People have been making and using natural remedies since the dawn of time. Cultures in all corners of the globe made use of the healing powers of local plants, and continue to do so to this day.
Mushrooms are medicinal plants that don’t get as much press as herbal remedies. To be honest, a lot of people don’t like mushrooms. But not to worry, medicinal mushrooms are used as powders or extracts so you don’t have to face down any overt fungi to reap their benefits.
What are Medicinal Mushrooms?
First off, medicinal mushrooms are not “magic mushrooms” that contain hallucinogens. The use of mushrooms as part of medical treatment has been around for millennia, across continents and civilizations.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used for everything from healing wounds to preventing prostate cancer. Some mushrooms are thought to contain nootropics (compounds that support improved cognitive function), others are filled with antioxidants.
Some mushrooms are also considered adaptogens. Adaptogens are foods or compounds that help our bodies fight stress of all kinds. As the name suggests, they help our bodies adapt to adverse conditions.
Not every mushroom is medicinal and research is fairly new in the area. So we don’t have a lot of large-scale clinical studies on medicinal mushrooms. But we’re starting to get an idea of how powerful these fungi can be.
Let’s take a look at five kinds of medicinal mushrooms and the health benefits they may offer.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
Lion’s Mane mushrooms are not only medicinal; they are also used in cooking, particularly in Asian cuisine. They are spherical and have hair-like spines that inspired the name.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms are thought to have multiple health benefits, from cognition to digestion. There are some indications that Lion's Mane can help prevent cognitive decline and bolster brain health by boosting processes that aid in nerve growth and myelin production.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms or supplements are used to reduce brain fog and increase cognitive clarity. They are also packed with antioxidants, so help decrease oxidative stress. This can relieve stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation, and improve the immune system.
Lion’s Mane is also being studied for its potential to improve recovery from nervous system injuries (by boosting nerve growth), reduce the risk of ulcers (through bacterial balance and stomach lining protection), reduce the risk of heart disease (by raising good cholesterol and helping fight obesity), manage diabetes (by improving blood sugar control), and fight cancer.
Most of these properties need more research, but there seem to be few side effects of using or eating moderate amounts of Lion’s Mane mushrooms and their antioxidant properties alone are potent and beneficial.
Cordyceps mushrooms grow on insect larva, so this isn’t one to toss in a stir fry. But as a supplement, they may be able to improve your workouts and your sex life.
Cordyceps have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but they don’t stop there. Reported to have anti-fungal (that’s ironic) and anti-diabetic qualities, these mushrooms are also being studied for their ability to improve how your body uses oxygen and increase the energy delivered to muscles.
Chinese medicine has a long history of using cordyceps mushrooms, but their potential to interact with medications has not been studied, so check with your doctor before using this supplement.
Reishi mushrooms are a longstanding staple of Eastern medicine. They can be purchased and eaten, but tend to have a tough consistency and bitter taste. It’s usually used as a supplement in powder, capsule, or liquid form.
Reishi mushrooms are used to bolster heart health and the immune system and have been studied for their effect on cancer cells. They also contain a substance called triterpene.
Tripertines are a group of compounds being studied for health benefits including the treatment of diabetes, hepatitis, and malaria. But in reishi mushrooms, it appears the greatest benefit is in reducing anxiety and promoting better sleep.
There isn’t a consensus on reishi side effects, so check with your doctor before using them as a supplement.
Shiitake mushrooms may be the only ones on this list that you’ve heard of. They are the kind that you can buy at the grocery store and would be delicious in a stir fry. But they also have health benefits.
Shiitake mushrooms boast an impressive nutritional panel. Their high level of copper supports heart, immune system, and bone health. They also contain compounds that have anti-inflammatory qualities and protect against cell damage.
Shiitake mushrooms are a popular food, but some people are allergic to them.
Chaga mushrooms grow on birch trees, though you might miss them. They look like dirt or dark bark but when you cut into them they are a rather vibrant orange. They are a northern hemisphere mushroom and are popular medicinal mushrooms in Siberia.
Chaga mushrooms are often grated and brewed into tea. The powder is also available as a supplement.
Chaga mushrooms are packed with antioxidants, which makes them helpful in reducing all kinds of stress and inflammation. They also contain compounds that are thought to boost the immune system.
Chaga is a mushroom that has some known negative interactions with Western medicines and some medical conditions. Since it is not one that is used in cooking, check with your doctor before brewing a cup of chaga tea or taking a supplement.
Mushrooms are yet another avenue to explore in our efforts to live a healthy lifestyle using natural substances. They contain a wide variety of beneficial substances that can be used to support heart health, decrease anxiety, improve cognition, and even boost exercise stamina.
Like any supplement, it’s important to talk to your doctor before supplementing your diet with medicinal mushrooms. Some can be used in everyday cooking but others are not as well understood despite their longstanding use in Eastern medicine.
Also, never pick and eat wild mushrooms. There are many varieties that are poisonous. Leave the picking to the experts!