As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for more than a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing plants, surviving in space, producing food, and making medicines. Medicinal mushrooms are a type of fungi that are highly nutritious and have a wide variety of health benefits.
They have been used since ancient times for their medicinal properties and are still commonly used today. Many fungi boost the immune system, are filled with antioxidants, help treat and prevent cancer, and much more.
Here's a comprehensive guide on some of the most popular, effective mushrooms and how they can benefit you.
What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are macroscopic fungi, meaning they are visible to the naked eye. These mushrooms can be highly beneficial to overall health. They are often anti-cancer, filled with antioxidants, and beneficial to the immune system.
Mushrooms may have immune-stimulating and prebiotic properties. They make for an excellent source of fiber, protein, selenium, potassium, and vitamins B1, B2, B12, C, D, and E.
Mushrooms also have bioactive components including:
- Phenolic compounds
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Best Way to Take Mushrooms
Of the estimated 14,000 to 22,000 known mushroom species, about 35 to 45 are safe to eat. Twenty to thirty of these species are grown and cultivated, while fifteen species are typically foraged for.
Many types of mushroom can be used as an ingredient in culinary dishes, used to make tea, or ground into a powder for use in extract or tinctures.
Culinary mushrooms are often added to soups, stir-fries, pasta, and any other type of food dish. Some of these mushrooms, like shiitake, are commonly found in grocery stores just because of their great flavor.
Another type of medicinal mushroom is the shelf mushroom. Shelf mushrooms are quite woody and grow on the side of trees helping to decompose their dead or dying host.
Shelf mushrooms have been used to make mushroom tea. You can also dry shelf mushrooms and make them into a powder to create medicinal mushroom extract or tinctures.
To make a tea, use three to ten grams of mushroom pieces and steep them for about five to ten minutes. Shelf mushrooms may need to be steeped for a longer amount of time, or you may need to boil them. After the tea is done steeping, you may want to add honey or a similar sweetener to taste.
Many types of mushrooms have not had enough human studies or clinical trials to know the most effective dosage for capsules. Be sure to follow the directions provided with the supplement.
History of Functional Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicines all over the world for thousands of years.
The oldest known evidence of medicinal mushroom use is by otzi the iceman. A man from approximately 3300 BCE that was discovered, frozen in ice. He was holding birch polypore, a fungus that helps fight parasites and infections.
Mushrooms have also made their appearance in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Reishi has the oldest written record of medicinal mushroom use, having been in records for about 2000 years.
Reishi was greatly cherished in traditional Chinese medicine for its believed ability to prolong life and prevent aging. Otherwise known as the "plant of immortality," the Reishi mushroom was typically used by pharaohs and nobles. Reishi was also used by Chinese royalty in the search for longevity.
The Greek and Roman authors Seneca, Pliny, and Dioscorides argued for and against the medicinal benefits of mushrooms. Chinese medical texts from 100 BCE discussed the medicinal properties of fungi as well. They specifically discussed how to treat cancer and respiratory problems, among other conditions.
Chaga and other fungi were commonly used across North American and Siberia since the 16th century or earlier. Fungi were integral for their medicinal properties in Mesoamerican cultures and were often used by shamans for spiritual purposes.
Modern Day Uses of Mushrooms
The medicinal properties of fungi are still used to this day.
In 1928, a man named Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, which is derived from the mold Penicillium.
This led to the discovery of more antibacterial and antiviral properties in a variety of fungi. Even today, scientists are still isolating new medicinal properties in mushrooms and fungi. This includes anti-protozoan, anti-parasitic, anti-viral, and anti-fungal benefits.
Mushrooms are also often used for cancer treatments. An example of this is lentinan, which is created from shiitake mushrooms. It is the third-most prescribed complementary cancer treatment worldwide.
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Clearly, mushrooms have a long history of improving health. They were often used for protection against diseases and certain cancers, and they still are today.
The benefits of mushrooms do not end there.
There are approximately 130 potential therapeutic properties in mushrooms, which includes being:
Mushrooms are also a rich source of nutrients. They contain bioactive compounds, which support immune health. Mushrooms are rich in vitamin B and D, are low in sodium, have high protein and fiber content and are high in antioxidants.
They are often safer and have fewer side effects than modern medications.
They contain beta-glucan, which stimulates the immune system. Beta-glucan also helps with allergies, asthma, and chronic fatigue syndrome, among other things.
Mushrooms are also energy-dense, meaning they contain a lower amount of calories in a higher volume of food. They contain polysaccharides, which have anti-cancer, anti-obesity, anti-diabetes, and antibiotic properties.
Certain mushrooms can help slow the spread of cancer or even help treat it. Many fungi can also:
- supports the immune system
- Promote heart health
- Improve energy levels
- Manage chronic fatigue syndrome
- Improve brain health
- Encourage weight loss
- Help manage diabetes
- Bring asthma and allergy relief
- Help relieve stress
- Increase fertility
Best Mushrooms for Health
The best functional mushrooms for cancer are chaga, shiitake, reishi, maitake, and turkey tail. The mushrooms most effective at boosting your immune system are chaga, maitake, cordyceps, shiitake, reishi, and turkey tail.
To increase your energy, some recommend cordyceps and reishi. Reishi and chaga is also incredibly effective to treat candida infections.
Lion's Mane Mushroom - Hericium Erinaceus
Lion's Mane is a culinary and medicinal mushroom that has a lot of very promising, potential benefits. It is potentially an anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive, anti-microbial, and anti-oxidant.
It is potentially lipid-lowering, neuroprotective, and supportive of immune function. It may also help:
- Promote the growth of beneficial gut microbiota
- Reduce colon tissue damage
- Maintain the immune system
- Boost the general health of those with inflammatory bowel disease
It may be able to shrink tumors or stop their growth, and it contains compounds that help regenerate brain tissue. Because of this, it is currently being studied for Alzheimer's disease prevention and treatment.
It is also rich in beta-glucans which has many benefits but is primarily known for modulating the immune system.
Reishi Mushroom - Ganoderma Lingzhi
The Reishi mushroom arguably has the most medicinal uses and the longest history of use. This is especially true of the red Reishi, which is typically thought to be most potent.
Reisha is anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-parasitic, anti-radiation, and anti-tumor. It also:
- Supports healthy gut microbiota and immune function
- Helps prevent or treat heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and liver damage
- Regulates the inflammation associated with a high-cholesterol diet
- Has the ability to maintain microbiota composition
- Possibly increases beneficial bacteria
Chaga Mushroom - Inonotus Obliquus
The Chaga mushroom, also known as birch mushroom, has anticancer and antioxidant properties.
It helps support healthy gut microbiota and immune function. It may also contain antioxidant polyphenols, betulin acid, and betulinic acid. It may have the ability to:
- Treat certain cancers
- Lower blood sugar levels
- Work as a topical treatment for swelling and wounds
- kills cancer cells
Turkey Tail Mushroom - Trametes Versicolor
Turkey Tail mushroom is another shelf mushroom. It is common in the hardwood forests of North America, Europe, or Asia. Turkey Tail has been used for fungal infections, immune function, and AIDS, but it is most known for its ability to treat cancer.
Turkey Tail has anti-tumor and anti-metastasis effects. This may help protect against secondary cancer growths.
It is also the source of PSK, an approved complementary treatment for cancer. PSK has the ability to increase the rate of survival for patients who have undergone gastric cancer resection when combined with chemotherapy.
Cordyceps Mushroom - Ophiocordyceps Militaris
Cordyceps is technically not a mushroom but a rare caterpillar fungus that is antibacterial and anti-hypertensive.
Cordyceps contain bioactive compounds like polysaccharides, cordycepin, and cordycepic acid. It has a wide range of uses and benefits, including its ability to:
- Work as a sedative
- Help against viral infections
- Increase metabolism
- Improve energy production
- Boost the activity of immune cells
Cordyceps fungi also have powerful anti-cancer properties, especially against leukemia.
It contains a large number of antioxidants and is one of the most effective mushrooms at helping manage heart disease. It also helps manage cholesterol by dilating the arteries and strengthening the blood vessels and heart.
Shiitake Mushroom - Lentinus Edodes
Shiitake mushrooms are well-known for their culinary uses, but they have medicinal benefits as well.
Shiitake mushrooms were traditionally used to treat illnesses like the common cold.
However, it may also improve immune function, gut immunity, and anti-inflammatory response. It is anti-microbial, lipid-lowering, and can help treat viral infections, including hepatitis C and HPV.
It may also have anti-cancer effects. Shiitake is a source of lentinan, a complementary treatment for tumors and the third-most prescribed anti-cancer drug in the world.
Maitake Mushroom - Grifola Frondosa
Maitake is a culinary medicinal mushroom that is anti-atherosclerotic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory.
It is an antioxidant and supports immune function through proteoglycan, which can:
- Stimulate the immune system
- Boost viral activity against hepatitis B and HIV
- Decrease tumor cell behavior in the mammary glands
Maitake may help decrease the cancer activity in melanoma and hepatoma cells. It can also be used to help manage high blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, and diabetes.
Purchasing Mushrooms for Health
Growing mushrooms at home can be difficult. It is recommended you buy mushrooms and mushroom supplements from a company that is certified organic and sells high-quality products.
There are a large number of mushroom supplements on the market today that misappropriate species or add unnecessary fillers.
Many medicinal mushroom supplements only contain the mycelium instead of the fruiting body. The fruiting body contains the majority of the therapeutic compounds mushrooms produce. Because of this, supplements without the fruiting body have fewer benefits.
For high-quality mushroom supplements, look for ones that use organic mushroom fruiting bodies. You will also want to look for supplements that are:
- Extracted to increase bioavailability
- Labeled with verified levels of beta-glucans
- Do not contain a grain filler
Most mushrooms are generally considered safe to consume. However, more studies are necessary to determine effective dosing and the full effects of medicinal mushroom supplements on humans.
Do not consume wild mushrooms unless you have consulted a mycologist or qualified mushroom forager. Many medicinal and edible mushrooms have toxic lookalikes, so it is necessary to be extremely cautious when consuming wild mushrooms.
Consult a doctor before taking mushrooms, especially if you are taking medication for cholesterol or blood pressure.
Boost Your Overall Health With Mushrooms Today
Mushrooms have a wide variety of health benefits and medicinal properties.
From boosting your immune system to treating cancer, mushrooms are safer and cause fewer side effects than most modern medicines. Plus, they are rich in vitamins, protein, and fiber, providing a nutritional boost your body is sure to appreciate.
Medicinal Mushrooms Canada
Consult a health care professional if you choose to take mushroom dietary supplements for a specific health condition.