Medicinal mushrooms have found their way into high-end coffee shops and supermarkets alike, but using medicinal mushrooms is nothing new. They’ve been used for thousands of years. So, we’re left with an age-old question: What do medicinal mushrooms do, anyway? Dr. Michele Ross, Ph.D and MBA, shares her insights.
It would be no exaggeration to say that a fungus changed the course of human history. The year was 1928 and, by complete accident, Dr. Alexander Flemming unearthed the cure that would save the lives of millions and drastically reduce the spread of infectious disease: penicillin.
Penicillin, derived from Penicillium mold, is arguably one of the most famous fungal medicines in the world. While deleterious to your daily loaf of bread—its usual host—the antibiotic continues to have profound implications on human health. But, Penicillium is far from the only fungus with medicinal value. The relationship between humans and medicinal fungi spans millennia.
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What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?
Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. They’re cornerstone figures in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and are included in the mythical Herbal Classics, the ancient Chinese version of the Materia Medica. As reported by Vaclav Vetvicka and his colleagues in their review for Molecules, Indian texts dated 5,000 years in the past highlight the medicinal properties of mushrooms. Likewise, fables from ancient Japan tell tales of cancer-ridden monkeys cured by a feast of shiitake (Lentinula edodes).
More recently, however, mushrooms have become popular supplements and health aids in the West. But, it’s taken decades of experimentation for scientists to understand the healing properties of these humble fungi. Simply stated, medicinal mushrooms are mushrooms that have therapeutic value in human health. Today, pharmaceutical medicines, nutraceuticals, or dietary supplements are made from mushrooms or their active constituents. Most commonly than not, however, they’re brewed into teas, steeped into tinctures, or eaten as foods.
What Do Medicinal Mushrooms Do?
The simple answer to this question is a lot.
“Medicinal mushrooms can act as nootropics,” says Dr. Michele Ross. Dr. Ross is a former addiction researcher turned plant-medicine advocate. She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience along with an MBA. So, it’s safe to say that nootropics are right up this scientist’s alley. Nootropics are medical and nutritional compounds that enhance cognitive function. Nicotine, for example, is a nootropic. As are caffeine and ginkgo biloba. In recent years, preliminary experiments suggest that some mushrooms, like lion’s mane, contain compounds that may stimulate nerve growth in the brain. Albeit, this research hasn’t progressed beyond rodent trials.
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Dr. Ross, however, can speak from first-hand experience. “I myself have experienced this rapid brain rewiring after taking mushrooms after brain injury. I literally went from ‘Will I ever be a neuroscientist again?’ to completing an MBA program and writing a 400 page book.”
“In the case of someone with traumatic brain injury, or a chronic disease, taking medicinal mushrooms could bring them back to almost normal cognitive function,” she explains. “In the case of someone that is healthy, medicinal mushrooms can help them perform better and solve really complex problems.”
But, what exactly makes mushrooms medicinal? Mushrooms, much like their botanical brethren, are host to an astounding number of nutritional and bioactive compounds. Vitamins, antioxidants, and aromatic terpenes are among the compounds that give mushrooms their therapeutic potential. Unlike plants, however, mushrooms are home to another secret weapon—complex sugars.
In the age of ketogenic and low-carb diets, sugars are often cast as unwelcome villains and the new “public enemy number one.” But, the complex carbohydrates found in mushrooms paint a very different picture of the role carbohydrates can play in human health. Medicinal mushrooms produce a special class of polysaccharides called beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, and even some plants, like oats and barley. These natural chemicals stimulate the immune system, potentially boosting its ability to defend against harmful pathogens and, amazingly, fight cancer cells.
Medicinal Mushrooms and Cancer
Cancer is perhaps the single most important area of medicinal mushroom research. Over the past decade, there’s been an uptick in studies that look at the effects of medicinal mushrooms and cancer, but the research is still in its early phases. Many medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake and reishi, produce polysaccharides that stimulate the body’s own immune cells, including macrophages, T-cells, and natural killer (NK) cells.
These cells are the body’s first line of defense against cancer. When they’re healthy and abundant, they destroy rogue cancer cells in a ruthless way; they patrol for diseased cells, then, when they meet one, they secrete compounds like nitric oxide and hydrogen peroxide to poison the undesirable. The natural killer cells finish it off by lysing the cancer cell into pieces. (There are no laws of war for the human immune system).
Modern cancer research involves finding ways to enhance this form of innate immunity. For the past decade, researchers around the globe have dedicated their careers to studying novel therapies for cancer. Most recently, non-toxic immunotherapies have earned their rightful place among the most promising areas of cancer research. This includes research on how to stimulate NK cells to respond to tumors that have already developed in the body.
The immunostimulating compounds in some mushrooms provide one potential path in this non-toxic direction; researchers have studied glucans for cancer since the 1960s. And, while glucans alone are far from an ideal treatment for cancer, experiments are promising. A 2016 clinical trial, for example, found that dietary glucans improved NK cell function in patients recovering from various types of cancer.
But, beta-glucans are far from the only therapeutic compounds in fungi. Some fungi are so efficient at fighting cancer that they are already used as chemotherapy agents. The pharmaceutical drug paclitaxel, which is used for the treatment of lung, breast, and prostate cancer, is produced naturally by fungi found in the Pacific yew tree. Yet, paclitaxel comes at a cost. While the toxin can effectively kill cancer, it’s considered a poison in any other circumstance; ingesting any part of a yew can cause severe illness. Or, in the worst-case scenario, it can give you a heart attack.
Which Mushrooms Are Medicinal?
To date, over 700 mushroom species are known to contain bioactive compounds, performing up to 126 distinct medical functions. But, you won’t find all 700 on supermarket shelves or at your posh Los Angeles coffee shop. Instead, a mere handful take the spotlight. Here’s a list of the most common medicinal mushrooms and what they do:
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Dubbed the “Mushroom of Immortality,” reishi is a prized specimen in China and Japan and for good reason. The mushroom boasts over 200 different polysaccharides, along with a wealth of amino acids, terpenoids, and other common nutrients. Contemporary doctors in China often give this mushroom to cancer patients to strengthen the immune system during rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. In Western scientific practice, this tree-dwelling mushroom is being studied for its roles in cancer, immune support, and sleep.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Trametes versicolor is the star subject of numerous cancer-related studies. It’s most notable polysaccharide is polysaccharide krestin (PSK), which is approved as an adjunct cancer treatment in Japan. Since the 1970s, extracts from this log-dwelling mushroom have been used as a supplementary treatment for thousands of cancer patients.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the easiest species to grow at home, and they also have a long history as a medicine. They were traditionally used to fight the common cold, but emerging research suggests that they may have cholesterol suppressant and anti-tumor potential. The main active constituent in Lentinula edodes is the polysaccharide lentinan, which is already used as injectable adjunct immunotherapy for cancer patients in China and Japan.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
The name “Lion’s Mane” couldn’t be more appropriate. This mushroom features robust white plumage that blooms like a soul patch on hardwood trees. The fungi is most famous for its potential benefits for neurological health. It’s two main active compounds, hericenones and erinacines, successfully stimulated the growth of new brain cells—in early experiments, that is.
“As someone who actually did their Ph.D. on adult neurogenesis,” Ross begins, “It’s fascinating that using lion’s mane grows brain cells. Since I also have fibromyalgia and other chronic illnesses that result in symptoms like brain fog, depression, and chronic pain, lion’s mane improves my focus and mental endurance so I can solve challenging problems or write for 12 hours at a time without my brain having to crash and reboot!”
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga mushrooms are at risk of being over-harvested in the wild. But, truth be told, these mushrooms might often miss your first glance; they look a bit like burnt charcoal on the side of birch trees. Like other mushrooms, chaga is revered for its potential immune-modulating properties.
Psilocybes aren’t your typical medicinal mushrooms. These beloved “magic mushrooms” cause psychoactivity, which may not (officially) heal the body physically or stimulate the immune system (though some anecdotal reports suggest otherwise), but may be valuable on psychological and spiritual levels. In early clinical trials, psilocybin has successfully eased depression and anxiety in terminally-ill cancer patients after a single session. Now, researchers are looking into whether or not the psilocybe experience can have similar success in patients with clinical depression and alcohol dependence.
Medicinal Mushroom Benefits
The Romans reportedly referred to Mushrooms as the “Food of the Gods.” Now, with the help of modern science, it’s easy to understand why. Not only are mushrooms nutrient-rich, but each species features unique chemical compounds that may promote health and wellness in unusual ways. Here’s a quick summary of some of the most promising medicinal mushroom benefits:
Mushrooms Contain Vitamin D
Mushrooms, along with fatty fish, are among the few natural sources of dietary vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for a variety of basic bodily functions; it’s crucial for bone health, blood pressure regulation, and nerve function. Normally, humans synthesize vitamin D through the skin, after spending time in the sun. Edible mushrooms, however, naturally contain vitamin D. This makes mushrooms a particularly good food to eat in the wintertime, when there may not be enough sunlight for your body to properly synthesize vitamin D. (If you live in northern climates, that is.)
Some Mushrooms produce Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient found mainly in meat. This is unfortunate news for many vegetarians and vegans, who often struggle to get enough of this neuroprotective vitamin in their daily diet. Amazingly, some mushrooms synthesize vitamin B12 on their own. Shiitake, Lion’s Mane, Black Trumpet, and Golden Chanterelle are potential fungal sources of B12. (Although, you’d still need to eat 50 grams a day to meet your recommended daily allowance. So, take your supplements!).
Medicinal Mushrooms for Immune Support
Apart from cancer, medicinal mushrooms are often used to support the immune system in other ways. Mushrooms, for example, may improve the immune system’s ability to fight infection against viral, bacterial, and parasitic pathogens. Some medicinal mushrooms may also help mediate inflammation and allergic immune responses, but research on the topics is still underway.
While some poisonous mushrooms may give you a heart attack, medicinal mushrooms might just help you lower your cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. The cardiovascular effects of edible and medicinal mushrooms are a hot topic in mushroom research. Thus far, early studies suggest that some species of edible fungi may reduce the oxidation of lipids in the blood, which, in turn, may harden into a cholesterol plaque that clogs arteries and increases the risk of a heart attack.
Do Medicinal Mushrooms Work?
We have some bad news: there’s no such thing as a panacea. Medicinal mushrooms are nutritionally rich and feature amazing therapeutic potential. But, mushrooms alone are not a cure-all. Instead, they should be included as a vital part of a healthy diet, lifestyle, and doctor-approved treatment plan. Regardless, there’s a reason mushrooms have been used as medicine for millennia: they’re good for you.
Are Medicinal Mushrooms Safe?
For the most part, medicinal mushrooms are as safe as edible mushrooms. In fact, most medicinal mushrooms are edible mushrooms; the only difference is the preparation, concentration, and intention behind why you’re consuming them.
“It’s important to remember that there is an appropriate time and place to use mushrooms, and that not all mushrooms are right for all patients,” explains Dr. Ross. “Be safe and be educated.”
Just in case, here are some general tips and tricks for medicinal mushroom safety:
- Avoid eating foraged mushrooms unless they can be properly identified.
- Always take the recommended dose.
- Always consult the guidance of a trusted medical professional before making adjustments to any therapy.
- Make sure you purchase mushrooms or mushroom spores from a reliable source.
A Quick Word about Medicinal Mushrooms and COVID-19
“I think it’s important that people boost their immunity with medicinal mushrooms like astragalus and turkey tail during the coronavirus pandemic,” begins Dr. Ross. “But, several experts, including Paul Stamets and Dr. Weil, suggest that you might want to stop using them if you get a fever and show symptoms of COVID-19.”
Some mushrooms, she explains, may increase the production of inflammatory compounds in the lungs. These compounds are called cytokines, and the body may release them as a natural response to some polysaccharides found in fungi. (For example, a 2016 study found that some beta-glucans may worsen inflammation in pneumonia.)
Anna Wilcox is a writer, anthophile, and perpetual student. Published on Herb, Leafly, and Green Flower. Reach out on Twitter @anna_wlcx.