Medicinal Mushrooms: A Beginner’s Guide

Medicinal mushrooms have been revered since ancient times for the bounty of health benefits they offer over any other organism. But with scientific studies proving their medicinal properties, mushrooms could be the most potent addition yet to our lattes and smoothies.

Adaptogenic, anti-inflammatory, energy-boosting, cancer-fighting, antioxidant-powered – these are some of the incredible benefits associated with medicinal mushrooms.

Reishi, chaga, cordyceps, shiitake, and Turkey Tail are some of the medicinal varieties moving to the forefront of wellness. Their adaptogenic nature means they help the body adapt to its environment of internal and external stressors, and return to homeostatic balance.

Here, Holistic Nutritionist Sarah Aldrich takes us through a beginner’s guide to medicinal mushrooms and how to make them a staple in your wellness ritual.

Reishi

Ganoderma lucidum, also known as the reishi or lingzhi mushroom, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands for years. Reishi is particularly known for its immunomodulating properties; in limited clinical studies, it has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Beta-glucans, a type of complex sugar found in reishi mushrooms, are thought to be the active compound in achieving this effect.

Reishi mushrooms can be consumed in powder, tea, tincture, or pill form. While they can be eaten whole, they are not commonly found in conventional supermarkets.  Because reishi has a slightly bitter taste, many opt to add their supplement to lattes or smoothies.

Chaga

The chaga mushroom, also known as inonotus obliquus, is indigenous to Russian and Eastern European traditional medicine, where it is used as a folk remedy. Chaga’s health benefits may be due in part to its antioxidant capabilities, which have shown promise in several scientific studies. Because oxidative stress has been linked to a number of diseases (including depression, heart disease, and cancer), consuming antioxidant-rich chaga may be helpful as a preventative measure.

While chaga also comes in many forms, it is most commonly consumed as a tea. It is also delicious in powdered form with lattes or hot chocolate.

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Cordyceps

Cordyceps sinensis is another mushroom native to Traditional Chinese and Tibetan Medicine. Historically used as a “cure-all” for a variety of ailments, scientific studies have proven cordyceps has energy and mood-boosting properties. However, one of the more popular uses for this mushroom is that of an aphrodisiac. It was first documented 1500 years ago in Tibet, when herders noticed their yak would grow energetic after consuming cordyceps. This effect was duplicated in vitro, showing that mice who consumed the mushroom would have greater endurance.

Traditionally, the cordyceps mushroom was consumed with milk as a natural remedy. Today, cordyceps is most commonly found in powder or pill form.

“One of the more popular uses for cordyceps is that of an aphrodisiac.”

Shiitake

One of the most widely available mushrooms, shiitakes (also known as lentinus edodes) can be found in virtually any supermarket. Used for over 6,000 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, shiitakes are prized for their ability to strengthen the immune system. The active compound lentinan, another type of beta-glucan, has been shown in clinical studies to stimulate immune response and to prevent the growth of cancerous cells.

Because shiitake mushrooms are so common, they are most often consumed in whole form. Try sautéing them into omelettes, or eating them raw in salads.

Turkey Tail

Trametes versicolor, or the Turkey Tail mushroom, has been shown to have some very promising anticancer properties. Its active compound, Polysaccharide-K (or PSK), is currently used in conjunction with chemotherapy treatments in certain countries. PSK has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancerous cells in vitro, and has increased the survival rates of patients with colorectal cancer and certain types of lung carcinoma.

While the Turkey Tail mushroom can be eaten whole, most opt to consume it in tea, powder, or capsule form as it is rather chewy. Like the other mushrooms listed here, Turkey Tail powder is a fantastic addition to lattes, smoothies, or hot chocolate.

Contraindications of Medicinal Mushrooms

Please note that while there are many benefits to medicinal mushrooms, there are some possible contraindications. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid mushrooms, as there have not been enough scientific studies conducted on their usage in these situations. Also, people with autoimmune disorders should likewise avoid medicinal mushrooms, as their immunomodulating properties may exacerbate the symptoms of these diseases.

Image: Sarah Aldrich