the blood vessel type not the tooth type of plaque) and, as shown in a rat study21 , maintain healthy blood pressure and circulation.
Try it: If you’re already cooking with shiitake in your kitchen, keep it up. Use it in stir-fries or mushroom risotto’s or casseroles.
Turkey tail – for gut health and cancer fighting
Turkey Tail really could have a blog all to itself it boasts of so many health benefits including immune boosting, gut health and improved efficiency of cancer treatment.
There’s talk that turkey tail may improve gut bacteria balance, which can positively impact your immunity because it has antibacterial qualities: In a test-tube study, turkey tail extract inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella enterica, bacteria that can cause illness and infection.22
Turkey tail also contains prebiotics23, which help nourish these helpful bacteria.
. An 8-week study in 24 healthy people found that consuming 3,600 mg of PSP extracted from turkey tail mushrooms per day led to beneficial changes in gut bacteria and suppressed the growth of the possibly problematic E. coli and Shigella bacteria.24
A test-tube study found that turkey tail extract modified gut bacteria composition by increasing populations of beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus while reducing potentially harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium and Staphylococcus.25 Having healthy levels of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria has been linked to improved intestinal symptoms like diarrhea, enhanced immune system, reduced cholesterol levels, lower risks of certain cancers and improved digestion.26
Turkey Tail may improve insulin resistance: A study in rats with type 2 diabetes demonstrated that turkey tail extract significantly reduced blood sugar levels and improved insulin resistance27-28. Plus, the mice treated with turkey tail experienced lower blood sugar levels at rest and post-exercise29.
Just like we saw with Reishi, most medicinal mushrooms exhibit anticancer properties due to their high amounts of antioxidants. But turkey tail takes it one step further. Turkey tail contains a compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK)30 that stimulates the immune system. PSK is so effective that it’s an approved anticancer prescription drug in Japan31. Turkey tail has been shown to improve the survival rate of people with certain cancers 32, fight leukemia cells33 , and improve the immune system34 of people receiving chemotherapy. (Of course, don’t stop your prescribed cancer treatment without consulting your doctor, and always discuss the use of alternative medicines with your oncology team)
Several research studies have demonstrated that turkey tail mushroom enhances the efficacy of both chemotherapy and radiation in people with certain cancers. A review of 13 studies found that patients given 1–3.6 grams of turkey tail mushroom per day along with conventional treatment had a significant survival advantage. The study showed that people with breast cancer, gastric cancer or colorectal cancer treated with turkey tail and chemotherapy experienced a 9% reduction in 5-year mortality compared to chemotherapy alone.35
Another review of 8 studies in over 8,000 people with stomach cancers demonstrated that those who were given chemotherapy along with PSK lived longer after surgery than individuals given chemotherapy without PSK.36
A study in 11 women with breast cancer found that those who were given 6–9 grams of turkey tail powder per day following radiation therapy experienced an increase in cancer-fighting cells in the immune system, such as natural killer cells and lymphocytes.37
Turkey tail is also loaded with antioxidants, such as flavonoids and phenols that may reduce inflammation38. Inflammation has been linked to chronic diseases, such as diabetes and certain cancers.
Try It: Try adding a spoonful of Turkey Tail to your smoothie or into a soup.
Maitake is a prized gourmet mushroom famous for its immune supportive properties. It contains a compound known as D-fraction that has been heavily researched for cancer treatment. Maitake may also help address common cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and even blood sugar issues.
Try it: Maitake mushrooms can be incorporated into your diet for year-round immune health or follow recommended medicinal dosages.
WOWSZERS huh?! With all of these amazing medicinal mushrooms to choose from, which one are you most excited to try first?
For further information please see:
Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani
. . . . .
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