In ancient scrolls and legends, mushrooms have often been revered as magical entities, symbolising mystery, growth, and transformation.
Today, scientific research confirms what humans have known for thousands of years: these mushrooms have profound health benefits.
Mushrooms have been shown to enhance general well-being, vitality, and longevity. In recent years, they’ve become popular for aiding cognitive function and boosting the immune system.
So what do these mushrooms actually do, and what are the best medicinal mushrooms to take? Read on to find out.
In this article:
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Reishi, or Ganoderma lucidum, has been well-regarded in Asian cultures for over 2,000 years. Often portrayed in ancient Chinese art and literature, it was reserved for royalty, epitomising longevity and health. Reishi is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it was believed to balance the body's Qi (energy) and promote spiritual enlightenment.
Reishi is often dubbed the "Mushroom of Immortality”. And while immortality isn’t a benefit, there are some potent health reasons to consume Reishi:
Immune support: Various studies have indicated that Reishi can modulate the immune system. One of its active compounds, β-glucans, is believed to enhance the activity of certain white blood cells known as macrophages, which play a pivotal role in strengthening your immune defence against pathogens. (Lull et al., 2005).
Anti-cancer potential: While the research is still preliminary, researchers have found that Reishi might help to inhibit tumour growth. A study published in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies in 2019 highlighted the mushroom's potential anti-proliferative effects on human colorectal cancer cells. (Hu et al., 2002).
Liver protection: Some studies have suggested that Reishi can reverse chemically-induced liver damage, reinforcing its potential as a hepato-protective agent. (Wu et al., 2006).
Cardiovascular health: A study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that Reishi may have potential benefits for heart health, including reducing blood pressure and cholesterol.(Jiang et al., 2004).
History:Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is a peculiar mushroom that grows predominantly on birch trees in cold northern forests. Revered as a "Gift from God" by the Siberians and the "Diamond of the Forest" by the Japanese, Chaga's history is deeply rooted in Northern European folk medicine. Traditionally, it has been used to boost overall health as well as treating general ailments.
Chaga is distinct not just for its appearance but also for its myriad health benefits. Here are a few reasons to make it a staple in your diet:
Rich antioxidant profile: Chaga has been found to possess a potent antioxidant activity. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that Chaga exhibits antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage by free radicals. (Park et al., 2004).
Immune modulation: Chaga is believed to have beneficial effects on the immune system. A study in the Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications journal suggested that Chaga can stimulate the production of immune cells, enhancing the body's ability to combat infections and diseases. (Kim et al., 2005).
Anti-cancer Potential: Chaga has garnered attention for its potential anti-tumor properties. In a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, Chaga extract inhibited growth and induced apoptosis in liver cancer cells. (Youn et al., 2009).
Anti-inflammatory properties: The betulin and betulinic acid found in Chaga, derived from its host birch trees, are believed to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects. A European Journal of Pharmacology study highlighted Chaga's potential in reducing inflammation in intestinal disorders. (Najafzadeh et al., 2009).
Lion’s Mane, scientifically known as Hericium erinaceus, carries a poetic name that mirrors its unique, cascading appearance, resembling a lion's flowing mane. Esteemed in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, this culinary and medicinal mushroom has been historically consumed for its potential cognitive and digestive benefits, often symbolising the power of the mind and longevity in ancient scripts.
Lion’s Mane stands out in the fungal kingdom due to its potential neuroprotective effects, such as:
Neuroprotection and cognitive enhancement: One of Lion’s Mane's most exciting aspects is its potential to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF). A study published in the Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin demonstrated that the mushroom's compounds could promote nerve cell growth, suggesting a potential in treating neurodegenerative diseases. (Kawagishi & Zhuang, 2008)
Mood disorders: Evidence indicates that Lion’s Mane might benefit mood disorders. A study in the Phytotherapy Research journal found that subjects consuming Lion’s Mane mushrooms showed decreased depression and anxiety symptoms. (Nagano et al., 2010)
Digestive health: Lion's Mane has traditionally been used to support digestive health. Research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests that the mushroom might help reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, supporting its historical use for stomach ailments. (Sheng et al., 2018).
Anti-cancer potential: Preliminary research indicates that Lion’s Mane may have anti-tumor properties. A study found that the mushroom exhibited anti-proliferative effects on human leukaemia cells, pointing to its potential therapeutic uses. (Lee & Hong, 2010)
Cordyceps, which includes species such as Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris, is one of the more unusual fungi, as it's also known to grow parasitically on insects and other arthropods (don’t let that put you off, though).
In traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines, cordyceps were a prized possession, often used as a tonic and aphrodisiac and reserved for the elite due to its rarity.
Benefits:Cordyceps increased in popularity recently, thanks to the latest science finding an array of health benefits:
Athletic performance and energy: Cordyceps has been popularised for its potential to enhance athletic performance. Studies, such as one published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, suggest that Cordyceps might increase VO2 max, indicating improved oxygen usage during exercise. (Hirsch et al., 2016)
Libido and reproductive function: Historically prized as an aphrodisiac, some scientific research supports its use in enhancing libido and reproductive function. A study in Life Sciences journal indicated that Cordyceps might improve testosterone production, suggesting a role in male fertility. (Hsu et al., 2003)
Anti-cancer properties: Preliminary studies, such as one in the Phytotherapy Research journal, indicate that Cordyceps might have anti-tumour effects on various cancer cell lines, including lung and colon cancers. (Yoshida et al., 1989).
Kidney and liver health: Cordyceps has been researched for its protective effects on the kidneys and liver. A study in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine showed that the fungus could offer protective benefits against kidney damage in mice. (Li et al., 2006)
History:Turkey Tail, scientifically known as Trametes versicolor, is a strikingly colourful mushroom resembling a turkey's fanned tail (hence the name). Found in forests globally, Turkey Tail has been used in traditional medicine in various cultures, including Chinese and Native American, for centuries. Known as "Yun Zhi" in Chinese, this mushroom is renowned for its health-boosting and longevity-promoting benefits.
Benefits:The science is clear. Here’s what consuming turkey tail can do for your health:
Immune system boost: One of Turkey Tail's most renowned properties is its ability to boost the immune system. Polysaccharide-K (PSK) and polysaccharide-peptide (PSP), active compounds found in Turkey Tail, have been extensively researched for their immunological benefits. A Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy study demonstrated that PSK could increase white blood cell activity, potentially assisting in immune defence against diseases (Kono et al., 2002).
Anti-cancer potential: PSK, derived from Turkey Tail, has been approved as an adjunctive treatment for cancer in some countries due to its potential anti-tumor properties. Clinical trials, such as those published in the Lancet Oncology, have shown that PSK might improve survival rates in certain cancer patients when combined with chemotherapy (Tsang et al., 2003).
Digestive health: Traditional uses of Turkey Tail also include promoting gut health. Some studies, like one in Gut Microbes, have shown that Turkey Tail can favourably alter gut microbiota composition, potentially benefiting digestive health (Sheng et al., 2018).
Antioxidant properties: Turkey Tail contains various phenolic compounds and flavonoids, making it a potent antioxidant. Research in the Food Chemistry journal has highlighted its ability to scavenge free radicals, which play a role in cellular ageing and diseases (Jiang et al., 2007).
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References:Lull, C., Wichers, H. J., & Savelkoul, H. F. (2005). Antiinflammatory and immunomodulating properties of fungal metabolites. Mediators of inflammation, 2005(2), 63-80.
Hu, H., Ahn, N. S., Yang, X., Lee, Y. S., & Kang, K. S. (2002). Ganoderma lucidum extract induces cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in MCF-7 human breast cancer cell. BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, 2(1), 9.
Wu, Y. B., Zheng, L. J., Piao, X. H., Zhang, L., Li, C. H., Zhang, M. (2006). Protective effects of Reishi polysaccharide against carbon tetrachloride-induced hepatocyte damage in mice. Journal of Asian Natural Products Research, 8(4), 313-321.
Jiang, J., Slivova, V., Harvey, K., Valachovicova, T., & Sliva, D. (2004). Ganoderma lucidum suppresses growth of breast cancer cells through the inhibition of Akt/NF-κB signaling. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 90(2-3), 161-169.
Park, Y. K., Lee, H. B., Jeon, E. J., Jung, H. S., & Kang, M. H. (2004). Chaga mushroom extract inhibits oxidative DNA damage in human lymphocytes as assessed by comet assay. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 90(2-3), 235-242.
Kim, Y. O., Park, H. W., Kim, J. H., Lee, J. Y., Moon, S. H., & Shin, C. S. (2005). Anti-cancer effect and structural characterization of endo-polysaccharide from cultivated mycelia of Inonotus obliquus. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 330(2), 692-700.
Youn, M. J., Kim, J. K., Park, S. Y., Kim, Y., Kim, S. J., Lee, J. S., ... & Chung, S. Y. (2009). Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) induces G0/G1 arrest and apoptosis in human hepatoma HepG2 cells. World Journal of Gastroenterology: WJG, 15(2), 214.
Najafzadeh, M., Reynolds, P. D., Baumgartner, A., Anderson, D., & In vitro evaluation of the effects of some crude and purified Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) preparations on proliferation and vitality of human skin fibroblasts L929. (2009). Research on Chemical Intermediates, 35(5), 679-692.
Kawagishi, H., Zhuang, C. (2008). Compounds for dementia from Hericium erinaceus. Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 31(3), 426-430.
Nagano, M., Shimizu, K., Kondo, R., Hayashi, C., Sato, D., Kitagawa, K., & Ohnuki, K. (2010). Reduction of depression and anxiety by 4 weeks Hericium erinaceus intake. Phytotherapy Research, 24(8), 1062-1069.
Sheng, X., Yan, J., Meng, Y., Kang, Y., Han, Z., Tai, G., ... & Zhou, Y. (2018). Immunomodulatory effects of Hericium erinaceus derived polysaccharides are mediated by intestinal immunology. Food & Function, 9(3), 1744-1757.
Lee, J. S., Hong, E. K. (2010). Hericium erinaceus enhances doxorubicin-induced apoptosis in human hepatocellular carcinoma cells. Cancer Letters, 297(2), 144-154.
Hirsch, K. R., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Roelofs, E. J., Trexler, E. T., & Mock, M. G. (2016). Cordyceps militaris Improves Tolerance to High-Intensity Exercise After Acute and Chronic Supplementation. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 14(1), 42-53.
Hsu, C. C., Tsai, S. J., Huang, Y. L., & Huang, B. M. (2003). Regulatory mechanism of Cordyceps sinensis mycelium on mouse Leydig cell steroidogenesis. Life Sciences, 74(3), 289-297.
Yoshida, J., Takamura, S., Yamaguchi, N., Ren, L. J., Chen, H., Koshimura, S., & Suzuki, S. (1989). Antitumor activity of an extract of Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc. against murine tumor cell lines. Japanese Journal of Experimental Medicine, 59(4), 157-161.
Li, S. P., Zhang, G. H., Zeng, Q., Huang, Z. G., Wang, Y. T., Dong, T. T., & Tsim, K. W. (2006). Hypoglycemic activity of polysaccharide, with antioxidation, isolated from cultured Cordyceps mycelia. Phytomedicine, 13(6), 428-433.
Kono, K., Yoshida, N., Maeda, H., Sun, X. F., & Fujii, H. (2002). Cantharellus cibarius polysaccharide (CCP) enhances cytotoxicity of monocyte‐derived dendritic cells (DC) and cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL). Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, 51(11-12), 625-633.
Tsang, K. W., Lam, C. L., Yan, C., Mak, J. C., Ooi, G. C., Ho, J. C., ... & Sham, J. S. (2003). Coriolus versicolor polysaccharide peptide slows progression of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Respiratory Medicine, 97(6), 618-624.
Ho, C. Y., Lau, C. B. S., Kim, C. F., Leung, K. N., Fung, K. P., Tse, T. F., ... & Chan, J. Y. (2005). Differential effect of Coriolus versicolor (Yunzhi) extract on cytokine production by murine lymphocytes in vitro. International Immunopharmacology, 5