By now, in your likely very adult life, you will have eaten a mushroom. I mean, unless you’re allergic to them, in which case this post is just not for you (sorry) and I hope you have a lovely day eating literally anything else. But for those of you who have been regularly scarfing them down, but have no idea that there are over 10,000 known types of mushrooms in North America alone, let me enlighten you. I’m here to be your Mushroom Spirit Guide and lead you through the magical world of mushrooms (note: not actually talking about Magic Mushrooms here) and their incredible health benefits.
So, cooking with mushrooms is pretty darn awesome. But did you know that they’re also considered “nature’s pharmacy”? In all of the years that I’ve been studying mushrooms, I can only now confidently head out on a hike and point out which ones can be used to help suppress bleeding from open wounds, which can be eaten, how to harvest them and when to stay the hell away from one. But what’s really effing cool, my friends, is the fact that you don’t have to head off into the forest to harvest them for yourself, in order to get the health benefits of a medicinal mushroom.
Mushrooms possess an abundance of health benefits, are a source of plant protein, complex carbohydrates, minerals, fibre and even some vitamins like D and B12. Many awesome health-based companies–both international and local–are utilizing mushrooms and mushroom compounds in their products in order to help you achieve your optimal health. Now, not all mushrooms can be directly eaten. Meaning that some kinds have to be used medicinally, whether in a capsule, powder, tea, tincture, soup or concoction. A lot of people are making their own creations out of fresh harvested mushrooms or are just interested in starting to try them. So, that’s why I thought I would throw together a little guide on some of my favourite medicinal mushrooms that you should look out for and use often!
But, before we begin, here’s a little PSA. Sourcing is super important, folks–whether you’re foraging for yourself or purchasing a product, know where your mushrooms come from. Fungi has been used to clean up waste sites, because it can denature substances like metal, oil and harsh chemicals. They have a bioaccumulation factor, acting as a sponge, soaking it all up; so think about the environment in which your mushroom is grown because you’re also gonna be consuming all of that crap too. Organic or wild foraged is always your best bet.
Now that we got that out of the way, here are 5 of my top medicinal mushrooms for your health and how to use them!
Reishi (Ganoderma Lucidum)
Considered the mushroom of immortality, there are over 2000 peer-reviewed documented studies on the health benefits of this nutrient-rich little gem. It has been used for over 4,000 years in both China and Japan for the treatment of hepatitis, nephritis, high blood pressure, arthritis, insomnia, bronchitis, asthma and ulcers. If you’re looking for something to fully support and modulate your immune system, this one is for you.
Rather than boosting your immune system, which can be dangerous for those with autoimmune conditions, Reishi helps to decrease or increase it as needed, helping to restore balance. For this and many other reasons, it’s often used for the treatment of HIV, some forms of cancer, heart disease, balancing your hormones and treating seasonal allergies. Reishi can also help if you suffer from stress, anxiety, fatigue, headaches and any other conditions of the nervous system, as it has a remarkable ability to calm the nerves, while working to revitalize them at the same time.
Chaga (Inonotus Obliquus)
(Photo by @tuuliatalvio)
Every health food store and smoothie bar on the planet seems to be serving up Chaga these days, and for good reason. The first documented use dating back to 17th-century Russia, it was widely used to treat everything from gut issues to cancer. Similar to Reishi, it also has immunomodulating powers. A rich source of antioxidants, one dose can pack the same number of antioxidants as eating 30 pounds of carrots.
If you’re just not down to catch that cold that everyone around you seems to be getting, add some of this into your diet. The specific type of polysaccharides contained within Chaga have the ability to boost the production of lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that regulate your immune system’s response to foreign invaders and infectious microorganisms. You’ll also reap some added benefits of it’s effect on skin and hair health too!
Shiitake (Lentinula Edodes)
You can actually eat these ones, and while they’re absolutely delicious, they also have a wide myriad of health benefits too. Traditionally, Shiitake was used to help treat immune disorders, fight colds, measles, intestinal worms and arthritis, to improve circulation, lower cholesterol, and treat heart disease. Today, it’s also used to treat asthma, chronic fatigue, hepatitis B, ulcers, AIDS and herpes. Lentinin, which is a component of shiitake, is a top selling cancer drug in Japan. When Lentinin is added to chemotherapy, studies showed that cancer patients were shown to live longer than when patients got chemotherapy alone.
Shiitake also contains high amounts of vitamin D2, which when consumed, the body then converts to D3 for use. And since many people are deficient in this integral vitamin, I would suggest leaving your mushrooms upside down on your windowsill before using them, in order to absorb sunlight and increase the levels of vitamin D up to 600IU. I know this might sound like a strange thing to try to explain to your next round of house guests, but it’s worth a shot.
Are you looking for some ENERGY? Well, Cordyceps have got you covered (athletically and in the bedroom, wink wink). Used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 1,300 years now, they are most notable for the way the beta-glucans contained within deliver oxygen to the body down to a cellular level – which is not only wonderful for fighting disease, but also for upping that energy and stamina.
With over 400 species of Cordyceps that have been discovered so far, studies have shown the many benefits of using them for overall kidney health. And since Cordyceps are pretty awesome at really jazzing you up, they’re a popular and effective supplement for athletes looking to perform at peak levels, as well as for the elderly looking to fight lethargy and improve memory as they age.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium Erinaceus)
This is brain food at it’s finest. Used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine for digestive issues, it’s also used as a general restorative, due to its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and immunomodulating properties. But it’s Lion’s Mane’s effects on the brain that really set it apart from other medicinal mushrooms. With the ability to repair and regenerate neurons, results come in the form of improved cognitive function, which has been shown to be specifically beneficial in neurodegenerative disorders.
Since it has wonderful effects on the brain and nervous system, Lion’s Mane has also been used to treat mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can help to speed up recovery from damage on the nervous system as well. Due to the anti-inflammatory properties, this unique mushroom can help to prevent heart disease, fight cancer, and even help to lower blood sugar levels. Mushrooms really are magic.
Whether you’re a well-seasoned mushroom consumer or you’re just getting into the many health benefits on offer, you’re in for a real treat with the more you learn and the more you incorporate them into your daily routine. Now, who’s up for a little foraging adventure with me?
(Story by Contributing Editor and Certified Holistic Nutritionist, Catherine Sugrue)