Many ancient healing systems rely on food as the first form of medicine, and mushrooms may well be some of the first nutraceuticals, or functional foods, known to man. In many traditional cultures from, China to Scandinavia to Brazil to Australia, mushrooms play an essential role in lore, medicine and diet. Not all mushrooms are edible, and not all are therapeutic but lucky for us, several well-documented species are recognised for their incredible health benefits, especially for their bolstering effect on the human immune system. The mushrooms we are talking about are often tree mushrooms, sometimes culinary mushrooms and are all ancient medicines that are still relevant in modern times. We call the medicinal mushrooms and we are excited to share some of the world’s most incredible fungi with you.
The Asian medical system has long-held reverence for mushrooms as functional foods and powerful herbs, and the first known herbal pharmacopeia in China, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, includes many species of mushroom still known today. This book also gives us the foundation of tonic herbalism via the classification system of superior, regular, and inferior herbs. To tonify, we typically work with superior and regular herbs, leaving out the more potent (and dangerous) inferior herbs, and we look to nourish, support and rebuild the body on an energetic and physical level.
Tonification (Bu Fa) is a therapeutic treatment that nourishes and replenishes the Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang of the human body when they are deficient or weak. It may be that one particular organ system requires tonification, or perhaps the body as a whole. From a TCM perspective, mushrooms generally act as Qi tonics and function to tonify the Lung and Spleen channels, though many are also supportive of other organs like the Liver, Heart and Kidneys.
Through the Western lens, all medicinal mushrooms contain complex polysaccharides (including beta-glucans) that positively challenge the immune system, strengthening and modulating its function. For this reason, we tend to prefer to use them as prophylactics, for general immune support, and in a healthy diet, rather than treating acute symptoms (with some exceptions).
Immune support is not all mushrooms can do - as Marchand and Stewart (2018) note, "Mushrooms also have a number of other properties, including antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, and tumour attenuating." Mushrooms are prebiotic and help produce M cells (which control antigens and microbes) in the intestinal lining (Halpern, 2007). They also contain potent antioxidants, each mushroom producing enzymes that eliminate free radicals and reduce the oxidative damage caused by modern life (Cruz et al., 2016).
Time to explore some of the medicinal mushrooms held in the highest esteem by ancient and modern herbalists… perhaps we'll discover your next fungal ally!
Ganoderma lucidum (Red reishi)
To say Ganoderma lucidum (also known as ling zhi) is revered in China is an understatement - the only herb contesting its position as "most valuable player" is Panax ginseng. G. lucidum regularly features in images of Daoist heaven and in the esoteric Daoist tradition, G. lucidum is revered as a longevity herb and for its ability to tonify Shen. A Shen tonic is a herb that calms the 'Spirit'; G. lucidum's use in cases of insomnia, depression and nervous conditions is well documented (Willard, 1993).
Modern Chinese medicine practitioners reach for G. lucidum to assist with supporting the liver, lowering blood pressure, supporting immune function, reducing inflammation and as a nervine and cardiotonic.
G. lucidum is well-known in herbal circles as an adaptogen. According to Panossian and Wikman (2010): "Adaptogens were initially defined as substances that enhance the "state of non-specific resistance" in stress, a physiological condition that is linked with various disorders of the neuroendocrine-immune system. Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity. In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly intolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention." Name one person you know who could not do with a little more capacity to deal with stress, fatigue and fractured attention!
As famous as G. lucidum is as a traditional medicine, it became a lot more famous when it was discovered by Asian scientists that G. lucidum is rich in polysaccharides, specifically beta-glucans that elevate immune function. Also discovered were secondary metabolites called triterpenoids which were present in significant amounts. These lipid-lowering and antioxidant triterpenoids (Wachtel-Galor et al., 2011) set G. lucidum apart from all the other medicinal mushrooms and are one of the reasons we use dual-extracts, as these compounds are soluble in ethanol. Triterpenoids give G. lucidum extracts their bitter flavour; in TCM the bitter taste supports the Heart, the organ that house the Shen.
Traditionally, consumption of G. lucidum has always been in extract form, either as a water or dual-extract (ethanol and water). This is because the tough chitinous cell walls of the mushroom make it largely indigestible, even when ground to a fine powder. An extract is the ideal way to consume G. lucidum.
Shaped like a glossy red heart (or liver, depending on your perspective), G. lucidum is a polypore, a tree-borne fungus that emits a spore-producing fruiting body (effectively the genitals of the mushroom). This fruiting body is the part used traditionally, though modern mycologists are also harvesting the mycelium of cultivated G. lucidum. Our preference is to work with the fruiting body.
Best in: decoction, broth, double-extraction tincture, powdered double-extract
Coriolus versicolor (Turkey Tail)
Coriolus versicolor is a beautifully striated polypore found in temperate forests on all continents except Antarctica (have a look in your own backyard, or nearby nature reserve; it is highly likely there is some residing there!). Like G. lucidum, C. versicolor is woody and nigh impossible to ingest raw - it is best taken in (dual) extract form. The most rigorously studied of all mushrooms, several human studies support the use of C. versicolor for cancer prevention and as an adjunct treatment to bolster the immune system after immunosuppressive treatments.
Coriolus versicolor polysaccharide extracts PSP and PSK are some of the most commonly prescribed cancer drugs in Asia. PSP and PSK are known for their stimulatory effects on many immune cell types, enhancing their proliferation and cytokine release (Saleh et al., 2017). Each compound was discovered with strong immunological values and is used as an adjuvant for cancer treatment with no known side effects (Wan, 2013). We prefer to work with whole mushroom extracts, as per the tradition, however, it is exciting to see the mainstream medical establishment pay attention to these powerful herbal allies.
Coriolus versicolor is known to be effective against several common pathogens (including Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida albicans, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes and Streptococcus pneumonia) and may have neuroprotective and memory-enhancing properties (Cruz et al., 2016).
In the Daoist tradition, due to its affinity for growing on pine trees, C. versicolor was revered for its longevity (conferred by the pine) and as a Yang tonic (it is said that it harvested Yang energy from the roots of the tree). C. versicolor is sweet and bland in flavour and slightly cold in nature, meaning C. versicolor mainly manifests its therapeutic actions in the Spleen, Lung and Liver meridians. It is also known in TCM as a herb to replenish Jing (Essence) and Qi and for general immune support.
Best in: broth, decoction, powdered double-extract, double-extraction tincture
Lentinula edodes (Shiitake)
This flavourful mushroom is a mainstay in the Japanese diet and is highly regarded for its nutritional qualities. It is the second most cultivated mushroom in the world (after white button mushrooms, of the genus Agaricus, which also happen to be medicinal powerhouses). As Halpern (2009) states, "Even among mushrooms, shiitake is high in nutrition: it contains all the essential amino acids, as well as eritadenine, a unique amino acid that some physicians believe lowers cholesterol. Shiitake is also high in iron, niacin, and B vitamins, especially B1 and B2. In sun-dried form, it contains vitamin D.” Lentinula edodes is especially rich in leucine and lysine. It also contains over 30 different enzymes. L. edodes is also rich in polysaccharides.
Lentinula edodes is known for its antiviral properties and may act as a preventative against influenza. Other studies have demonstrated L. edodes' ability to provoke interferon production in the human body (Takehara et al., 1979). In TCM, L. edodes has long been considered "an elixir of life and possessing the ability to enhance `vital energy' and cure colds" (Mizuno, 1995, quoted in Dias et al., 2004).
In the 1970s the Japanese mushroom industry conducted extensive research into the nutritional and medicinal properties of L.edodes. As with C. versicolor, a polysaccharide from L. edodes was isolated, lentinan, a pure beta-glucan. This compound was developed into a drug utilised as a complementary treatment in Japanese oncology. Research has shown that patients receiving chemo-immunotherapy using lentinan have better outcomes than those receiving standard chemotherapy (Ina et al., 2013).
Lentinula edodes is hepatoprotective, antiviral and antibacterial, and is recommended against common infections like herpes virus and Streptococcus. It may even serve dentists to learn about L. edodes' powerful properties, as in vitro and in vivo animal tests have shown shiitake intake is correlated to a decrease in dental cavities (Halpern, 2009).
Unlike its friends G. lucidum and C. versicolor, L. edodes is perfectly edible in its whole form. However, in order to consume a medicinal quality of L. edodes, it is best consumed in extract form; generally, a water extract is sufficient. L. edodes is considered a balanced tonic in TCM, with a neutral flavour that acts on the Stomach/Spleen.
Best in: food, broth, powdered extract
Hericium erinaceus (Lion's Mane)
The most popular mushroom amongst bio-hackers today, revered for its capacity to increase cognitive enhancement and encourage nerve repair, has humble origins as a Spleen tonic and culinary mushroom in traditional Asian medicine (and as a styptic in Native America). In traditional Chinese medicine, Hericium erinaceus is used for stomach disorders, ulcers, and gastrointestinal ailments. H. erinaceus is prescribed as a nutritive tonic that nourishes the enteric nervous system - our theory is that the improvements in cognition and function observed by the modern health scene is due to its function in supporting gut health and the middle brain (if you carefully observe a H. erinaceus mushroom, its hairs look like the intestinal villi.)
Chinese medicine sees the body as containing three areas of brain-like function, also known as Dan Tiens. The Lower Dan Tien controls reproductive function and primal power, the Middle our digestive capacity and ability to manifest and the Upper our higher spiritual self in full expression, clarity and harmony of thought, speech and emotion. Through the lens of traditional Chinese medicine, H. erinaceus tonifies the middle burner and supports all five organs to harmony. This could correlate to the cognitive enhancement reported by those consuming this mushroom.
Modern research has shown that H. erinaceus' major active components are beta-glucan polysaccharides, which stimulate macrophage activity and possibly provide neuroprotection by preventing cell apoptosis (Park et al., 2002). H. erinaceus also contains polyketides and terpenoids, compounds that have been found to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis (Wang et al., 2015). There is much excitement about the potential of this mushroom to treat Alzheimer's disease (Thongbai, et al., 2015). There is also signs that H. erinaceus could be supportive for dementia patients; a double-blind, parallel-group, placebo-controlled trial gave Japanese men aged 50 - 80 years 3g doses of powdered H. erinaceus each day. The group showed significant improvement on the cognitive function scale compared to the placebo group (Mori et al., 2009).
Of the terpenoids, one is found in the fruiting body of the mushroom, hericenones and the other, erinacines, is found in the mycellium of H. erinaceus - both promote the production of NGF (Bing et al., 2010). The area of research into mycelium extracts and their benefits is promising, and while traditional use was always limited to the fruiting body, modern mycologists like Paul Stamets are now growing mushrooms on a rice-based substrate which allows them to harvest the mycelium. There is some concern that grain-grown mushrooms lack the potency of their wood-grown cousins, as many of the compounds from the wood host alchemise within the fruiting body, delivering unique medicine. The more esoteric idea that the mycelium benefits our brains due to its capacity to connect the natural world is one promoted by Stamets, as illustrated in this quote from his book Mycelium Running (2005): "I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature."
In our experience, we have had clients reporting the cessation of restless leg, returned sense of smell (after having lost the sense for a period of time), relief from tinnitus, improved digestive function and other positive outcomes. On the topic of digestion, H. erinaceus has been shown to have antibacterial activity against Helicobacter pylori (Cruz et al., 2016). H. erinaceus is also useful to fight fatigue, with research finding polysaccharides from H. erinaceus polysaccharides decrease blood lactic acid, serum urea nitrogen, tissue glycogen and markers for oxidative stress (Lui et al 2015). Like its cousin L. edodes, H. erinaceus is potent at reducing cholesterol in rat studies at doses of 100mg/kg of body weight (Wang et al., 2005).
Due to the presence of triterpenoids in H. erinaceus, there is some debate over whether a water extract offers sufficient medicinal compounds or whether there is a need for dual-extraction. We work with water extracted H. erinaceus and get excellent results, and many of the studies use only water extract or even simply ground H. erinaceus mushroom in their trials. Do your research and decide which processing method will best suit you and your client's needs.
Best in: food, decoction, dual-extract tincture, broth, powdered extract (water or dual-extract).
Tremella fruciformis (Tremella)
Our last mushroom is one you may not have heard of, however it is one of our favourites to work with (and eat!). Also known as jelly mushrooms due to their soft, ethereal, coral-like appearance, Tremella fruciformis mushrooms are another favourite in the Chinese system. T. fruciformis is a sweet, mild Lung and Spleen herb, revered for nourishing Stomach Yin, and as an immune tonic and a nutritive tonic used to promote restoration of health. It helps that in extract form T. fruciformis also tastes like vanilla-malt!
Tremella fruciformis mushrooms have hypoglycemic (Kiho et al., 1994), anticancer, hypocholesterolemic (Cheung, 1996), antioxidant (suppressing oxidative stress and cell injury (Shen et al., 2017)) and anti-inflammatory properties (Ruan et al., 2018). Studies have shown that T. fruciformis promotes neurite outgrowth in neuronal cell models and water extracts of T. fruciformis have been shown to improve memory in rats (Kim et al., 2007; Park et al., 2012).
Tremella fruciformis is also used to treat cough, sore throat, chest pain, constipation and menstrual disorders in Chinese medicine (Rajarathnam & Shashirekha, 2003). Most famously, T. fruciformis was used to promote the brightening and moistening of the skin, making it hugely prized amongst the concubines of medieval China. When used topically on skin, T. fruciformis encourages the release of chemicals in the body which fight oxidative damage and prevent cell death (caused by hydrogen peroxide in the study by Shen et al., 2017). There is scope for further study here to examine the skin-protective effects of T. fruciformis. Like all medicinal mushrooms, T. fruciformis is rich with polysaccharides and beta-glucans, making it immunomodulatory to boot. And did I mention it tastes delicious? We love it in a water extract or served up in desserts.
Best in: food, broth, powdered extract.
Cautions and Contraindications
As with any herb, some populations should approach medicinal mushrooms cautiously:
- If you have a known mushroom allergy. Some people with an edible mushroom allergy do fine with tree mushrooms, like Ganoderma lucidum or Coriolus versicolor. Proceed carefully and under supervision.
- If you have an autoimmune condition. Medicinal mushrooms have a potent effect on the immune system, and while some practitioners claim that medicinal mushrooms are a panacea for autoimmune conditions, others prefer to proceed with caution. Traditionally, mushrooms like Ganoderma lucidum are said to support the body's own intelligence, normalising function, however, modern research, which is still in its infancy, points to medicinal mushrooms tendency to stimulate specific T cells as a potential red flag for those with autoimmune conditions. We have found that for most autoimmune conditions, medicinal mushrooms offer positive benefits, helping to regulate immune function, calm overreactive immune systems and for symptom management.
Check out the amazing work at Avena Journal here.
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