Do you mean “shrooms”?
That is the reaction I get when I tell people about my growing love for medicinal mushrooms. And if you don’t know what “shrooms” are, they’re the psilocybin mushroom that causes hallucinations and is often used recreationally (and illegally).
I’ll go ahead and let you know psilocybin is not the type of mushroom that I am referring to when I say medicinal mushrooms. Though for the record, psilocybin is getting growing attention for its potential treatment of some conditions like depression.
Medicinal mushrooms (a.k.a., functional mushrooms) are getting more attention these days as people begin to understand how and why they are used. If you do a quick internet search, you’ll come across a huge variety of ailments that medicinal mushrooms can potentially help you overcome.
Medicinal mushrooms are used to address a wide variety of issues. To name a few, they may support the immune system, improve cognitive functioning, lower inflammation and balance blood sugar levels. As someone who cares greatly about my health and my family’s health, it’s hard to ignore the benefits of these little fungi.
Why Discuss Medicinal Mushrooms?
Did you know there are an estimated 140,000 species of fungi on our planet? Interestingly, we only know about 10% or so of those species. And of the species that we know about, about half of them are edible. Moreover, half of the edible mushrooms contain medicinal properties. So of the thousands of fungi that exist, there are roughly 700 that provide pharmacologic benefits.
About 700 species of mushrooms have medicinal properties
All of the reported health benefits of medicinal mushrooms got me asking a lot of questions early on in my quest to understand medicinal mushrooms. I started wondering how much of these health claims are backed by research? Can I safely consume medicinal mushrooms? What are the side effects?
So what I’ve done is take all the best resources I could find on medicinal mushrooms and compile it together. My hope is that this will help you make your own informed choice about medicinal mushrooms and their potential benefits.
If you are looking for a more in-depth discussion on medicinal mushrooms as well as other alternative treatments for common ailments, be sure to check out The Rebel’s Apothecary by Jenny Sansouci. Alongside other resources we’ve referenced, The Rebel’s Apothecary provided me with a foundational knowledge about mushrooms. Be sure to check it out.
**Disclaimer: We do not claim to be experts in medicine and you should not use information presented here to treat or cure any disease. Please consult your healthcare professional before beginning any new supplements.
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are not animals. They are not plants. Mushrooms are part of the kingdom of fungi. Whereas plants create energy using photosynthesis, fungi mostly prefer cool, shaded areas. Fungi take energy from plants and organic matter in order to thrive. They are truly unique in how they grow.
Some mushrooms grow on logs or other dead organic matter. Other mushrooms grow on living trees. They might even share nutrients with the root system of trees. The thing that all mushrooms have in common is that the part you see with your eye (what some like to call the “fruiting body”) is just the surface of the fungi growth system. The purpose of mushrooms is actually to release spores and reproduce. So what’s under a mushroom?
Mycelium is a network of fungi that exists under the surface, producing mushrooms. There are even mycelium that never produce mushrooms at all. But they are fungi, nonetheless.
An easy way to think of mycelium is to consider it the equivalent to the root of a plant. It provides structure, stability and nutrients so that it can produce mushrooms. Mycelium is the foundation of the mushroom life cycle.
The Mushroom Life Cycle
The life cycle of mushrooms is largely the same for all different kinds of mushrooms. Here is a brief description of the mushroom life cycle:
- Mycelium produces mushrooms
- Mushrooms produce spores
- Spores combine and strengthen the mycelium, producing more mushrooms
Before we go on to medicinal mushrooms, let’s briefly touch on types of mushrooms you might encounter.
Types of Mushrooms
When you think of mushrooms, what do you picture? For me, I see images from my childhood. There was a restaurant near me that would cook button mushrooms in heaps of butter. Though some in my family loved them, they seemed slimy and unappetizing to me. For a long time, I thought that was the extent of mushrooms – just a heap of fungi. But oh, how I was wrong! Here’s why.
- First let’s get this out of the way – store-bought mushrooms are generally pretty boring. There, I said it. And the surprising thing is that the most common varieties of mushrooms you’d find at the grocery store (Button, Cremini, and Portobello) are the exact SAME VARIETY! The only difference is in the size of the mushrooms. Buttons are harvested early, Portobellos are the most matured and Cremini are harvested toward the mid-growth phase of the mushroom. Now, if you’re lucky you might come across some other varieties of mushrooms at your grocery store like shiitake. In that case things start to get a bit more interesting and nutritious in the kitchen.
- Medicinal mushrooms come in many shapes and sizes. However, what’s in common among them is their positive health benefits to humans. Medicinal mushrooms contain powerful and healing compounds that have been used throughout history to help support the body.
- Magic mushrooms are a different ballgame. They are a variety that have hallucinogenic effects. The culprit? Psilocybin. Take note that magic mushrooms are currently illegal in the United States but researchers are curious about some of the potential benefits for people with certain severe conditions.
Of the three main mushroom categories listed above, we’ll be focusing on medicinal mushrooms and their health benefits.
What are Medicinal Mushrooms and What Makes Them So Special?
Each type of medicinal mushroom has its own unique composition. But broadly speaking, they’ve been shown to have significant positive effects on health and healing. The medicinal mushrooms we’re focusing on in this article are some of the most commonly used and most well studied.
Studies have shown medicinal mushrooms contain properties that can help to:
- Increase mental clarity and focus
- Balance your immune system
- Calm your nerves
- Lower Inflammation
- Get loads of antioxidants
- Support your neurological system
- Maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- Fight cancer
Mushrooms Can Be Adaptogens
Adaptogens have really begun to take the spotlight in the world of natural health. So what exactly are adaptogens? They are plant-based substances that support the human body to positively react to stressors and maintain homeostasis (See this article for more information on adaptogens). Whether the stressors are environmental, biological or otherwise, adaptogens are known to aid in adapting to the stress, aiding the body in responding appropriately to maintain balance.
Sounds like a good thing, right? It absolutely is and some mushrooms are known to be adaptogenic which is great news for us.
In-depth research into the characteristics of individual species of mushrooms is limited. However, articles like this as found on uspharmacist.com point out 3 particular medicinal mushrooms that have good evidence of adaptogenic properties. The mushrooms highlighted here are reishi, maitake, and shiitake. But that’s not the end of the list by any means. There are a wide variety of medicinal mushrooms out there with adaptogenic benefits.
Mushrooms Can Be Immunomodulating
We’ve all heard about products that claim to boost your immune system. The idea is that when you are sick, there are vitamins, supplements and products that can help stimulate your immune system to rid your body of an infection. But what if your immune system is too revved up? That’s the beauty of immunomodulation.
Immunomodulating mushrooms work in similar ways to adaptogens. If your immune system is weak, they fire up your immune system. If your immune system is overactive, they tamp down that activity. So how can this be beneficial?
Let’s start with those who might need immune support. Mushrooms have shown promising evidence in benefiting those undergoing chemotherapy or other forms of cancer treatment. At a time when the body most needs the ability to fight, mushrooms can be an ally in that fight.
On the other side of the spectrum are overactive immune systems. For those suffering from auto-immune disorders, medicinal mushrooms can help suppress the immune system’s dysfunctional overreactivity.
Mushrooms can help build up those who need immune strength. And for those whose immune systems are overactive, medicinal mushrooms can help tame that overactivity. That’s the beauty of immunomodulation!
History of Medicinal Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Our ancestors used mushrooms to help treat wounds, and support the body in harsh environments. They have been highly regarded in history as sacred during cultural ceremonies and fit only for kings and the elite. Most importantly, mushrooms were frequently used as medicine to treat illness.
Mushrooms used to be regarded as sacred and only fit for kings and the elite
We can thank our ancestors for their experimentation with mushrooms and learning the hard way from mistakes. Mushrooms contain a huge variety of compounds and differ wildly depending on the type of mushroom. Some are medicinal, some are hallucinogenic and some are poisonous. Humans still have barely scratched the surface of the thousands of varieties of fungi. But what we do know is that there is a rich history of mushrooms being effective and scientific research is catching up!
One of the most notable, modern day medicines that we can thank fungi for is Penicillin. Though the discovery was accidental, it was a discovery that has saved countless lives. Even decades after this discovery, researchers are learning more and more about fungi. What’s most exciting is discovering how certain compounds in mushrooms can help the human body.
Medicinal Mushroom Benefits
There is a growing body of research that indicates medicinal mushrooms are effective. It’s honestly a little overwhelming to filter through the many articles that discuss health benefits and effectiveness. So here, we’ll focus on a few scientific article sources to see what medicinal mushrooms can do.
- Immune Support
One of most important characteristics of medicinal mushrooms is immune support. Though different varieties of mushrooms boast of different health benefits, a common thread among them is their immunomodulating capability.
So what do we have to thank for their immunity super-powers? Polysaccharides. Specifically, beta-glucans, which is a type of polysaccharide that is common in fungi. Beta-glucans work with immune cells by interacting with fungal-polysaccharide receptors.
- Cancer Fighting
The main purpose of Jenny Sansouci’s book Rebel’s Apothecary is based on her experience in researching ways to help her father through cancer treatment. Through many rounds of chemotherapy, her father had little to none of the common side-effects that his doctor had warned about, which shocked his doctor. The book discusses use of both mushrooms as well as CBD, but the case for mushrooms as cancer-fighting agents is strong.
There is not only anecdotal evidence of mushrooms effectiveness in supporting cancer treatment, but also a growing body of scientific research. This article from pubmed provides some insight into how medicinal mushrooms can be used successfully as an integrative approach to cancer treatment. In a nutshell, polysaccharides and other immune modulating compounds found in medicinal mushrooms are responsible for the positive effects.
- Diabetes Support
About 1 in 10 adults in the United States has diabetes. With that rate of occurrence, and the high price of insulin, the need for support from natural supplements is real. Thankfully, there has been some research showing mushrooms, particularly Maitake, has been shown to have a blood glucose lowering effect.
As is true of all of the studies done on medicinal mushrooms, more research is needed to show true effectiveness in humans. But the growing evidence is promising.
- Brain Health
The recent darling of the medicinal mushroom world is Lions Mane, which we’ll discuss in greater detail. One of the main benefits of this mushroom is attributed to what is called Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). Research is showing that this provides support for neural cell growth as well as potential to protect neural cells.
Various compounds found in common medicinal mushrooms have been found to be anti-inflammatory. Inflammation occurs when the body is trying to fight off illness or other threats. Though in the western world, we are accustomed to taking NSAIDs to reduce inflammatory issues, they come with nasty side effects if used long term. Medicinal mushrooms offer a great alternative method to address inflammation in the body.
- Cardiovascular Support
Studies suggest that some mushrooms may have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. There is evidence suggesting that certain mushroom compounds can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of adverse cardiovascular events.
Our Favorite Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes and varieties. With each variety, there are biological and medicinal properties that support different systems of the body. Below are some of the most popular and well known medicinal mushroom varieties. We’ll walk through each one and discuss their health benefits.
Chaga (Inototus Obliquus)
Chaga Health Benefits:
Where Does Chaga Grow?
Chaga grows in colder climates in the northern hemisphere. Though they can grow on a few different types of trees, they are best when from birch trees. It grows for years on trees and can be continuously harvested every few years (as long as the fruiting body isn’t cut away too deep into the tree).
What Does Chaga Look Like?
Chaga doesn’t look like a mushroom at all. Rather, it kind of looks like an extension of the tree it is growing on. It is black and tan in color and has the consistency of cork.
How Does Chaga Work?
Chaga is best known for its immune boosting properties and antioxidants. It’s great to use as an everyday immune system supporter. As pointed out by untamedfeast.com, chaga mushrooms are generally MUCH higher in antioxidants than blueberries. Given the reputation of blueberries, that’s pretty amazing that chaga has so much more protective power.
If that’s not enough, chaga is known to be cancer-fighting, cholesterol lowering and blood-sugar stabilizing. Much of these benefits can be attributed to polysaccharides, phytosterals, and polyphenols.
Chaga shouldn’t be eaten because it has a corky, unpalatable texture. Instead chaga should be extracted. It’s historically been used to make tea but is also commonly available as tinctures and powders.
Lions Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lions Mane Health Benefits:
- Neurological support
- Brain function (mental clarity/focus)
- Immune system support
Where Does Lions Mane Grow?
Lions mane grows naturally in the Northern United States and Canada. You’ll find them thriving on decaying trees. They take 6 months to 2 years to produce a substantial fruiting body ready for cultivation.
What Does Lions Mane Look Like?
Lions Mane is by far, one of the most interesting-looking mushrooms! It is mostly white with many flowing strands that resemble the mane of a lion.
How Does Lions Mane Work?
By far, the most notable and talked about health benefits of Lions Mane is for the nervous system and brain. Though the mushroom is also an immune system powerhouse, it is famous for its ability to protect against nerve cell degradation and even promote new neural pathways. Much of the neural support can be attributed to compounds that promote Neural Growth Factor (NGF).
Lions Mane can be consumed in many different forms. It is used in culinary settings and is known to be seafood-like, similar to crab or lobster. If that’s not your style, it can be made into a tea or taken as a powder, capsule, or tincture.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinesis, Cordyceps militaris)
Cordyceps health benefits:
- Adrenal Support
- May aid in lowering blood sugar levels
- Supports healthy blood pressure
- Supports healthy libido
Where Do Cordyceps Grow?
Hundreds of species of cordyceps exist and grow in many different parts of the world. All of them are a parasitic fungus, meaning they require and eventually overpower the host. The host for wild grown cordyceps are insects. Yes, insects! And each type of cordyceps can infect a specific type of bug. This happens when a spore gets on the insect and from the spore, mycelium begins to grow until it overcomes the insect. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?
The most common wild cordyceps is the Cordyceps Sinesis, which infects a particular type of caterpillar. This species of cordyceps grows mainly in Tibet and China.
Cordyceps Militaris is a species that can be cultivated and grown at a scale large enough to bring to a large market. This species does not require an insect host. When utilizing the fruiting body of the mushroom, it is very similar in active compound levels to Cordyceps Sinesis such as beta-glucan and cordycepin.
What Do Cordyceps Look Like?
Cordyceps tend to have a reddish/orangish tint. They are thin and slightly wavy.
How Do Cordyceps Work?
Cordyceps are high in antioxidants which provides anti-aging properties. There are also characteristics that indicate they have anti-cancer/anti-tumor properties as well. If that’s not enough, evidence suggests cordyceps can be protective for the cardiovascular system, improve athletic performance and can even help with low sex drive.
So what is to thank for all the potential benefits of cordyceps? There are many amazing compounds that make the mushroom medicinal but probably the most notable one is cordycepin which is a compound that works at the cellular level to potentially stop or reduce the spread of cancer.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi health benefits:
- Fights fatigue and depression
Where Does Reishi Grow?
Ganoderma Lucidum is the species of Reishi that is most commonly used in Chinese medicine. It can be found in warm climates in Asia, and the Southern parts of Asia, Pacific and United States. They typically grow on hardwood, such as oak.
What Does Reishi Look Like?
Reish is a semi-circular mushroom that appears reddish in color. It typically will have white rings around the edges. The surface is shiny and the mushroom is generally quite tough.
How Does Reishi Work?
Reishi mushrooms are consumed in many forms such as tinctures, powders, and tea. However, they are not used for culinary use due to their texture being tough.
According to this article, which references dozens of studies, Reishi may be beneficial for many health conditions. The referenced studies provide evidence that Reishi can be beneficial when treating cancer, diabetes, and liver issues. Additionally, it’s been shown to be immunomodulating, an antioxidant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-allergic. According to a review on the bioactive compounds found in Reishi, it “contains many bioactive compounds such as polysaccharides, triterpenes, polyphenols, proteins, amino acids, and organic germanium.”
Maitake (Grifola Frondosa)
Maitake Health Benefits:
- Blood Sugar Regulation
Where Does Maitake Grow?
Maitake grows in the wild at the bottom of Oak, Elm and Maple trees. They typically grow in North America, China and Japan.
Like the other mushrooms highlighted here, Maitakes are cultivated for consumption at a large scale by manufacturers of mushroom products.
What Does Maitake Look Like?
Maitakes are light brown and white in color. They grow together in large clusters and resemble the shape of a flower.
How Does Maitake Work?
Maitake mushrooms contain various polysaccharides, including beta glucan. Studies indicate that Maitake may be effective in reducing cancerous tumors and is an immunomodulator. There is also evidence that it may help reduce blood pressure, regulate blood sugar and contain plenty of antioxidants.
Maitake can be used in culinary settings and are said to have a woodsy/earthy flavor. It’s also commonly consumed as a powder, tincture, or capsule for higher concentration.
Turkey Tail (Trametes vericolor)
Turkey Tail Health Benefits:
Where do they grow?
Turkey Tail grows all over the world including in North America. In the wild it grows mainly on fallen trees or logs.
What do they look like?
Turkey tail is multicolored. It is generally red, brown and sometimes blue or green. They usually grow to about 1-4 inches wide.
How do they work?
Again, we can partially thank polysaccharides (specifically, PSP and PSK) for the benefits of Turkey Tail. According to Medicalnewstoday.com, studies have suggested the compounds found in Turkey Tail can benefit those undergoing cancer treatment. Other studies have shown that Turkey Tail can benefit the gut and microbiome as it can balance healthy bacteria in the intestines.
Turkey tail can be consumed in a wide variety of ways including tinctures, capsules, powders and tea.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Shiitake Health Benefits:
- Liver function
- Circulatory Health
- Digestive Health
Where Does Shiitake Grow?
Shiitake Mushrooms are native to East Asia and prefer warm, moist climates. They typically grow on dead trees or logs. However they are widely cultivated for consumption.
What Does Shiitake Look Like?
Shiitake mushrooms have a brown cap with white gills at the bottom. They generally can grow to between 2 to 6 inches wide.
How do they work?
The beta glucans in Shiitake mushrooms is a major player in its ability to help the body’s immune function. The mushrooms also contain chemicals that seem to lower cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health in some studies.
Shiitake is often used in culinary settings and can often be found in grocery stores. They have a meaty texture that many enjoy. They are also available in stronger concentrations as tinctures, capsules and powders.
How Safe are Medicinal Mushrooms to use?
As noted above, we are not medical professionals and do not provide any type of medical advice on this website. Before taking any supplements you should check with your healthcare practitioner.
There are some things to watch out for with mushrooms. First is allergens. Though allergic reactions from mushrooms are thought to be rare, there is still a possibility of having an adverse reaction. Additionally, if you are taking certain medications like blood thinners, you’ll want to be careful because some mushrooms can have an effect on bleeding.
That being said, mushrooms are used widely across the world. As we’ve seen, there is a lot of growing evidence about medicinal mushroom effectiveness. There are also plenty of personal stories out there that suggest using medicinal mushrooms is safe. As studies continue to be conducted, we will learn more. But use your discretion, consult your healthcare practitioner, and start slowly if you decide to try medicinal mushrooms.
How Do You Take Medicinal Mushrooms?
As previously mentioned, some medicinal mushrooms are common to eat at the dinner table. Others are not, and instead are available in more concentrated forms. In other words, medicinal mushrooms are common as supplements and some of the mushrooms can also be incorporated generally into your diet.
Is one way of consuming medicinal mushrooms better than another? The way in which they are prepared yields varying levels of medicinal compounds. For example, some mushrooms have thick protective layers and may require specific extraction techniques to be most effective. It also depends on what you are trying to achieve with consuming them. Are you supporting your immune system when sick or just a regular part of your health regimen? You may want the more concentrated options like extracts and tinctures in some cases and the less concentrated options like teas on other occasions.
Let’s take a look at the common forms of medicinal mushroom supplements.
Mushroom powders are made from dehydrated mushrooms. Some mushrooms require additional extraction (using hot water or alcohol) prior to drying. The additional extraction is used for certain mushrooms, whose medicinal compounds would not be readily available without the additional extraction methods. Once all processing and drying is complete, the mushrooms are ground into very fine particles and are then ready for consumption.
Capsules are similar to powders. However, instead of the powder being loose in a container, the powder is contained in a pre-measured capsule that can be swallowed. This might be best for someone who prefers to avoid the taste of mushroom or wants the convenience of pre-measured mushroom powder.
A tincture is a common herbal preparation that uses ethanol extraction and decoction. Tinctures have a long history of use and are handy because they have a long shelf life and also contain highly concentrated levels of medicinal compounds due to the extraction process. They generally come in a small bottle with a dropper for precise and easy dosing.
Tea is made by boiling a raw or dried mushroom for several minutes. It releases many of the compounds in the mushroom through the boiling process. Tea works well for many mushrooms and the process of boiling releases many of the beneficial components into the tea. However, tougher mushrooms like reishi and chaga benefit from the additional process of ethanol extraction to get the full beneficial compounds to release.
Infused In Food and Beverages
Another increasingly common way to get mushrooms into your diet is through food and drinks that incorporate medicinal mushrooms. For example, Four Sigmatic has rose to popularity, in part due to their amazing teas and coffee that incorporate medicinal mushrooms.
What is the right dose for medicinal mushrooms?
Each brand, person and situation is different. The best place to start is following recommendations from the brands you purchase from and ultimately from your healthcare practitioner.
If you are feeling under the weather or are dealing with something more serious, you’ll probably benefit from taking a higher dose. Otherwise, if you are taking mushrooms as a preventative supplement, you’ll benefit from a lower concentration.
Where Can I Buy Organic Medicinal Mushroom Products?
As with all things on the Greenly Guide, we promote organic products because we believe it’s important to avoid GMOs and pesticides. But especially with supplements, it’s important to choose organic because supplements are often highly concentrated. So it ensures your body is absorbing only the healthy benefits of the mushrooms and not any other byproducts during cultivation and manufacturing.
Here are a few brands we like and recommend:
Are Medicinal Mushrooms Worth The Hype?
Bottom line: we say yes! Here’s why.
First of all, they are adaptogenic. Living in modern times is stressful to our minds and bodies. We face air pollution, pesticides in our food supply, and are challenged more than ever in history to filter out what’s most useful in the use of our technologies. Needless to say, our bodies are facing increasing pressures and demands. So the fact that medicinal mushrooms are adaptogenic, makes them attractive for modern day life.
Secondly, medicinal mushrooms are immune system powerhouses. Every mushroom we discussed in this article contains powerful polysaccharides and other compounds that support the immune system. They are true superfoods. Increasing knowledge and research is growing to support what people have known for thousands of years. That is, medicinal mushrooms have healing properties!
Lastly, due to the fact that they are growing in popularity, they are becoming more plentiful to find online and in stores. We are now able to easily access these powerful fungi without having to forage in the woods like our ancestors.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with medicinal mushrooms. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.