While the use of mushrooms for medicine may seem esoteric here in North America, many countries, including Japan, China, Korea, and Russia, rely on mushroom-derived medicines. This has even generated a new class of drugs called “mushroom pharmaceuticals”. Why are medicinal mushrooms becoming increasingly popular? Harriet Beinfield, acupuncturist and co-author of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, explains: “The movement began with healthy food in the late ’60s (most mushrooms provide a wealth of protein, fibre, B vitamins, and vitamin C, as well as calcium and other minerals); now it’s healthy medicine. People are interested in medicinal mushrooms because they’ve been used effectively for thousands of years.”
Medicinal mushrooms have demonstrated approximately 130 health-enhancing actions. They have been shown to protect heart health; promote immune function; ward off viruses, bacteria, and fungi; reduce inflammation; combat allergies; help balance blood sugar levels; support the body’s detoxification mechanisms; and more. They have an almost uncanny “intelligence” within the body, seeming to sense areas that are toxic, stressed, injured, or damaged, and focus their healing potency where it is needed most.
While many medicinal mushrooms are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, their medicinal actions are usually due to other components, including polysaccharides called beta glucans. Among other things, beta glucans help mobilize the billions of immune cells that are part of the body’s natural defences.
There are thousands of species of mushrooms being used as medicine around the world. Below is a brief look at a handful of medicinal mushrooms, some of which have long-standing popularity, while others are only recently gaining attention.
References to reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) as a medicinal mushroom date back almost 2,000 years. Reishi has earned the nickname “mushroom of immortality” in traditional Chinese medicine due to its purported ability to bestow longevity and health. A review of 30 years of clinical research found that reishi possessed extensive immune-modulating effects both in vivo and in vitro, and helped protect immune system cells from oxidative damage.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has a long history of use in Russia where it grows in the wild, primarily on birch trees. Chaga demonstrates significant antioxidant activity. In one study, chaga reduced free radical stress in lymphocytes (white blood cells) in both healthy patients and those with inflammatory bowel disease. Researchers concluded that chaga could be a valuable way to fight free radical damage in the body.
The medicinal actions of lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) are slightly different from most mushrooms, with its effects being focused in the brain. It is esteemed for its ability to boost mood and improve cognitive function. In a placebo-controlled clinical trial, lion’s mane reduced feelings of anxiety and irritation, and improved concentration, compared to the placebo group. Lion’s mane can also be used in cooking. It is high in protein and increasingly found in gourmet food shops.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is a medicinal mushroom that you will find at your local grocery store. It is the most popular edible mushroom worldwide and has been cultivated for consumption in Asia since at least the 11th century. This delicious fungus possesses antioxidant and antimicrobial actions and is used medicinally in diseases involving depressed immune function and for cardiovascular support.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is a fungus native to Japan and the northeastern regions of North America, where it might be found growing at the base of oak trees in the late summer to early autumn. Maitake is a recognized immune-health modulator known for its adaptogenic (stress-mediating) activity. Specific standardized beta-glucan extracts (D-fractions and MD-fractions) from maitake show anti-tumour activity and researchers are investigating its use in conjunction with conventional cancer treatments.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) definitely belongs in the “weird and wonderful” category. It is found in nature in the high altitudes of the Himalayan mountains, where traditional healers use it to enhance vigour and vitality and to treat a variety of ailments. The weird part is that cordyceps doesn’t grow on trees or rocks like many mushrooms. Instead it’s a parasitic fungus. It attacks insects, usually larvae, and uses them as a food source, killing them in the process. From a medicinal perspective, preliminary scientific evidence indicates cordyceps has a protective effect on the heart, respiratory system, liver, and kidneys, and helps alleviate fatigue.