Medicinal Mushrooms - A Comprehensive Guide
We’re sure you’ve heard of mushrooms used for culinary purposes. Who hasn’t added those little fungi to their meal at least once before?
Whether you love or hate eating them, mushrooms have other uses besides being a cooking ingredient. Did you know that you can get a mental and physical health boost from mushrooms? Let us introduce you to the world of medicinal mushrooms.
A Guide to Mushrooms
First off, let’s start with a general guide to mushrooms.
What is a Mushroom?
The Value of Mushrooms
When it comes to mushrooms, there are three main categories of how they add value.
Vitamins and Minerals
Mushrooms contain a variety of vitamins and minerals that benefit your body. This includes the following:
- B vitamins (B2, B3, folate, B5)
- Vitamin D
To preserve as many of these nutrients as possible, researchers recommend that you grill or microwave them.
With its nutrient-richness and tastiness, it’s no surprise that mushrooms are the ultimate ingredient!
Besides their nutritional value, mushrooms also contain substances that benefit humans in other ways. This includes the following organic compounds:
Polysaccharides are one of mushroom’s bioactive compounds that are associated with mushrooms’ health benefits.
Indoles are the organic compounds that allow mushrooms to be used as psychedelic drugs because they act on the central and peripheral nervous systems.
- Polyphenols and Carotenoids
Both polyphenols and carotenoids are found in the fruiting bodies of mushrooms and have antioxidant properties.
As you probably know, mushrooms are incredibly tasty. Did you know that chefs love mushrooms because of their savoury taste?
Savouriness (aka umami) is a section of the five basic tastes. The other four tastes are bitterness, sweetness, saltiness and sourness. Other foods that are savoury include meats, fish, cheeses and soups.
So there’s your basic information on mushrooms as a whole, but what is a medicinal mushroom?
What are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Medicinal mushrooms are a subset of the general category of fungi, aka mushrooms. Don’t be fooled though. These aren’t your regular run-of-the-mill cooking mushrooms. These fungi can serve a completely different purpose.
What’s the Difference?
Before we get into the details of medicinal mushrooms, let’s start with the difference between cooking and medicinal mushrooms.
Well, cooking mushrooms are any kind of mushroom that both tastes good and provides you with nutritional value. These mushrooms are usually consumed as part of a meal, but they can also be eaten raw. Basically, you can eat them to your heart’s content.
You may be surprised to learn that this category only includes about 20 varieties of mushrooms. When you consider that there are around 2000 mushrooms that are edible (and many more that aren’t), you can see that this category is incredibly small.
Compared to cooking mushrooms, medicinal mushrooms take the crown as the most helpful fungi. Medicinal mushrooms are also known as functional mushrooms. As the name implies, these fungi have other benefits besides their nutritional value.
Unlike cooking mushrooms, you probably don’t want to eat these guys raw. Most of them do not taste good, or at least not as good as your traditional mushroom. That’s why medicinal mushrooms are generally consumed in other forms like capsules, liquids (such as tinctures), and powders.
Some can be eaten raw, but we don’t really recommend it as stated above. They may have ‘fun’ in their name, but your tongue will feel otherwise.
So if medicinal mushrooms are their own category of mushrooms, you may be wondering how they came to be?
The Medicinal Mushroom Origin Story
Unfortunately, medicinal mushrooms don’t have a cool and action-packed backstory like in a superhero comic. Even though their story is less interesting, their origin is just as important.
Much like every other living thing on this planet, mushrooms evolved to survive their natural predators. We as humans went through a similar process all the way to present day society. In fact, it is this evolutionary process that allows us to benefit from mushrooms in the first place.
Mushrooms produce certain chemicals that allow them to survive. These same chemicals also happen to be beneficial to humans. This is not a coincidence.
The way that humans evolved with their environment makes sense on a basic survival level. Our connection to nature is crucial, after all, what’s the point of living in a way in which you’re not able to utilise your surroundings? Luckily for us, our environment included various helpful fungi that we were, and still are, able to use to our advantage.
Now that you have a general idea of what exactly a medicinal mushroom is, you might be wondering how they came to be used as medicine.
The Long History of Medicinal Mushrooms
Long before the creation of modern-day medicine, humans relied on their environment for healing and sustaining their health. The first thing that might come to your mind are various plants like chamomile or ginseng. You’re not alone in thinking this.
However, did you know that mushrooms were also a large part of natural medicine? You may not be aware of this fact simply because the practice wasn’t as common in the Western nations. In fact, medicinal mushroom use originated in East Asia.
Places like China, Japan, and Korea commonly used mushrooms throughout the history of their culture’s traditional medicine. Even today, medicinal mushrooms are still a large part of East Asian medicine.
Even though medicinal mushrooms are less common in other places, many cultures around the world used them at some point in history.
Don’t believe us?
Here are three people of different cultures who used medicinal mushrooms:
You’ve most likely heard of Hippocrates at some point in your life. He is known as the Founder of Medicine, after all. In case you haven't, Hippocrates was a famous Greek physician who lived around 450 BCE. He is credited with introducing many advancements in the medical field, including prognosis and clinical observation.
So what does a famous doctor have to do with medicinal mushrooms? Well, Hippocrates actually mentioned at least one medicinal mushroom in his body of research. Specifically, he described the amadou mushroom and its anti-inflammatory properties.
Hippocrates also wrote that this specific mushroom could be used to help cauterise wounds. Why he used a mushroom to burn a wound closed in the first place will forever remain a mystery.
If you don’t know who this is, it’s alright, because we didn’t know either. Tao Hongjing was a Chinese man of many talents who lived sometime during the 5th century.
When we say he had many talents, we mean he did pretty much everything you could do at that time. Hongjing cycled through many professions including, but not limited to, alchemist, physician, and pharmacologist. He was the definition of a jack of all trades, you could say.
Unsurprisingly, Hongjing also had a run-in with medicinal mushrooms in his work. Hongjing recorded the existence of a few medicinal mushrooms and their healing properties. This list included some of today’s most commonly known medicinal mushrooms like the Reishi mushroom.
This individual may not be known for his work while he was alive, but he certainly rose to legendary status after his death. Ötzi, also known as the Iceman, was a naturally preserved mummy found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (on the border of Italy and Austria).
Not much is known about Ötzi besides that he lived somewhere between 3350 and 3105 BC. Besides being Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, Ötzi also provided another example of medicinal mushroom use.
In a pouch strapped to his side, Ötzi had two different types of fungi with him. One was tinder fungus. As the name suggests, this fungus appeared to be part of a fire starting kit. The other fungus was a birch polypore. This is a medicinal mushroom known for its antibacterial and antiparasitic properties.
Considering Ötzi was travelling the cold mountain range, these two mushrooms seem very important to his survival.
As you can see, medicinal mushrooms are not a new discovery. Although mushrooms are deeply ingrained in traditional medicine, modern medicine has been hesitant to pick up these fungi.
Researching Medicinal Mushroom Secrets
Despite their long history, today’s scientific research into medicinal mushrooms is sparse. This absence of data could be due to anything from scepticism about traditional medicine to an innate survival fear of mushrooms.
Luckily, more scientists are starting to make up for the lack of research. Before we get into that, however, let’s discuss why studying medicinal mushrooms is so difficult, to begin with.
The Problem of Medicinal Mushroom Research
The number one biggest problem with studying medicinal mushrooms is the lack of standardisation. What do we mean by that? To put it simply, while there are rules or regulations in this area, there are no standard dosages when it comes to medicinal mushroom products.
Now, this may not seem like too big of a deal in general, however, this lack of consistency greatly affects standard research practices. Science studies rely on comparing the results of similar or identical experiments and tests.
In the case of medicinal mushrooms, these studies struggle to produce consistent results. Many factors can affect these results, including different manufacturing practices between companies.
Ultimately, this variety ends up compromising the validity and repeatability of the tests. Both validity and repeatability are incredibly important to scientific research. If researchers can find a way to work around these issues, then the sky’s the limit with medicinal mushroom research.
As of right now, clinical research is showing encouraging and positive results regardless of these setbacks.
Modern Day Medicinal Mushroom Research
Now let’s get into the interesting stuff when it comes to medicinal mushroom research: how medicinal mushrooms can be used to treat medical conditions in modern-day times. According to some studies, there are quite a few ways!
This type of research can be divided into two distinct areas: supplementary and primary treatments.
Within this category of medicinal mushroom use, these fungi are used as an additional aspect to a person’s treatment plan. This category can be divided into therapeutic and clinical use.
Mycotherapy is any kind of therapy that involves mushrooms. This term generally refers to consuming mushrooms rather than mushroom therapists. Unfortunately mushrooms are not sentient enough to listen to your issues and help you that way. Maybe that’ll happen in the future though.
Anyway, mycotherapy actually originated many centuries ago in East Asian countries. Although mycotherapy is less common in Western countries, the field continues to grow every year.
Common therapeutic applications of medicinal mushrooms include dietary supplements and complementary alternative medicine (CAM). Dietary supplements are self-explanatory as they are meant to be added to your current diet.
What is CAM though? CAM refers to any traditional medicine that is used alongside modern medicine. Well-known examples of CAM include massage, acupuncture, and meditation.
In this case, medicinal mushrooms act as supplements to standard treatment measures. This also applies to the clinical use of the fungi.
Medicinal mushrooms are starting to be recognized as being a beneficial part of certain treatments. The most significant application of these fungi is for cancer treatment.
One study administered a certain medicinal mushroom to 100 random patients with gynaecological cancers who were receiving chemotherapy. The results of this test show that the mushrooms helped reduce the side effects of chemotherapy (loss of appetite, emotional instability, general weakness, etc.). An improvement in treatment induced disorders, such as anxiety and depression, was also seen.
Another study researched three common medicinal mushrooms and their supposed antitumor effects: Royal Sun Agaricus, Lion’s Mane, and Maitake. The results concluded that all three did in fact present antitumor qualities. Either the mushrooms directly attacked the tumour, suppressed the tumour’s growth, or indirectly helped the patient.
In these studies, medicinal mushrooms were only supplementary treatments. However, there are certain areas where these fungi are being used as a primary treatment method.
Medicinal mushrooms can also be used as a primary method to combat certain ailments. A rapidly growing field is the use of psilocybin as a treatment for mental complications and disorders.
What is psilocybin, you may ask? Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by certain fungi. The more common term for these fungi is ‘magic mushrooms.’
Despite varying views on the use of magic mushrooms, this type of medicinal mushroom can be a great benefit for certain treatments.
For example, one study tested how psilocybin-assisted treatment affects people with major depressive disorder (MDD). The participants received two doses of psilocybin (20 mg/70 kg and 30 mg/70 kg) 2 weeks apart to treat their depression.
After the initial doses, the researchers followed up multiple times. The most recent follow-up was in February 2022, which was the 12-month mark post-study. Participants reported no adverse effects and, in fact, the rates of depression relapse and remission were overall on the positive side.
As you can see, medicinal mushrooms can pack a punch against illnesses as big as cancer, and as difficult as depression. These fungi may be small but they are still mighty allies.
These medicinal mushroom applications may not apply to you; however, these fungi are not only used as health treatments but as health sustainers as well.
How Can Medicinal Mushrooms Benefit You?
So what other areas can medicinal mushrooms help in? Well for starters, there are various physical and mental benefits to using these fungi.
For physical benefits, medicinal mushrooms can increase your stamina, reduce fatigue, and improve your immune system. In other words, these fungi are like a natural energy drink for your body without the caffeine crash.
For mental benefits, medicinal mushrooms improve your cognitive function and your mood. So instead of petting a puppy to cheer you up, you can use some medicinal mushrooms to brighten your day. Although, we won’t blame you if you still pet the puppy.
Now that you know all the general information about medicinal mushrooms, here are some examples.
You Can Never Have Too Many Medicinal Mushrooms
Let’s get straight into some of the most common types of medicinal mushrooms and what they’re used for:
Named for its mane-like appearance, Lion’s Mane is a white fungus that is native to North America, Europe, and Asia. This fungus grows in clumps of long hanging spines on hardwood trees. Lion’s mane is known for its use in traditional Chinese medicine.
Benefits of Lion’s Mane include improved cognitive function, increased creativity, and acting as a support in mental well-being for those experiencing anxiety and depression.
Reishi is a reddish-brown fungus that has a distinct kidney-shaped cap. These mushrooms grow on either the base or stump of trees. Much like Lion’s Mane, Reishi has been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Benefits of Reishi include an improved immune system, lessened fatigue, stress and anxiety relief, and an improvement in quality of sleep.
You may have heard of Shiitake in cooking recipes. Well did you know they also have medicinal properties? Shiitake look like a stereotypical mushroom with their round brown caps. These fungi are native to East Asia and grow in little groups on the wood of decaying logs. They are commonly used in both East Asian cuisine and medicine.
Benefits of shiitake include improved heart health, immune system, and recovery from illness.
Although these little guys resemble a cheesy snack, you’ll be surprised to know that they are actually mushrooms. Cordyceps are a parasitic mushroom that is native to Asia. This fungus mainly preys on insects and other related creatures.
Benefits of cordyceps include improved athletic performance and mental health, and help fight fatigue.
At first glance, this fungus looks like some dirt or burnt charcoal on a tree trunk. However, beneath the unappealing exterior is a medicinal mushroom. Chaga is native to the Northern Hemisphere of the world and grows on the sides of trees in temperate forests.
Benefits of chaga include improved immune system and protection against cell damage.
This mushroom is ready for Thanksgiving with its turkey tail-like appearance. Turkey Tail is found in many countries throughout the world. These fungi grow out of dead trees including stumps and any decaying wood.
Benefits of turkey tail include improved muscle strength and lessened fatigue.
Royal Sun Agaricus
Despite smelling like almonds, royal sun agaricus is actually a type of mushroom. These mushrooms are native to Brazil and form in leaf litter in nutrient-rich soil.
Benefits of Royal Sun Agaricus include strengthening your immune system and acting as an antioxidant.
Maitake, also known as ram’s head, is a medicinal mushroom native to China, Europe, and North America. These fungi form small greyish-brown curly caps that grow in clusters. They are commonly consumed for food and medicinal purposes in both China and Japan.
Benefits of maitake include improved immune system function.