MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS 101
Discover the fascinating world of medicinal mushrooms, their properties, benefits, and traditional uses throughout history.
“Fungi throw our concepts of individuality and even intelligence into question. They can change our minds, heal our bodies, and even help us remediate environmental disasters.”
– Merlin Sheldrake, Biologist
The opportunity for fungi to change the way we eat, think, and operate as a society is endless. When we think of fungi, most of us probably think of mushrooms. But mushrooms are only fruiting bodies, like what an apple would be on a tree.
The mushrooms evolved on Earth between 715 and 810 million years ago and could have been important partners for the first plants that colonised the continental surface. Humans have had a close relationship with fungi and medicinal mushrooms from the very beginning but it’s only in the last century that the science is catching up and recognising them for their numerous health and functional benefits. We’ll cover here the 101 essentials and some interesting facts to help you begin exploring the fascinating world of medicinal mushrooms.
WHAT ARE MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
Medicinal mushrooms (also referred to as functional mushrooms) are a category of fungi found in various parts of the world that contain a high density of nutraceutical attributes, providing numerous health benefits when consumed consistently.
Medicinal mushrooms aren’t the same as magic mushrooms, which contain hallucinogenic properties. They won’t get you high and are 100% safe and legal to consume. Although there are over 2,000 different species of edible mushrooms on the planet, medicinal mushrooms are a unique subset to this. These mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial amino acids/proteins and have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.
THE TRADITIONAL USE
In both ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, the use of medicinal mushrooms dates to some of the first medical texts on record discussing various mushrooms that were used for their antioxidant, immunomodulating, cardiovascular, and antibacterial effects. These ancient cultures treasured mushrooms as an “elixir of life” and understood the benefits even though they didn’t have the science to understand how they worked.
Ötzi “the Iceman” lived sometime around 3300 BCE and was discovered frozen in an alpine glacier on the border of Austria and Italy in 1991. He was carrying two different species of mushroom on him at the time. A tinder fungus capable of holding warm coal to restart a fire at a new location and a medicinal birch polypore used to fight parasites.
Egyptian hieroglyphics also show that they saw mushrooms as a plant of immortality and were reserved for pharaohs and other nobles. In ancient Japan, Maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushrooms were worth their weight in silver. The Greek physician Hippocrates, circa 450 BCE, classified the Amadou mushroom (Fomes fomentarius) as a potent anti-inflammatory remedy.
In more recent and modern times, Alexander Fleming extracted beneficial properties from fungus to create penicillin in 1928. Although the discovery from a mouldy petri-dish was accidental, it helped to save over 200 million lives. Some also claim it was a crucial element of the Allies’ WWII victory. Many other antibiotics have been discovered since that time and scientists continue to isolate new antiviral and antifungal properties from mushrooms each year.
With modern science catching up to what traditional medicine has known for thousands of years, researchers are not only proving the real health benefits of mushrooms but also discovering that they can be safer with fewer side effects than many modern pharmaceuticals.
MUSHROOMS' MEDICINAL BENEFITS AND PROPERTIES
Beta-glucans – all mushrooms contain high amounts of beta-glucan, which help stimulate the immune system and offer several other health benefits.
Polysaccharides – these complex chains of molecules offer a wide range of benefits including anti-cancer, anti-obesity, anti-diabetes, and antibiotic properties.
Antioxidants – mushrooms contain antioxidants that seek out free radicals and remove them from our bodies. This decreases the amount of oxidative stress and damage done to our cells.
Vitamins and minerals – mushrooms produce a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including extremely rich natural sources of vitamin B and vitamin D.
Source of fiber – they contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which is essential in maintaining digestive health and can lower the risk of colon cancer and other diseases.
Antiviral and antibacterial – many of the compounds they produce are extremely beneficial to humans and act as natural antibiotics when consumed.
THE ARRAY OF HEALTH BENEFITS
The beta-glucan polysaccharides found in medicinal mushrooms are what grant this kingdom of fungi their beneficial properties. Those nutrients paired with bioactive compounds allow mushrooms to be used to support the body’s overall health. There is a growing body of research that is now showing the effectiveness of medicinal mushrooms. Scientific studies have shown the beneficial properties previously discussed can help with:
- Boost immunity
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Fight cancer
- Enhance memory
- Improve mood
- Manage depression
- Help with anti-aging
- Decrease fatigue
- Improve endurance
- Promote heart health
SOME OF THE MOST POPULAR
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
With a long history of usage in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Lion’s Mane mushroom is one of the most renowned medicinal mushrooms famous for its cognitive enhancing abilities to support memory, focus, clarity, and overall brain health. Scientific research has also shown that Lion’s Mane may be effective at protecting against dementia, relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression, and helping to promote nerve growth. It’s also a culinary mushroom that can contribute a wide array of protein, carbohydrates, and bioactive compounds when added to your diet.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Also referred to as the “king of medicinal mushrooms”, Chaga mushrooms grow on birch trees throughout the northern hemisphere and look more like charcoal than a mushroom. This powerful mushroom is best known for its potent immune boosting, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. It has the highest antioxidant potency of any superfood, making it a great everyday immune system supporter. Multiple studies have also shown that compounds in Chaga mushrooms may help block or slow the growth of cancer cells.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis, Cordyceps militaris)
Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris have gained a lot of interest from the medical community and have been extensively researched for their significant health properties. With an unusual appearance much like a bright orange caterpillar, Cordyceps are recognised for their ability to naturally support energy, stamina, and athletic performance by promoting healthy blood flow, increasing the body's lactate threshold, and stimulating the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). With their high-antioxidant content, they can also help fight fatigue and stress, and boost libido.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Revered for over 2,000 years and often called the "mushroom of immortality", Reishi is one of the most well-studied medicinal mushrooms. As a powerful adaptogen, it has a variety of potential health benefits, including the ability to alleviate stress, improve sleep, and lessen fatigue. Further, modern research has shown that Reishi can help enhance the immune system by affecting genes in white blood cells, which are critical parts of our immune system. It also has potential cancer-fighting properties, with one study of over 4,000 breast cancer survivors finding that around 59% consumed the mushroom.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Turkey Tail is another powerful medicinal mushroom with an impressive range of benefits. As their name suggests, it’s a fan-shaped mushroom, looking like a spread-out turkey’s tail and can be found in almost any hardwood forest in North America, Europe, or Asia. It contains a variety of antioxidants (including phenols and flavonoids) and other compounds that can help boost your immune system and even help fight certain cancers. Turkey Tail is the source of Krestin (PSK), an approved and popular anti-cancer drug in Asia. The mushroom also supports gut health by acting as a prebiotic, helping nourish the beneficial bacteria, while suppressing harmful species.
Tremella (Tremella fuciformis)
Often referred to as the “beauty mushroom”, Tremella has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine and is known for its hydrating and skin-rejuvenating properties. This is due to its high amounts of polysaccharides and vitamin D. Tremella mushrooms and their unique compounds have immense water-retaining properties. In fact, the water holding capacity of a Tremella mushroom is almost 500 times its weight and studies have shown that Tremella acts very similar to hyaluronic acid by pulling moisture to the skin. In addition to helping keep skin looking smooth and glowing, Tremella mushrooms have many other health benefits, such as helping to boost the immune system and lower inflammation.
Further Recommended Reading
If you’d like to learn more about these extraordinary organisms and our relationships with them, a great starting point that we can't recommend enough is The New York Times best-seller, Entangled Life. Plus experience the benefits of medicinal mushrooms first-hand in Focus Elementals nootropic supplement.