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Q: Do mushrooms really have medicinal qualities? How do I know which mushroom I need?
History of Medicine Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used throughout human history for food, clothing, tools, and medicine. Writings about mushrooms are featured in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Traditional Chinese Herbs, dated from 1644. Fungi and humans share up to 50 percent of their DNA, whereas most plants share less than 10 percent of their DNA with humans. Fungi and humans can both be infected by common pathogens, but fungi are much more adept at manufacturing compounds to combat these pathogens than are humans.
Because of the similarities between fungi and animals, our bodies can digest, assimilate, and utilize these fungi as functional foods. Most people are familiar with the fruitbody (mushroom cap), which is the end stage of the fungal life cycle. But the mycelium (underground network) also holds crucial health-promoting compounds for repair and regeneration. The fruitbody is the reproductive stage of the fungi with seed-like spores for complete reproduction. Compounds found in the fruiting bodies are just one part of the full range of mushroom constituents. Mushrooms confer benefits to multiple systems in the human body including the cardiovascular, digestive, neurological, immune, reproductive, skin, skeletal, and muscular systems.
Medicinal Properties of Mushrooms
The claim most frequently attached to mushrooms, for good reason, is that they can support healthy human immune function in general, and many have specific anticancer potential. Lion’s mane (so named due to its shaggy appearance) excels on this front. Studies show that lion’s mane stimulates natural killer (NK) cell activity. NK cells are our primary defense against many types of viruses as well as cancerous tumors. Lion’s mane extracts also stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which promotes myelin sheath growth in nerve cells. Healthy myelin sheaths are important for efficient neuron communication.
Medicinal mushrooms are also known to help regulate blood sugar. If blood sugar is wildly vacillating, our health cannot be stable. Blood sugar stability isn’t difficult to achieve with consistent, intelligent food choices, and regular exercise, but far too many Americans don’t meet those minimum requirements, so they need a little help. Maitake, reishi, and cordyceps mushroom extracts are documented to help reduce both blood sugar and insulin levels after just one week of ingestion.
Reishi, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms have also been shown to help lower high blood pressure, particularly reishi, which is also a remedy for anxiety and insomnia. If you need a non-jangly “pick me up” on the other hand, go for turkey tail or cordyceps to combat low energy levels.
How to Buy Medicinal Mushrooms
Mushroom products can be found in health food stores throughout the world. In my opinion, the best products combine extraction methods to maximize all the health-promoting constituents to the consumer. Some medicinal constituents in mushrooms are water-soluble, while others are alcohol (ethanol)-soluble. Some compounds need to be extracted in hot water (such as indigestible fiber, beta-glucans, glycoproteins, and other high-molecular weight compounds), whereas some are best extracted in cold water (the extracellular metabolites from the mycelium at the temperature range at which the fungi’s own immune systems are most active). Look for a brand that offers these multiple methods of extraction.
Mushrooms may be found as tinctures (extracted with alcohol, but also hopefully with water, both hot and cold), or dried and ground and placed into capsules.
See our Best of Mushroom Supplement Awards.
Top 8 Medicinal Mushrooms
- Agarikon (Agaricus blazei) was first found in Florida and is thought to contain high levels of beta-glucans, which may help account for the mushroom’s antitumor activity, as well as its antiviral, blood-sugar-modulating, and cholesterol-lowering potential.
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) grows primarily on birch trees. It has significant antioxidant properties, is known to slow down cell division in tumors, and is a powerful antiviral that helps fight even the HIV and influenza viruses.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) This native of Tibet is best known for inhibiting the proliferation of human leukemia cells, enhancing the immune system’s natural killer (NK) cells, increasing blood flow, and reducing several forms of kidney disease. It’s also been studied for the treatment of asthma and bronchitis, and one study found a 64 percent improvement in erectile dysfunction after ingesting one gram of cordyceps daily.
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is best known for treating cancer, especially breast and intestinal cancers. Lion’s mane also holds promise for treating neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, because of its ability to stimulate nerve repair, increasing cognitive ability and improving muscle function.
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa or “Hen of the Woods”) grows in northern temperate deciduous forests, and has been shown to cause tumor regression, especially in breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. This delicious, soft-fleshed polypore also has fantastic nutritional value and has been used to treat diabetes. In one study, a single dose from a maitake mushroom extract lowered blood glucose by 25 percent in insulin-resistant mice.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is a gorgeous fungus that grows on dead or dying trees throughout the world. It’s best known for boosting energy and reducing histamine/allergic responses, and boasts potent anti-inflammatory properties. One study compared reishi extracts favorably against Prednisone, without the side effects. Because reishi can reduce free-radical damage, it is popular in anti-aging products.
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is native to Japan, Korea, and China, and grows primarily on Asian oaks and beeches. Shiitake is one of the most popular and best-studied medicinal mushrooms due to its lentinan content. This high-molecular-weight polysaccharide stimulates several white blood cell lines (macrophages, lymphocytes, phagocytes), thus contributing to shiitake’s antiviral, antibacterial, and overall tonic activity. Shiitake is relatively inexpensive, delicious to cook with, and keeps longer than most other mushroom species.
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor aka Coriolus versicolor) is found throughout North America. Known for its immune-boosting, antitumor, antiviral, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties, this well-researched medicinal mushroom is extremely hardy. The commercial drug, PSK, commercially known as “Krestin,” is derived primarily from mycelial cultures of turkey tail. Krestin is an approved anticancer drug in Asia and has been shown to significantly reduce incidence of cancer recurrence, especially in stomach cancer, when used after conventional chemotherapy. Similarly, when used in conjunction with radiation therapy for cervical cancer, Krestin has been shown to significantly lower recurrence rates. Its activity is two-fold: inhibiting the growth of cancer cells while also stimulating NK cells.