The idea of using mushrooms as medicine is not a new one. They have been used in for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Reishi mushrooms in particular were considered extremely valuable as it was believed that they promote longevity and even immortality! While these days we understand that it’s unlikely to gain immortality from a mushroom, the many medicinal benefits of certain mushrooms, including Reishi, have become well recognised in Western medicine, and foods and supplements containing this “superfood” are becoming more widely available. Mushrooms are generally a very nutritious and tasty food, but do all mushrooms have the same effect? And how can they benefit our health? Let’s find out!
Common Mushrooms vs Medicinal Mushrooms
Dr Andrew Weil from the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine acknowledges the many health benefits of mushrooms, but also explains that not all mushrooms are created equal. Generally your white or button mushrooms, while very nutritious, do not contain the same level of medicinal compounds as the Asian varieties, such as Reishi, Chaga or Lion’s Mane. These types of mushrooms may offer more medicinal benefits from immune-modulation to anti-inflammatory benefits.
Let’s take a closer look at what four common medicinal mushrooms have to offer.
This mushroom doesn’t really look like a mushroom at all, but rather like a knobbly growth on the bark of trees, usually birch, alder or spruce. While we often think of medicinal mushrooms as originating from China, this variety is actually indigenous to Eastern Europe and Russia and is useful as an antioxidant, as well as for immune support.
Chaga mushrooms can attribute most of their free radical scavenging ability to the polyphenolic and triterpenoid compounds it contains. Additionally, Chaga mushrooms contain Melanin compounds which also exhibit strong antioxidant benefits. What’s interesting to note is that Chaga’s free radical scavenging ability is stronger in hot water extracts as opposed to those based on ethanol. in addition to its benefit as an antioxidant, Chaga also helps to modulate the immune system, an action largely attributable to the β- glucan polysaccharides it contains.
This medicinal mushroom has immune-stimulating properties which are attributable to it’s polysaccharide compounds. It has been shown the polysaccharides in this mushroom upregulate some of the body’s immune mediators, as well as potentially reducing inflammation. Furthermore, Lion’s Mane mushrooms also possess antioxidant benefits. Another noteworthy function is the beneficial effect this particular mushroom has on brain function. In a trial involving elderly men and women, researchers found supplementation with Lion’s Mane for 16 weeks improved cognitive function. ¹¹ Consider this superfood if you’re looking for something to give your immune system and your brain a boost.
Unlike other mushrooms, this fungus grows naturally on an insect host. Crazy right? But rest assured, when you purchase this mushroom to use as a supplement, you won’t risk having it contaminated with caterpillar. More than likely, it’s been cultivated specifically for commercial/medicinal use with not an insect in sight. This helps to ensure consistency in the quality of the product and because cultivated Cordyceps has the same chemical profile as wild grown Cordyceps, it’s just as beneficial medicinally.
Traditionally used to support recovery from illness, Cordyceps has also been seen as benefiting the elderly due to its ability to improve oxygen uptake and energy levels. This effect is supported by a study involving 37 healthy elderly people. They were given 6 weeks of Cordyceps supplementation and results indicated that after this time both oxygen uptake and oxygen utilisation were improved. ¹³ This research may explain why it has been used traditionally to enhance athletic performance.
Cordyceps also demonstrates a variety of other health benefits – it helps to reduce inflammation, provides antioxidant protection and helps to modulate the immune system.
This is probably the most well-known of the medicinal mushrooms and has been used medicinally since ancient China. Reishi today still has some fantastic health benefits, including anti-ageing. In Chinese medicine it was traditionally used to support mental health, promote vitality, support the heart and liver, and improve endurance as well as to “help the body resist falling prey to the demons of age and illness”.
Through extensive investigation, it has now been established that Reishi contains a variety of compounds, including polysaccharides and triterpenoids, which give this mushroom its wonderful medicinal value. It’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, helps to regulate the immune system by stimulating immune cells and may even have a protective effect on the liver. Reishi also benefits the cardiovascular system by helping to regulate healthy blood pressure level and maintain normal healthy cholesterol levels in healthy individuals. There is also some evidence to suggest that Reishi may be beneficial in the management of allergies. With Reishi mushroom providing an abundance of health benefits, this mushroom really is one of nature’s top superfoods.
Now that we know a bit more about how medicinal mushrooms can benefit our health, we will be looking at some specific mushroom supplements and how you can incorporate them into your day in "Drinking Mushrooms for Health”.
11. Mori, K. Inatomi, S. 2008, “Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a doub;le-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial”, Phytotherapy Research, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 367-372. [Abstract]
13. Xiao, Y., Huang, X. et al. 2004, “Randomized Double-blind Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial and Assessment of Fermentation Product of Cordyceps sinensis (Cs-4) in Enhancing Aerobic Capacity and Respiratory Function of The Healthy Elderly Volunteers”, CJIM, Vol. 10, No 3, pp. 187-192.