Medicinal mushrooms are a source of many beneficial phytonutrients, minerals, and vitamins. In recent years they have become extremely popular in the West, so much so that coffee-like drinks are being made from them, as well as other food and beverage products. They offer tremendous efficacy treating diseases while not conflicting with western medicine protocols. Mushrooms have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years before they became popular here. Most mushrooms have a neutral property to them in traditional Chinese herbal medicine, which means they do not cause heat or cold in the body. Mushrooms can be used for patients who are going through traditional western treatment. Many patients with HIV and cancer have benefitted from medicinal mushrooms while going through conventional treatment. Mushrooms have been studied in detail for their efficacy in fighting diseases.
Some mushrooms are prized for the immune boosting functions, though there is quite a bit of folklore surrounding the power of mushrooms. In ancient Egypt, mushrooms were a delicacy. Royalty consumed them because they were believed to increase immortality. Consumption of mushrooms have been dated back to 4,500 years ago found on hieroglyphics showing royalty consuming them during meals. In Asian countries, especially China and Japan, mushrooms were associated with longevity and strength. Mushrooms have been part of their healthcare, boosting immune function and longevity for almost 5,000 years. In other places of the world people will go “mushrooming” or forage for rare and prized mushrooms. A far cry from a fad, it’s important for wellness practitioners to be aware of the medical and functional aspects of mushrooms.
Mushrooms are loaded with vitamins, as well as healthy sugars called polysaccharides. These phytochemicals help combat disease and fight off cell damage. Each mushroom has a unique benefit; some are edible as food like shitake, maitake, and enoki, while others are strictly medicinal. The most popular edible medicinal mushroom is shitake and are available almost everywhere. Take a look at a few popular edible and medicinal mushrooms below:
- Chaga (Inonotus Obliquus): Inonotus Obliquus is a parasitic mushroom of birch and beech trees. Also known as chaga, it has been used in Slavic medicine for years, especially for cancer. It has potent antioxidants and antiviral activities, and studies have also shown it to improve physical endurance as well. Chaga can be consumed in tea or coffee form and is usually combined with cordyceps for endurance. Chaga is contraindicated for auto-immune issues as in can be stimulating and diabetics need to take care as it can low blood sugar as well.
- Cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao): Dong Chong Xia Cao, better known as cordyceps, is a Chinese fungus used as a tonic and restorative. It is also prized for improving athletic performance. During one of the Olympics, it was believed the Chinese athletes were using performance enhancing drugs and they were using cordyceps. Cordyceps are also also to treat patients who have intense fatigue or who have been chronically ill. This is a strictly medicinal mushroom.
- Enoki (Jin Gu): Jin Gu, or Enoki mushrooms, have significant anti-cancer and immune enhancing effects. These look like skinny long mushrooms and can be found in grocery stores. They are also used in Japanese cooking.
- Himenatsutake: This immune-boosting mushrooms has shown efficacy as an anti-viral and anti-tumoral. It also regulates blood sugar and reduces cholesterol. This is a strictly medicinal mushroom.
- Lion’s Mane (Yamabushitake): Yamabushitake is believed to stimulate nerve growth. It also may improve mild cognitive impairment. Studies have demonstrated that it is effective helping improve memory.
- Maitake (Hui Shu Hua): Maitake has been nicknamed Hen of the Woods. Maitake has anti-cancer, antiviral, and immune-system enhancing effects and may also help control both high blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Reishi (Ling Chi): Reishi, or Ling Chi, is a medicinal mushroom. Reishi can improve immune function. It also shows significant anti-inflammatory and anti-tumoral effects. It can reduce allergies. It is also hepato protective. This mushroom is only for medicinal use and cannot be eaten.
- Shiitake (Xiang Gu): Shiitake, or Xiang Gu, helps absorb cholesterol and lower the amount circulating in the blood. Shiitakes mushrooms have antiviral and anticancer effects. I recommend buying fresh shitake as dried can be adulterated with sulfites. Make sure to get shitakes grown in the United States. You can also get organic shitake extract. These mushrooms can be used in cooking.
- Turkey Tail (Yun Zhi): This a medicinal mushroom with proven anti-cancer effects. It is also a strong antibacterial and antioxidant, and is known for enhancing the immune and digestive systems.
- Button and Portobello: These mushrooms are not medical at all. Although they are cousins of these amazing medicinal mushrooms, they are strictly food products.
It is important for readers to understand that mushrooms need to be organic and free of pesticides and preservatives. Many mushrooms coming from other countries can be adulterated with sulfites and sulfur dioxide to preserve the color, especially dried ones. Do not eat a mushroom you are not familiar with, as many are poisonous and some are lethal. If you are sensitive to glutamine, you may want to avoid mushrooms, especially dried ones that are adulterated and contain naturally occurring glutamine as well.
For wellness practitioners looking for a place to start, try Paul Stamet’s company, Fungi Perfecti. Stamet is a leader in mushroom research across the world. If you are not sure what to take or how to take mushrooms, it is worth it to take a trip to a board-certified Doctor of Chinese Medicine, Naturopath, or herbalist who can direct you to the best mushrooms for your specific condition.
For more information on medicinal mushrooms, visit the National Center for Biotechnology Information.