Medicinal mushrooms have been used for their healing benefits for hundreds of years in places like China, Russia, Japan and Tibet. Chaga mushrooms, for example, have been used to treat diabetes, intestinal issues and various cancers. There are even records of Cordyceps being used as an aphrodisiac all the way back in the 15th century. Oh la la!
But, it wasn’t until relatively recently that medicinal mushrooms became mainstream in the West. Now they’re easily accessible online and in health food stores, and boast incredible health benefits like stress relief, improved sleep, cancer-fighting properties, glowing skin and a near-cure for the common cold.
The question is: Are these impressive benefits for real, or are they too good to be true?
I know that you’re confronted with news about the latest lotions, potions and remedies every single day. It can be hard to keep track and figure out what’s really worth your time. That’s why I love to go full-on Nancy Drew (picture me with a magnifying glass) and investigate these trends—so you don’t have to. We did it with CBD oil, we did it with beans—now we’re doin’ it with medicinal mushrooms!
Before we dive in, I know that you might be wondering about the difference between medicinal mushrooms and those you’re used to seeing in the grocery store. Everyday mushrooms have wonderful health benefits, too. They’re loaded with antioxidants and help boost your immune system. Plus, they’re delicious and work well as a meat substitute in many dishes (can you say grilled portobello burgers?!).
But many of the fabulous fungi we’ll chat about today aren’t your standard throw-em-in-a-stir-fry variety. Unlike our favorite buttons, oysters and truffles, some of these guys contain indigestible fiber and definitely don’t make tasty cooking ingredients. That’s why there are so many other ways to consume them, which we’ll cover when we get into each variety.
Here’s something else to keep in mind as you venture into the world of medicinal mushrooms: While some mushrooms are healthful and others are tasty, some will make you very sick. So it’s important to understand which are safe to consume and how they may help you. Think of them like supplements—everyone’s needs are different, so do your research and when in doubt, check with your doctor!
6 Medicinal Mushrooms: Uses, Benefits and How to Take Them
Today we’re going to talk about six of the most commonly used medicinal mushrooms: shiitake, reishi, chaga, lion’s mane, cordyceps and turkey tail.
Scientific name: Lentinula edodes
Superpower: Combats inflammation
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the few medicinal mushrooms that also happen to be delicious. In fact, they’re one of the five most popular mushrooms worldwide! But being tasty isn’t their only superpower. They’ve also been used for their health benefits for hundreds of years in Japan, China and Korea.
Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, which has strong anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic properties. What does all that mean? Well, not only can lentinan help destroy cancer cells, it may also ward off various infections and viruses. An injectable form of shiitake mushrooms is used alongside chemotherapy in China and Japan for the treatment of gastric cancer. Shiitake mushrooms have also proven helpful at lowering bad cholesterol levels.
How to take shiitake mushrooms:
Since shiitake mushrooms are so tasty, you can enjoy them in stir-fries, miso soup, grain-based dishes, casseroles or even curries. Just 5 g of dried shiitakes (about 1 oz fresh or one large mushroom) can lower markers of inflammation in the blood after a single meal! Fun fact: You can purchase dried shiitakes and keep them in the pantry for several months, which makes them a convenient staple. Then, just rehydrate them before adding to cooked dishes!
You can also take shiitake mushrooms as a supplement in pill form. Just be sure to look for organic varieties without added ingredients or gelatin. The only downside to shiitake mushrooms is that they’re rich in purines, meaning that folks who are prone to gout flare-ups may need to limit portion sizes or eat them less frequently.
Superpower: Reduces stress and promotes balance
People suffering from seasonal allergies have also found great relief when supplementing with 1000 mg of reishi daily. And it doesn’t stop there—some folks have reported that reishi-infused skin creams can help reduce signs of aging.
How to take reishi mushrooms:
These medicinal mushrooms have no apparent side effects, so they’re great to try if you’re just dipping a toe in the shroomy waters. You can find them in many forms, including supplements, tinctures and powders. They’re also available as mildly flavored teas, coffees and hot cocoa mixes. My team has tried Four Sigmatic’s Hot Cacao with Reishi* (500 mg of reishi per serving!) and fallen in love with it. Whatever form you choose, beware of products made from inferior black reishi mushrooms as they are less potent. Look for red and purple varieties of reishi because they’re superior in quality and likely worth the added cost!
If you want to go the capsule or supplement route, look for brands that are certified pure. Be sure to pay attention to the recommended dosage instructions as concentrations will vary. Your integrative doc will probably have brand recommendations and give you specific instructions.
Scientific name: Inonotus obliquus
Superpower: Knocks out the common cold
Chaga mushrooms may look like nothing more than a clump of dirt until you see their orange interior, but rest assured that these babies pack a serious healing punch. They grow on birch trees in very cold climates and have one of the highest antioxidant contents of ANY food! That’s why they’re often used to ward off the common cold.
A single 8-oz cup of chaga tea has the same number of antioxidants as 30 lbs of carrots. No, I’m not kidding! Also, the beta-glucans in these medicinal mushrooms stimulate the production of lymphocytes, which help regulate our immune system’s response to infections.
Chaga mushrooms have also been used to treat cancers and reduce tumor size, resolve digestive issues, manage blood sugars, lower bad cholesterol levels, and make hair and skin shinier, healthier and younger-looking. Oh, and for yet another cool detail about these amazing medicinal mushrooms: They’ve been consumed in Russia for hundreds of years and the word “chaga” is Russian for mushroom!
How to take chaga mushrooms:
Hot water or alcohol are needed to break down the tough cell walls in chaga mushrooms and activate their beneficial compounds. That’s why tea, coffee and cocoa are popular ways to consume chaga mushrooms. In fact, chaga mushroom coffee became especially popular as a coffee substitute during the world wars because of its pleasant taste and ability to increase energy in a more balanced way than caffeine.
Supplements, tinctures and extracts of chaga are also available and are processed with hot water to activate the medicinal compounds. For defense against colds, some integrative docs recommend 1000-2000 mg of chaga extract when symptoms start to come on.
Even though people have been taking chaga mushrooms safely for centuries, doctors recommend that people with bleeding disorders and diabetes avoid them as they can accentuate the effects of anticoagulant medications and insulin. Chaga overuse may also tax your kidneys, so be sure to follow recommended dosages and work with your doc.
Superpower: Improves focus and memory
Lion’s mane may even help prevent and reverse neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia because of its regenerative capability in the nerves of the brain and spinal cord! Research has shown that it can stimulate the synthesis of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which is why it may have such a positive effect on the neurological system. How cool is that?
How to take lion’s mane:
Lion’s mane is edible and has a seafoody taste, making it a great ingredient in stir-fries or faux crab cakes. It’s also available as an herbal supplement, tincture or tea. Four Sigmatic’s Mushroom Elixir Mix* may help you when brain fog sets in, and is delicious combined with cinnamon and hot oat milk (don’t worry—it’s not fishy in this form!).
Keep in mind: Some folks feel more focused within days of taking lion’s mane. But when it comes to anxiety and depression, research has shown that it may take at least 4 weeks to feel relief.
There aren’t any documented side effects or adverse reactions currently associated with lion’s mane. But, you know what I’m gonna say about checking with your doc… (Do I sound like a broken record?! 😉)