Did you know that edible and medicinal mushrooms have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine? They've been known to support nutrition, boost longevity, strengthen the immune function, and even promote brain, gut, and heart health. It's fascinating how these mushrooms have gained in popularity worldwide in recent decades, and it is clear that this trend will continue into the future. In this article, we're going to dive into five of the most popular medicinal mushrooms: chaga, reishi, lion's mane, shiitake, and cordyceps. We'll explore their incredible medicinal properties backed by peer-reviewed data and also provide you with resources for further research.
Various varieties of mushrooms have names like medicinal, nutraceutical, or functional, but at the end of the day, they all mean the same thing—they go beyond just simple nutrition. Here's the interesting part: with mushrooms, the line between food and medicine can get a bit blurry. Many of the mushrooms we've mentioned here are safe to consume and have low toxicity. You can enjoy them both as food and medicine. Nonetheless, research into medicinal mushrooms is ongoing, so it's always a good idea to consult a healthcare professional before incorporating them into your diet, especially if you have any existing medical conditions or if you're currently taking medications.
Key Active Compounds of Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms are rich in countless compounds that support a healthy body. As explained by pioneer mycologist Jeff Chilton in our article on mushroom extracts, the key active compounds of medicinal mushrooms include the following:
- Beta-glucans, which are polysaccharides made up of a string of glucose (sugar) molecules joined together. Beta-glucans appear to stimulate the immune system and experimental studies have shown them to have antitumor effects.
- Triterpenoids, which are found to be liver protective, lipid (fat) lowering, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. They also inhibit histamine release. Their antitumor and antioxidant properties have been less studied than those of polysaccharides like beta-glucans.
- Ergosterol, a major component of eukaryotic cell membranes that is necessary for fluidity, permeability and protein function. It has been found to possess antitumor and antioxidant properties, and is a precursor to Vitamin D.
- Lovastatin, present in mushroom fruiting bodies, is a chemical that belongs to a group of compounds, called statins, which are commonly used as cholesterol-lowering drugs. It has been shown to have a positive effect on various diseases such as osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, ischemic heart disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in addition to exhibiting anticancer properties.
Dried Lion's Mane
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a fungal conk with a long history of use in Siberia and North America. A parasite of birch trees in temperate and boreal forests around the world, chaga has been used traditionally to treat gastrointestinal issues, such as stomach ulcers, gastritis, and indigestion. This makes sense, as tea prepared from this rock-hard fungus is rich in antioxidants and beta-glucans, both of which are helpful in combating inflammatory bowel disease. Antioxidants, in addition to supporting a healthy gut, play an important role in neutralizing free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause cellular damage. Lab and animal studies have shown that chaga may be able to fight lung and liver cancers, lower blood sugar and decrease "bad" cholesterol levels. It is also known to improve the health of skin, hair and nails due to its high melanin content. In a Thai study, water extracts of chaga exhibited strong anti-HIV properties, specifically inhibiting one of its core enzymes, reverse transcriptase. Overall it is believed to have anti-aging effects and can help modulate the immune system, enhancing the body's natural defenses against disease while supporting longevity and overall health. We carry chaga in a number of forms including teas and tinctures. For more information including how to identify, harvest, preserve and tincture chaga, visit our article on the subject here.
Chinese medical texts dating back to as early as 206BC describe reishi as a tonic against aging, calling it the "mushroom of immortality." Similar in geographic distribution to chaga, reishi is found throughout the temperate and boreal northern hemisphere where it is both parasitic on living trees and saprobic on dead and decaying ones. There are likely a number of closely-related Ganoderma species targeting both deciduous and coniferous trees. While the fruiting body contains high levels of beta-glucans the mycelium of reishi has been reported to contain more than a hundred different polysaccharides and at least 119 different triterpenoids. Extracts from reishi have been shown to reduce body weight, inflammation and insulin resistance in mice fed a high-fat diet by altering their gut bacteria. While the mechanism remains unclear, reishi has been shown to suppress tumor growth in mice and stimulate t-cells, natural killer cells, and dendritic cells, all part of the body’s natural immune response to invaders. Like chaga, research into reishi has found that the mushroom may bolster the immune system, promote longevity and support overall health. We carry reishi in a number of forms including as spawn and tinctures. Read more about reishi’s effects in The Fungal Pharmacy, our reishi species spotlight, or dive into our exploration of the mycelium vs. fruiting body debate.
While lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) may have been used traditionally in Chinese medicine as a cure for digestion and gastric ulcers, its full medicinal qualities may exceed those mushroom species listed above. According to the USDA, this one species possesses a wealth of health-promoting properties including antibiotic, anticarcinogenic, antidiabetic, anti-fatigue, antihypertensive, cardioprotective, nephroprotective, and neuroprotective, as well as anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, and immunostimulating. Furthermore, improvement of anxiety, cognitive function, and depression have also been noted. Perhaps the most well-known of these properties relates to brain health. Studies in mice and rats have shown that lion’s mane promotes nerve growth and shows considerable promise for nerve damage repair in in-vitro (outside a living organism) and rat studies, demonstrating potential in Alzheimer's and dementia relief. The naturally-occuring hericenones and erinacines isolated from the fruiting body and mycelium of lion’s mane have been shown to induce nerve growth factor synthesis. Lion’s mane has been shown to ease anxiety and depression, inhibit the growth of human cancer cells and though this study showed reishi to be the most effective at lowering blood sugar levels, lion's mane also demonstrated efficacy at doing so. Indeed, lion’s mane may be the powerhouse of medicinal mushrooms, and we offer a number of lion’s mane products. Learn more about lion’s mane in our species spotlight here.
Like chaga and reishi, shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is an immunity-booster with anticancer, antidiabetic, antiviral and antibacterial properties that also contains a host of antioxidants. In fact, it is medically approved in Japan for the treatment of gastric cancers. Shiitake has been used in traditional Chinese and Japanese Kampo medicine for centuries to increase stamina and circulation and to help alleviate arthritis, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and immune deficiency. Lentinan, a polysaccharide beta-glucan isolated from its fruit body, is known to activate natural killer cells within the immune system and appears to help prolong the lives of stomach cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Eritadenine, a chemical isolated from shiitake, has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels. Shiitake has been found to be especially potent against a host of viruses and bacteria, including herpes simplex types 1 and 2, influenza, Streptococcus, and E. coli. We offer shiitake in numerous forms including as extract capsules, spawn and incorporated into tinctures. Check out our shiitake species spotlight.
Cordyceps is a genus of over 600 species of fungi that are entomopathogenic and parasitize insects. Found worldwide, the group includes the Caterpillar Fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), formerly Cordyceps sinensis which was used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 700 years as a remedy for a number of ailments, including hyposexuality (low libido), night sweats, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, asthenia (lack of energy), arrhythmias, and other heart, respiratory, renal and liver diseases. Limited geographical distribution, numerous obstacles to artificial cultivation, and overharvest led to it being listed as an endangered species in 1999, and helped boost interest in the related and more widespread Cordyceps militaris, the Scarlet Club Fungus. This mushroom has been successfully cultivated and incorporated into supplements and tinctures and while more research is necessary, has been found to boost exercise performance through an increase in the production of ATP, fight inflammation, support heart health and manage type-2 diabetes while also possessing anti-aging, antitumor and anticancer properties. We offer cordyceps in tincture form in addition to other resources. Interested in growing your own cordyceps mushrooms? Check out our articles on growing them in Thailand and at home in jars and containers.
While there haven't been a lot of long-term studies on humans just yet, studies on mice and other mammals have shown that mushrooms like chaga, reishi, lion's mane, shiitake, and cordyceps (among others) could help support our immune system, promote longevity, and give our overall health a boost. Even if we put those medicinal properties aside for a moment, regular culinary mushrooms are still really good for us. They're loaded with important nutrients like vitamins B, C, and D, as well as fiber and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Plus, they're a fantastic source of protein, meaning they could be a great ethical alternative to meat. Mushrooms are not just good for our bodies, they can also inspire art, expand consciousness and may one day be used as a building material offworld. It's pretty exciting to think about how much more we might discover about these ancient medicines going forward. As research continues and more breakthroughs happen, our health and wellbeing are bound to benefit from it all.