Mushrooms are a very unique type of food. Many people either love them or hate them, mostly due to their texture. They have a good supply of certain nutrients (especially wild-grown ones), and specific types referred to as medicinal mushrooms contain some surprising health benefits.
The good news is that even if you don't like mushrooms, you can still use them for health in powdered form. They have been the subject of many research studies lately, showing positive effects like boosting immune health and fighting free radicals.
Here's more about what medicinal mushrooms are, their benefits, and the top ones to add to your diet.
What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?
While you're probably familiar with "normal" mushrooms, medicinal varieties are in a category of their own.
All mushrooms have their own nutritional benefits. Most contain nutrients like selenium, potassium, B vitamins, fiber, and protein. Those that have been exposed to sunlight or UV rays also contain a good amount of vitamin D.
Medicinal mushrooms are specific types that have been used for centuries in traditional practices like Chinese medicine because of their special health-boosting properties. Along with a good nutrient profile, they also contain powerful compounds that have therapeutic properties, including antiallergic, antiviral, and antibacterial. (1)
Although still relatively new to the western world, these medicinal fungi have exploded in popularity because of research revealing their powerful potential.
And though you may think adding mushroom powder to your smoothie sounds strange, it might just become your new favorite way to boost your health.
Main Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
Boosts Your Immune System
Many medicinal mushrooms have come to light as natural immune boosters. They have documented antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and immunomodulating effects and are considered "immune enhancers". (1)
The antimicrobial properties of these mushrooms are helpful to your body for fighting off unfriendly pathogens.
Certain mushrooms, like reishi and chaga, also contain compounds that stimulate the production of white blood cells (specifically macrophages) and natural killer cells. These types of cells are important for destroying other cells infected with a virus and for destroying foreign substances your body views as a threat. (2)(3)
This helps your body to protect itself from infection, giving your immune system much needed support.
Full of Antioxidants That May Calm Inflammation
Another one of the surprising benefits of medicinal mushrooms is that they are full of antioxidants. Most of us associate antioxidants with colorful fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but certain mushrooms have them in abundance, too. (1)
One of the most beneficial properties of antioxidants is that they can neutralize free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage at the cellular level. Not only are they associated with the development of age-related diseases, they are also one source of chronic inflammation, which itself can lead to many chronic diseases.
Regularly consuming antioxidants helps protect your body from free radical damage and can therefore also help lower chronic inflammation.
Reishi, chaga, and cordyceps have all been shown to posses antioxidant activity that reduces free radical damage. Turkey tail is another mushroom with surprisingly high amounts of antioxidants. (4)(5)
Calms Stress and May Reduce Anxiety
Many medicinal mushrooms belong to a class of herbs known as adaptogens. All adaptogenic herbs have the ability to help your body deal with physical and mental stress, and mushrooms are no exception.
Reishi is a good example of this adaptogenic ability. It's been found in studies to have a calming and anti-anxiety effect and has also shown some antidepressant potential. (6)
According to research, this may be largely due to a compound known as triterpene, which has a calming effect on the nervous system. It can also speed wound healing, which may give medicinal mushrooms some benefits for skin health. (7)
Just like with other adaptogens, mushrooms like reishi do their best stress-relieving work when taken for a period of time. Give them a few weeks before evaluating their effects.
May Help You Sleep Better
Many adaptogens help with sleep simply by lowering stress and helping you to relax at night. Some medicinal mushrooms, like reishi, also have this property and have shown an ability to improve both sleep time and quality in animal studies. (8)
Boosts Brain Function & Can Help Clear Brain Fog
Another reason to add medicinal mushrooms to your diet is to boost and protect the health of your brain. Lion's mane is a particular mushroom that has been well-studied for its brain-boosting effects.
Research has shown that compounds in lion's mane are able to stimulate the production of a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF) and myelin, which is an insulating layer around nerves. (9)
Both of these are critical components of brain health because they are needed for both the growth and protection of brain cells.
This could be why some small studies have shown that lion's mane can boost brain function and may help with mild age-related cognitive impairment. (10)
One of the main reasons medicinal mushrooms have come into the spotlight is because of their cancer-fighting potential.
Any food that contains antioxidants can help defend your body against free radicals that may contribute to cancer, but some mushrooms have shown particularly strong antioxidant and anti-tumor effects. Their immune-boosting properties also come into play because they stimulate the production of natural killer cells that can destroy cancer cells before they gain ground. (11)
While mushrooms are not a cancer cure, they do hold a lot of promise for the fight against this often deadly disease.
Improves Energy Levels
Because they adapt to the needs of your body, adaptogens can help with energy and stamina as well as relaxation and sleep.
Studies have confirmed that there are benefits of medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps to enhance energy, athletic performance, and potentially recovery after a workout. Cordyceps, in particular, works by enhancing cellular energy (ATP), improving physical stamina as a result. (14)(15)
Supports Heart Health
Certain medicinal mushrooms are very protective of heart health, particularly because they can help to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol levels. Shiitakes, which are a cooking mushroom as well as a medicinal one, have especially shown a cholesterol-lowering effect in studies. (16)
Just eating high antioxidant foods, like mushrooms, is also good for your heart. Free radical damage and chronic inflammation (which antioxidants combat) are both thought to raise your risk of getting heart disease. The more you can lower both of these, the better you can protect your heart through the years.
Top Medicinal Mushrooms to Try
Each type of medicinal mushroom has its own unique properties, even though they all share some similar health benefits. Here's a quick overview of the top choices:
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum): Also known as lingzhi and nicknamed 'king of mushrooms', reishi is rich in beta-glucans, which help with immune health. It functions as an adaptogen and especially helps with sleep, stress, and mental or physical fatigue.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris): Cordyceps is another immune-boosting mushroom that can enhance energy and athletic performance. It can also help with mental clarity and energy.
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus): Chaga contains an especially impressive amount of powerful antioxidants, which gives them a lot of anti-aging potential. They can also boost your immune system and have antiviral properties.
- Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus): This type of mushroom contains compounds known as hericenones and erinacines that can boost brain health and may help to prevent age-related cognitive decline. Lion's mane also has anticancer potential and boosts immune function.
- Turkey Tail (Trametes Versicolor): Though it has a funny name, this is one of the most researched medicinal mushrooms, particularly because of a compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK). This compound has been used as a drug for cancer in Japan. Turkey tail can also build up your immune system and has strong antiviral properties.
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes): Much loved in cooking for their flavor, shiitakes are especially high in B vitamins and may help to lower inflammation and keep blood sugar in check.
How to Consume Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms are best consumed different ways depending on which type you want to try. Many of them are not meant to be chopped, cooked, and eaten like the culinary types.
Shiitakes can, of course, be eaten just like any regular mushroom as can lion's mane. Others, like reishi, are too tough for this, but can be infused into a tea or broth.
Most types of medicinal mushrooms are sold as a powder, and this is the easiest way for most people to consume them. The powder can be hidden in smoothies or in savory dishes, or it can be made into capsules where you don't even need to taste the mushroom flavor.
Some medicinal mushrooms are also available as a tincture if you prefer a liquid way to take them.
Most medicinal mushrooms have few to no side effects, but it's a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional before consuming if you take prescription medication or are pregnant.
The biggest concern is getting pure and uncontaminated mushroom supplements. Look for organic powders when possible and buy from a reputable seller.
You should also look for supplements that are made from the fruiting body of the mushroom and don't contain fillers like rice or grains. Some companies harvest and sell only the mushroom's root system (known as mycelium), which has few to no proven health benefits. It's also a good idea to check for a standardized level of beta glucans, which are responsible for benefits like stronger immune health.
Getting the Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
If you're not sure which medicinal mushroom to start with first, try this Mushroom Master Blend that is certified organic and contains ten different types of mushrooms and three different botanical adaptogens.
Keep in mind that you should consume medicinal mushrooms daily for several weeks before expecting to notice major benefits. They do their best work over time, and patience can really pay off for your health!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.