Functional Fungi: Our Deep Dive into Medicinal Mushrooms
May 10, 2022
As the weather warms, many plants come into their full expression of life. Amongst the fauna, there is a group of important species that start to reveal themselves on the forest floor, on the bark of a tree, or on a fallen log: mushrooms!
Below, our Clinical Herbalist Casie Giroux is chatting all about medicinal mushrooms, how they’re used, and how you can incorporate them into your daily routine.
Functional mushrooms have been taken in traditional Eastern medicine for thousands of years to improve and maintain physical health and prevent a wide array of illnesses. Today, mushrooms are commonly used in the alternative and integrative health fields worldwide, especially in the field of oncology. They have a wide array of characteristics that make them a valuable health resource, including being anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective (protective of liver cells), antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immunomodulatory.
The Overall Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
Mushrooms have an array of compounds and metabolites present in their fruiting bodies and underground mycelium networks that work in synergy with the human body to benefit overall well-being. The health benefits of medicinal mushrooms extend throughout the body positively impacting our nervous and immune systems, cognition, mood, and even our digestion. Their rich content of polysaccharides, beta glucans, and terpenes are of particular importance when it comes to medicinal mushrooms’ benefits for the body. Polysaccharides work to modulate our immune systems, while the terpenes are the main antioxidant agent. Additionally, mushrooms are rich in prebiotic fiber, protein, vitamins, essential amino acids, and polyphenols.
Here are some of the better-known mushrooms being used to support well-being:
Reishi is a large, woody polypore mushroom that can be found growing on dead logs of hardwood trees like elm, oak, and maple in forests throughout the world. It has a glossy exterior that is most often reddish brown, but colors can vary from beige, black, yellow, purple, or even blue depending on the host tree. Reishi mushrooms have a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for balancing vital energy and promoting longevity. Reishi was also traditionally boasted to strengthen cardiac function, reduce stress, and increase memory.
More recent research has shown reishi’s value in protecting the liver from damage, modulating our immune systems, lowering inflammation, and even regulating cholesterol and glucose levels. With consistent use, steroid-like compounds within reishi can reduce inflammation and our histamine response and in turn, reduce the effects of allergies and possibly asthma. Reishi is a great mushroom to use in the springtime when seasonal allergies can be at an all time high. Reishi can also play an important role in supporting the immune system in people with cancer and while undergoing cancer treatment.
Tip from Casie:
As a seasonal sufferer, I turn to reishi in late winter to prepare my body for the evitable springtime allergy boom. When taken regularly, it can reduce inflammation and our overall histamine response. In addition, reishi supports healthy immune function and balances our vital energy so we are prepared for whatever life throws at us.
Another important plant in the TCM pharmacopeia is cordyceps mushrooms. Like reishi, cordyceps can support respiratory ailments, boost immunity, and support cancer treatment. But what sets cordyceps apart is its potential for enhancing energy and endurance levels, as well as our bodies’ aerobic capacity. These benefits can boost athletic performance, stamina, and decrease recovery time and can also be supportive for general fatigue and fragility. Cordyceps’ capability for enhancing our aerobic capacity—or our ability to utilize oxygen–can also help improve symptoms of altitude sickness. Studies have also shown that regular inclusion of cordyceps in the diet may help to balance overall cholesterol including lowering LDL levels (known as the “bad” cholesterol).
Tip from Casie:
Including cordyceps mushrooms in your daily routine can help to boost energy levels and stamina and decrease exercise recovery time. Outside of the gym, it supports general fatigue and can give you the boost you need to get through life's everlasting to do list.
In the wild, lion’s mane grows on dead or dying hardwood trees, and unlike most mushrooms that grow close to ground, it can be high in the canopy. Lion’s mane has a unique look, as it’s mainly white in color with spines that hang down like icicles from its base. These spine-like teeth produce and release spores that allow the organism to reproduce.
Traditionally, lion’s mane was taken to nourish our five vital internal organs (lung, spleen, heart, liver, and kidney), assist digestion, and as an aid for general weakness and fatigue. But of all the medicinal mushrooms, lion’s mane has the most research to support its promotion of overall brain health. It is known to support the growth and protection of nerve cells, making it beneficial for improving memory, reducing brain fog, and balancing our stress responses. Its neurotrophic properties can aid in supporting general cognitive health as well as improving cognitive impairment due to underlying neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Tip from Casie:
In a world filled with millions of daily distractions, we could all benefit from a little focus support. Lion’s mane is nourishing to overall cognitive health and can help improve focus, mental clarity, and memory. Its regenerative qualities can also decrease our stress response overtime, making it an ally to the nervous system.
Last but not least, Chaga. One of the first documented uses of Chaga was by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who made a strong tea with the mushroom and used it as wound wash to aid in healing. Chaga was also traditionally used to remedy gastrointestinal complaints, support healthy immune function, and as an overall wellness tonic. Chaga has potent antibacterial properties, which made it a valuable wound wash in Hippocrates’ day and also makes it a powerful gastrointestinal agent. Recent studies have shown its possibility for balancing blood sugar levels and having a beneficial impact on cholesterol–in turn, supporting overall heart health and function.
For our skin health, chaga is known to help fight oxidative stress which can contribute to premature aging. Chaga’s high levels of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, nutrient content, and potential for decreasing skin irritations all contribute to its support for glowing skin.
Tip from Casie:
Chaga mushrooms can benefit our skin health from the inside out. Whether you are looking to reduce inflammation and irritations, decrease oxidative skin stress (think anti-aging!), or provide your skin with essential vitamins—chaga is your ally. Even when skin health isn’t your primary goal, chaga’s ability to help balance blood sugar and cholesterol levels while supporting healthy immune function make it valuable in my daily routine.
When it comes to functional mushrooms, it is hard to go wrong. All of them support healthy immune function, scavenge for free radicals that can damage cells, and are packed with essential nutrients. They synergize (combine with each other) beautifully and can also be beneficial on their own.
Depending on your individual health goals, certain mushrooms can take your well-being a step further by addressing cognition, allergies, endurance, or even skin health. By including medicinal mushrooms into our diets, we can also strengthen our innate immunity which is inevitably impacted by modern day stressors and environmental factors.