A Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms

By The Team @ Healthy Being   |   10 August 2020 

A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus, and these fleshy structures being some of the greatest food sources on planet Earth. Edible mushrooms are available in all shapes and sizes, appearing below or above the ground, and are readily consumed for their culinary value. A number of fungi species are also well-loved for their nutritional and health-giving properties. Among other things, these "medicinal" mushrooms help to strengthen immune responses, promote cardiovascular and respiratory function, and support general health and well-being.

Mushroom species have been used medicinally for thousands of years. From the forest floors of China to the treetops of Japan and Korea, medicinal mushrooms have been harvested, and the fungi enjoyed a long history of use in Asia before spreading across the western world. A number of mushroom species are used in traditional Chinese medicine, with certain extracts also used in modern western medicine and taken to promote physical and psychological health. From your heart to your lungs, from your body to your spirit, medicinal mushrooms combine ancient wisdom with modern science and refined processing techniques. 

Medicinal mushrooms have been getting lots of attention lately, with growing markets in America and Europe helping to fuel global distribution chains, increase supply options, and reduce costs. As people across the world look to improve their immune systems and boost their general health, mushrooms are being recognised as a powerful addition to the modern diet. Whether you eat mushrooms raw or enjoy them in powdered form with your morning smoothie, the health benefits of the following fungi species are almost impossible to ignore.

Medicinal Mushroom Species

Not all mushrooms are created equal, and it is important to differentiate common white mushrooms and other edible species from psychedelic mushrooms and poisonous varieties. Medicinal mushrooms are harvested wild or cultivated commercially depending on the species, with mushrooms sold fresh or available in dried or extracted form. Let's take a look at the shiitake, reishi, lion's mane, chaga and turkey tail species in more detail.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Lentinula edodes, or the shiitake mushroom, is an edible mushroom with a long history of use as a folk medicine across East Asia. Along with the Japanese "shiitake" and Chinese "xiang gu", this mushroom is also known as the "sawtooth oak mushroom", "black forest mushroom", and "golden oak mushroom" among others. This nutritious and highly fragrant mushroom is taken to improve immunity, support liver function, and promote cardiovascular health. Shiitake mushrooms include lentinan, a powerful polysaccharide which has shown great promise as an immunotherapy agent.

Shiitake mushrooms are great for the health of your heart, with this fungi species helping to lower cholesterol, maintain healthy blood pressure, and aid circulation. These mushrooms are also loaded with beneficial B vitamins to help reduce inflammation, and also include significant amounts of the polysaccharide lentinan along with a range of beneficial phytonutrients. Considered the "elixir of life" by Japanese elders, this mushroom superfood adds a wide range of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to any healthy diet.

Reishi Mushrooms

Ganoderma lingzhi, or the reishi mushroom, has been used in traditional medicine for at least 2000 years. Often associated with Taoist monks in China, this mushroom was consumed to support good health and promote calm during meditation. Reishi was known as “the mushroom of immortality” by Chinese royalty, and was a cherished folk remedy for centuries due to its perceived ability to support long life, prevent the aging process, and boost 'qi', or energy, throughout the body.

More recently, reishi mushrooms have been used in the treatment of pulmonary diseases and cancer, with these medicinal mushrooms having been approved as an adjunct cancer treatment in Japan and China for more than 30 years. Reishi mushrooms may also help to enhance the immune system, reduce psychological stress, improve sleep regulation, and lessen physical fatigue. Along with being a general health tonic, reishi mushroom powder is sometimes taken to support cardiovascular health and reduce the effects of liver or kidney disease.

Lion's Mane Mushrooms

Hericium erinaceus, or the lion's mane mushroom, grows on hardwood trees and enjoys a glowing reputation in traditional Chinese medicine. Mostly taken to promote positive cognitive function, this mushroom is rich in antioxidants and other important compounds. Among other things, lion's mane includes beta-glucans and neuro-protective chemicals that help to protect the body against oxidative stress and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) synthesis may be induced by certain compounds known as hericenones and erinacines, with both of these compounds found in the lion's mane mushroom. The healthy growth and differentiation of nerve cells is integral to brain development, cognitive function, and a wide range of associated bodily functions. Along with its many cognitive applications, the anti-inflammatory effects of lion's mane mushroom may also help with depression, anxiety, and recovery from nervous system injuries.

Chaga Mushrooms

Inonotus obliquus, or the chaga mushroom, is a popular medicinal species with a range of health properties. Unlike the other names on this list, and contrary to popular belief, chaga is actually a woody canker rather than a mushroom. Chaga has a different kind of folk history, coming out of Russia in the 16th century rather than ancient China or Japan. Chaga grows primarily on birch trees, with many of its medicinal compounds like betulin and betulinic acid, coming directly from the wood fibre content. Chaga may help to lower blood sugar levels, and can also be taken to help manage cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Chaga is packed with antioxidants, and has been used historically to treat certain cancers along with diabetes and heart disease. Chaga is also high in fibre and very low in  calories, which makes it an ideal way to boost your immune system and fight inflammation. Chaga stimulates white blood cells and promotes the formation of the beneficial cytokines that regulate the immune system. Chaga extract has shown promise in helping to prevent the growth of cancer cells, with the inclusion of the antioxidant triterpene showing some anticancer potential.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Trametes Versicolor, or the turkey tail mushroom, is a vibrant and well-researched fungi species that grows on dead logs across the world. This mushroom helps to stimulate cytokine production and boost immune system function. In traditional Chinese medicine, turkey tail has been used for the treatment of lung disease and other respiratory conditions. In Japan, it has been used to create the drug PSK, which is taken to strengthen the immune system during cancer treatment.

Turkey tail has among the highest concentration of beta-glucans of all mushroom species, which is great as these compounds help our immune systems to function at optimal capacity for an extended period of time. The phenolics and antioxidants in these mushrooms help to promote immune system health by reducing inflammation, which is responsible for a wide range of common diseases. Turkey tail may have cancer-fighting properties, and has shown some promise in helping people with colorectal cancer and other forms of intestinal cancer.

Medicinal mushrooms provide a number of amazing health benefits in a package that is readily available and easy to consume. Along with adding freshly farmed and cultivated mushrooms to your favourite dishes, you can enjoy a range of fungi extracts in concentrated powder form. Ideal for morning smoothies, lunchtime soups, or evening teas, mushroom extract is perfect for anyone who wants to benefit from the wonders of mushrooms on a regular basis. If you're looking for an easy way to improve your nutritional intake and upgrade your health, mushroom superfoods are a great addition to any diet. 

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