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The Ultimate Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms: History, Health Benefits, Top 10

July 03, 2020 29 min read

The Ultimate Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms: History, Health Benefits, Top 10

The Basics

What Are Medical Mushrooms?

Medical Mushrooms are mushrooms that are used or can potentially be used in the future to make medical drugs. They contain one or more compounds that can have various health benefits as well, such as antiviral or anti senescence properties. Many medical mushrooms also contain adaptogenic properties which are under study, such as compounds which boost the immune system by stimulating lymphocyte production, or novel anti inflammatories.


Historical use of Medical Mushrooms

Many kinds of medical mushrooms were used as either food, medicine, or both in the past. They were especially popular in traditional chinese medicine, although medical use could be found in some other cultures as well. Most commonly though, especially outside of China, the majority were simply eaten due to many of them growing in the autumn season, before winter, when food started to become more scarce. In traditional chinese medicine however, medical mushrooms had a very wide range of uses, varying from powders that were used to increase vitality to tonics meant to help fight off an infection, depending on the mushroom.[1] 

Nowadays, the majority of medical mushrooms are used to make antibiotics (primarily since it was quickly noticed by researchers that mushrooms are excellent at fighting off bacteria after the rediscovery of penicillin, and so a huge amount of research began focusing purely on that), but it wasn’t until fairly recently that scientists began researching other properties mushrooms can have, mainly spurred by the need and lack of effective antivirals and antidepressants. Mushrooms in general are very unique in the biological kingdoms, as they have characteristics of all the other eukaryotic kingdoms, such as by having chitin in their cell walls, being multi or unicellular, being heterotrophs (cannot directly produce their own food), and (sometimes) reproducing through spores which go through germination similar to seeds. It is this combination of traits that makes them valuable to research, as fungi must produce a wide variety of novel compounds due to all these traits in order to survive and thrive.


Generalized Nutritional Information

Mushrooms are an excellent source of protein, and one of the few ways to get a reliable source of B vitamins on a vegan diet. Although they are lower in protein than many beans, the protein found in mushrooms is absorbed by humans far more efficiently than in beans, to levels similar to that of meat. This ends up making the total protein actually absorbed about the same as that found in beans. They are also a very reliable source of selenium no matter the mushroom, due to their nature of being decomposers - although mushrooms which grow on wood tend to be even higher than other kinds. Mushrooms also produce a lot of vitamin D after being exposed to light, making them a good source of vitamin D if this is done during cultivation.[2]


Mycelium Vs Fruiting Body - Know the Difference

There is a very significant difference between mycelium and the fruiting body of each mushroom. Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, and is composed of many interwoven hyphae (which are long branching filaments similar in appearance to roots) which grow on a substrate that it can decompose. Fruiting bodies on the other hand are the above ground portion of certain fungi (not all fungi produce fruiting bodys - molds for example do not). 

Many supplements out there will say they contain a certain fungi, such as Cordyceps Militaris, but they will only contain the mycelium of that fungus, not the mushroom. This is an important distinction to make however because almost all research is done on themushroom of a fungus, not on the mycelium, and a lot of the nutritional content is typically found in the mushroom as well. Not only that, but you may get a lot of filler as the mycelium cannot be separated from the substrate either, meaning any supplement containing the mycelium willhave to be filled with the substrate as well.[3] Eating or taking the mycelium is the same as eating an apple tree but not the apples.

So in short, and a good way to remember things: fungi is the entire biological kingdom, which includes molds, yeasts, and mushrooms. All mushrooms have a mycelium, but not all mycelium can produce mushrooms, just like all trees have roots, but not all trees make fruit. Also, you can sometimes identify fillers in supplements by checking to see if the ingredients list mentions cereals or starches, as many mushrooms are grown on substrates like rye, oats, and rice.


Beta-Glucans: A Noteworthy Polysaccharide of the Mushroom

Beta-Glucans are sugars found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens, and cereals, such as oats and barley. Although beta-glucans can be found in all these sources, their physical chemical properties vary greatly depending on the source. The most commonly taken beta-glucans, both as food and as a supplement, are those found in cereals, which typically help lower cholesterol by binding to it in the digestive tract. Cereal derived beta-glucans are also commonly used in food manufacturing, since this binding trait can act as a stabilizer for fatty foods such as cheese and salad dressings.

Beta-Glucans found in fungi however cause a different effect when taken due to the differing short branching structure in its chemistry. They are also insoluble in water, unlike the kind derived from cereals. These beta-glucans tend to actually be metabolized by the body, possibly due to these differences.[4] There is evidence that when metabolized by the body, they strengthen the immune system by enhancing macrophage responses. It is still uncertain how exactly this happens, but it may involve their specific interaction with several cell surface receptors; specifically CR3; CD11b/CD18, lactosylceramide, selected scavenger receptors, and dectin-1 (betaGR). These are receptors your body normally targets with its own chemicals to signal to macrophages to respond, and of which fungal beta-glucans can also interact with. So essentially, the proposed mechanism of action is that fungal beta-glucans act as extra “sticky targets” to bring attention to the macrophage on the thing it attaches too (such as a mutated cell, or foreign bacteria), thus increasing the likelihood that a passing by macrophage will inspect whatever is targeted and eliminate if potentially harmful.[5]


Adaptogenic Properties

Mental Stressors and Performance

There is some evidence that mushrooms contain compounds which seem to contribute to nerve growth factor synthesis (which is known to directly affect cognitive function) in vitro. One such mushroom that is being researched for this is the Lion’s Mane mushroom hericium erinaceus; in one double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial that was done in Japan, the group taking a Lion’s Mane had significantly improved cognitive function scores - though cognitive performance dropped very rapidly after discontinued use of the Lion’s Mane supplement that they were given.[6] That does however further show that there is a direct correlation between the intake of Lion’s Mane and cognitive performance however. 

This same mushroom along with certain others also may potentially have a very mild sedative effect that can help with milder forms of anxiety and irritation.[7]There is no current evidence that many of standard mushrooms can treat severe depression or anxiety however, but there is a great deal of increasing evidence that hallucinogenic mushrooms may be very effective at treating those issues in the future (something that will be quickly touched upon later in this article). The softer calming effects of the more commonly used medicinal mushrooms are more in line for a daily use case anyhow for common stressors you may encounter throughout the day, and thus closer to a true adaptogenic purpose if that is what you’re seeking from your diet or supplementation.


Oxidative Stressors

Oxidative stressors are what mainly advance the ageing of cells. The organ most affected by oxidative stress is your skin, as it is the primary defense your body has against the outside world. This results in your skin aging more rapidly (this is especially true if you lack melanin in your skin, as melanin helps against certain oxidative stress). Skin aging is normally divided into two parts: intrinsic aging, which is where cells go through senescence, and that affects all body organs over time; and extrinsic aging, which occurs as a consequence of exposure to the environment (sunlight, trauma, and dryness for example). What typically affects extrinsic aging in skin the most is sunlight’s ultraviolet irradiation, which causes skin to age by generating intracellular reactive oxygen speciation.[8]

Extracts of some medicinal mushrooms, like that of Cordyceps Militaris, have shown protective effects against oxidative stressors which affect the skin. An in vitro study that was done using Cordyceps Militaris extract showed significant cytoprotective effects against induced oxidative stress caused by hydrogen peroxide, which also produces intracellular reactive oxygen speciation.

Many mushrooms in general are also a rich source of selenium, which is an essential trace mineral that is highly effective against bodily oxidative stress. Wood decomposing mushrooms tend to be especially high in this mineral, such as the Reishi or Oyster mushroom. The good thing is that since fungi are decomposers, this mineral tends to be at consistent levels in mushrooms, unlike with vegetables, since selenium content in vegetables depends greatly on the selenium content found in the soil they are grown in.[9]


Immunology

Many medicinal mushrooms tend to improve the human immune system two main ways: mitogenicity (the reproduction of cells) of white blood cells, and through increased “inspection” of foreign entities in the body (primarily due to beta-glucan polysaccharides, as mentioned earlier). Mushrooms such as Reishi and Cordyceps for example stimulate increased production of lymphocytes and macrophages, respectively.[10,11]Research is still ongoing on how these processes work exactly, but it is possible that the reason medicinal mushrooms tend to increase mitogenicity is because of the increased targeting caused by the polysaccharides, which makes the immune system increase mitogenicity as immune cells call for extra reinforcements due to the more frequent detections of foreign entities, meaning both these observed effects may be intertwined with one another.


Inflammation

Medicinal mushroom compounds normally affect inflammation indirectly. One such way for example is by reducing the amount of excess purines there are in the bloodstream by binding to them and causing their expulsion to be expedited by the kidneys. This lowering of excess purines in turn prevents them from being metabolized into excess uric acid, a waste by product that is also removed by the kidneys that can worsen existing inflammation.[12] 

Another way they seem to affect inflammation in some cases is through compounds which seem to affect development and properties of lymphocytes,[13]although more research must be done to confirm this, as it could be that what is happening is that the compounds are affecting are biomarkers for the lymphocytes to react to instead, which other research mentioned here seems to support.[14]


Other Uses

Antibiotic Properties

Antibiotics are what fungi are best known to be used for, since the first known antibiotic came from Penicillium molds in the 1940s.[15] Since then, many other antibiotics have been derived from fungi. The reason fungi are so extremely effective at producing antibiotics is because they must compete with and overpower the hostile bacteria present in the dead matter that they decompose, since the earliest stage of development of fungi are as microscopic spores and later, microscopic mycelium. Although many antibiotics have already been made from fungi, it’s believed there is still a great untapped potential for many more to be created in the future with further research.

Mushrooms themselves don’t contain as many antibiotic compounds, since they are the fruiting body that is grown independently from the body of the fungus. This means that consuming mushrooms is very unlikely to alter or affect the natural gut biome which humans have, especially once cooked or processed.


Antifungal Properties

Yes, you read that right. There’s actually significant evidence that mushrooms have compounds that are effective at fightingotherfungi. Although at first it may seem humorously strange, it’s actually quite logical when you think about it: multiple fungi might use a same resource, and therefore need to have a way to protect and/or fight off competing fungi that also want to use that resource, much like wolves might fight off a vulture that’s trying to take some meat from a fresh kill. Every other kingdom in biology competes for limited resources, from plants to bacteria, and so the same is true for fungi, if not more so. Unlike plants, they cannot use wide swaths of land to grow, and unlike animals or bacteria, they cannot move and search for what they need. Instead, they are highly limited to whatever available to what the spore lands on, and the amount of things those spores can grow on are fairly scant. So it’s not only a game of who lands on a decomposing tree first, but which fungus can keep it. As such, evolutionary pressure has caused fungi that can produce more and more antifungals to defeat the competition. And although this guide is all about mushrooms which can aid in your health, not all fungi are fun guys (Although I apologize about the cringey pun, be amazed it took this long to make it in an article solely about mushrooms). 

Certain fungi can be invasive in humans, causing fungal infections (mycosis) that the immune system can have trouble getting rid of sometimes. Fungi are also part of the natural flora microbiome humans have, and when things go out of balance, they can begin to overtake and overwhelm the body. Many women have first hand experience with this, as Candida spp infections (commonly called “thrush” in english) tend to affect almost all women at some point in their lives (although men can also be affected by this too).[16] And if your neutrophils are low in your immune system, you can get septic fungemia, which can be deadly.

Despite this, there are not many antifungals available in medicine. In part, it’s because many of the dangerous kinds of fungal infections are relatively rare - it’s difficult for them to enter the body, body temperatures are typically too high for many fungi, and skin is, for the most part, a hostile environment. That’s why the two most common fungal infections - oral or vaginal thrush - occur where they do; warm-ish humid areas that the immune system cannot reach easily and is not directly protected by the skin. Yet, there has been a steady increase in fungal infections overall, and although more slowly than bacteria, fungi have been adapting to the few antifungals that are used, causing a strong need for new antifungals to be discovered. And in this, other fungi are actually the best source for the reason I mentioned earlier - nothing has a greater need at fighting fungi like other fungi.

One mushroom that is being currently used frequently in research to create new antifungals is the Reishi mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum. It contains an antifungal protein designated “ganodermin”. Ganodermin has already been shown to inhibit the mycelial growth of multiple other fungi, Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium oxysporum and Physalospora piricola. Although those other fungi are pathogenic to plants, the method by which ganoderma inhibits the growth of those fungi can lead to new compounds being created which can treat mycosis in humans.[17]

Example of the inhibiting effects of ganodermin onBotrytis cinerea, a fungus which typically affects berry crops such as strawberries and grapes. Side A is the control, with nothing inhibiting growth. Side B is with 180 micrograms of ganodermin. Side C is with 36 micrograms of ganodermin.

Another mushroom however, Trametes gibbosa, was used specifically against fungi that are pathological to humans, and showed strong potential at being used in the future to derive antifungals from it directly:

The top white mass is Trametes gibbosa.
A: T.g manages to stop and slightly overtake Trichophyton terrestre
B: T.g stops and somewhat overtakes Penicillium griseofulvum
C and D: T.g completely overtakes Chrysosporium keratinophilum and Microsporum gypseum

Samples of culture liquid and mycelial extract were also used against the pathogenic fungi, and it resulted in growth rate inhibition of mycelia of pathogenic test fungi up to 55.6%  and  29.7% respectively.[18]

The potential for medicinal mushrooms to bring in a new era of antifungals is great, and we will likely begin to see new antifungals in the market derived from them coming in the next decade.

This evidence of the antifungal properties of mushrooms also means it’s likely that consumption of mushrooms can be a natural way to keep balance of the fungal gut biome in humans as well, if they are eaten lightly cooked, as a lot of antifungal compounds seem to be more resilient than the antibiotic compounds present in mushrooms. Perhaps it is due to the compounds targeting multicellular organisms as well, rather than only unicellular bacteria, but currently the reasons are only speculative based on current observation and evidence.


Mental Disorder Treatments 

(Disclaimer: the following covers hallucinogenic mushrooms, which may be illegal in your home country / state.)

Research into the potential of hallucinogenic mushrooms’ compounds of psilocybin in treating diseases such as depression, PTSD, addiction, and more is still very very new. Current research has yielded incredible results for depression and addiction,[19] and insight research has shown that non-hallucinogenic mushrooms may also have very minor mood altering effects and compounds. It’s very likely new treatments and discoveries will be made about mushroom’s effects on the mind over the next decade, so it’ll be an interesting topic to keep an eye out for. Perhaps humans and fungi have a more significant symbiotic relationship that is yet to be realized.


Ongoing Research

Neurodegenerative Disease 

Although at its infancy, accumulated evidence suggests that culinary-medicinal

mushrooms might be part of an important role in the prevention of many age associated neurological dysfunctions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Efforts have been devoted to researching for more mushroom species that may improve memory and cognition functions, as well as into identifying compounds and metabolites in mushrooms that can aid with neurodegenerative diseases. 

Currently, about 20 different culinary medicinal mushrooms and at least 80 different bioactive secondary metabolites isolated from them have been identified and are being researched as having this potential, based on preliminary data. The mushrooms investigated have either shown to reduce beta amyloid-induced neurotoxicity, had anti-acetylcholinesterase, neurite outgrowth stimulation, nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis, neuroprotective, antioxidant, and/or anti-(neuro)inflammatory effects, or a combination of the aforementioned. Such mushrooms that are being investigated in neurodegenerative research include Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane), Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi / Reishi), Sarcodon imbricatus (Shingled / Scaly Hedgehog mushroom), Antrodia camphorata (Stout Camphor mushroom), Pleurotus giganteus (Giant Oyster), Lignosus rhinocerotis (Tiger Milk mushroom), and Grifola frondosa (Ram’s Head mushroom) - but there are more as well. Studies have been done both in vitro and in vivo on the molecular mechanisms responsible for the bioactive and neurological effects of mushrooms, and while mushrooms can be considered as useful therapeutic agents in the management and/or treatment of neurodegeneration diseases, this review will focus on in vitro evidence due to the nature of the research, and clinical trials with humans will be used when needed as supporting evidence.[20]

Certain beta-amyloids are a product of an amyloid precursor protein by two secretase enzymes. Beta-amyloid peptides then self assemble into soluble oligomers (a polymer molecule made of a small number of monomers) by causing oxidative stress and inflammation and will lead to the secretion of p-tau protein, which will deposit as an insoluble senile plaque in the hippocampus, causing neuron damage. This can then cause impaired memory and cholinergic dysfunctions in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Therefore, it is hypothesized that Alzheimer’s disease may be prevented by inhibiting the production of beta-amyloid, or by preventing the aggregation of beta-amyloid into plaques in the hippocampus. Apart from that, the level of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of learning and memory functions decreased dramatically in the neocortex and hippocampus of diseases affecting memory and cognition, such as Alzheimer’s.[21]

Therefore, if you could find a compound or metabolite that could either to reverse this neuron damage or prevent plaque buildup from occurring in the first place by interacting with or interfering in the production of these particular, you could prevent or help treat some neurodegenerative diseases like that of Alzheimer’s. This is where the mushrooms come in.

In one animal model study, Antrodia camphorata (Stout camphor mushroom) was able to reverse the damaging effects of beta-amyloid infusion in vivo and in vitro. A test to evaluate short-term memory and learning abilities of cerebral beta-amyloid infused rats was carried out. The mushroom-supplemented group displayed better improvement in memory and learning abilities than the control and placebo groups. Also, the expression of the p-tau protein in the rat pheochromocytoma cells was significantly decreased by the treatment

of Antrodia camphorata.[22] 

In a different human in vitro study, Ganoderma lucidum extract might possess nerve growth factor properties for the processing of amyloid precursor protein via an enhanced nerve growth factor signaling pathway. As a result, the increased amyloid precursor protein expression promoted non-amyloidogenic protein secretion which would not result in plaque build-up.[23]


Lastly, I’ll end this section with a chart[24,25,26,27] showing the protective effects from endoplasmic reticulum stress-induced neuronal cell death in vitro of mushrooms and the relating identified compound which has been shown to grant these effects:

Cancer

Research into the treatment of cancer using compounds derived from medicinal mushrooms still hasn’t passed beyond early phases, although nearly all has so far proven fruitless as a potential effective treatment against cancer in a human body. Most research right now is currently on identifying compounds which cause cancer cells to undergo apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms like humans, thus killing the cancer cells and preventing them from multiplying. Virtually all of this research, however, has been done in vitro and not in vivo, and it has not always checked whether the compounds may be cytotoxic to other organs in humans, or if it’s not, cannot find evidence that the compound works in vivo. So far, all evidence shows that simply consuming the compound rarely manages to affect any cancer other than those present in the digestive system, and even then it is rarely that effective. The ones that are effectivemay eventually move on to become treatments that function similarly to chemotherapy at best, as they also affect healthy cells as well.

In all, if you are seeking to take medicinal mushrooms for cancer, it is not recommended, since there is no evidence that medicinal mushrooms, or any mushrooms, are a cure for cancer. 

It is recommended to take them as apreventativemeasure against getting cancer however, as many medicinal mushrooms contain very high levels ofantioxidants*, as well as immune targeting properties that can help your immune system potentially find and eliminate defective cells that may become cancerous or lead to cancerous cells otherwise.

*Note: It is not recommended to take antioxidant rich foods while undergoing chemotherapy, as chemotherapy uses targeted oxidizers, which means that taking high levels of antioxidants would make the treatment less effective, since it would be neutralizing the chemotherapeutic chemicals you are given.[28] Some mushrooms however are lower in antioxidant levels but still high in protein and minerals, something your body needs a lot of when fighting cancer, and would still be an excellent addition to your diet.


Antiviral Properties

Over the years very recently, multiple proteins have been identified in mushrooms that have an inhibitory effect on viruses. Interest in this particular subject has grown greatly in the last two decades with the decreasing availability (and difficulty of producing) of effective vaccines against the remaining viral illnesses that still commonly afflict humans. As the search for antivirals began in order to tackle these remaining illnesses, everything from bacteria to plants began to be looked at more closely. Fungi it turns out are good sources of potential antivirals, although it’s not entirely known why, as fungi don’t compete with viruses the way they do with bacteria or other fungi. Nevertheless, more and more attention has begun to be placed on them as more and more seemingly effective antiviral compounds began to be discovered in them. And not only are they seemingly effective antivirals, but they seem to be effective against viral infections researchers had been having a difficult time fighting, such as Hepatitis C, the only Hepatitis that is both severe nor cannot be prevented through vaccination. Here I’ll quickly go over some of the research that has been ongoing that shows some promise.

The first actually is about the previously mentioned Hepatitis C. Oyster Mushroom Laccase has been shown to inhibit Hepatitis C entry into cells at high dosages, and to inhibit viral reproduction rates in cells that were already infected after the incubation period.[29]

These slides show pictures of HepG2, which are a human liver cancer cell line (A), and of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (B). The virus was stained with a brownish dye, resulting in the blotches you see on the slides. A1/B1 are the positive controls, which are cells infected with the virus and with nothing used to hinder infection. A2/B2 are negative controls, which are the normal cells without infection. A3/B3 are cells that were infected but given only 1mg/ml of Laccase show no antiviral effect of laccase against Hepatitis C. A4/B4 shows antiviral activity of Laccase at the concentration of 2.0 mg/ml.

This is but one prominent example showing the antiviral properties of a medicinal mushroom. The type of compounds believed to cause interference with viral replication are mushroom-derived triterpenes and ubiquitin-associated peptides, although exactly how is still relatively unknown.[30]It is known that some of these compounds do survive digestion and are metabolized, but is not known if the amounts are high enough to see a significant effect when eaten, nor whether they remain as effective. Further studies on these mechanisms will likely lead to the identification of targets for future antiviral drug development.


Top Medicinal Mushrooms

The following is a small compilation of popular adaptogenic mushrooms that are frequently taken as a supplement, with each mushroom briefly covered in three small subsections. The first, history and basics, talks about historical usage of the mushroom, native regions, names, spirituality if any, etc. The second, nutritional and culinary, is pretty self explanatory (a lot of medicinal mushrooms are already commonly used as food, especially in Asian countries). And the last section, popular potential medical properties, talks about some of the medical and adaptogenic properties the mushroom has that are both being highly researched and are frequently talked about, and what the science says.


Reishi

History and Basics:Reishi mushroom, also known as lingzhi, but officially called Ganoderma lucidum, is a fungus found all over Asia. The term reishi is Japanese, and lingzhi, on the other hand, is Chinese. Reishi or Lingzhi has been used for over a thousand years as a popular medicinal mushroom in Eastern Medicine due to beliefs for its health and longevity properties, and is one of the earliest mushrooms to be used as medicine. In China, the term lingzhi is connected to divine power and immortality, and the mushroom is viewed as a way to gain well-being, longevity and spiritual success. In nature, this mushroom grows at the stump of deciduous trees and it was mostly reserved for the wealthy and elite because of its rarity and regulation. Now, it is grown on substrates of sawdust or on spare hardwood lumber.[31]


Nutritional and Culinary:Reishi mushroom isn’t the most nutritious when it comes to macro nutrients such as protein and carbs. Where it really shines is in its antioxidant levels and, like most wood decomposing mushrooms, mineral content (especially selenium).  It can be eaten fresh and raw, but it’s also made into powder, dietary supplements, and tea. Reishi mushrooms are extremely bitter in taste when eaten raw however, which is why other forms of ingesting it are more popular. Heating or drying it also reduces the likelihood of a stomach ache, as sometimes the raw Reishi can contain a very fragile, mild toxin that occurs in certain growing conditions - although this is most common in the wild varieties, and is rare in ones that were cultivated. 


Popular Potential Medical Properties: Reishi mushrooms have been shown to have a boosting effect on the immune system, although it is unclear exactly how. It doesn’t seem to be in the same manner that other medical mushrooms affect the immune system, but there is a recorded increase in macrophage production - whether this is because the immune system isperceiving the mushroom metabolites itself as an attacker or harmful, or because the metabolites help in the production of macrophages is still being researched. Some Reishi extracts have also caused liver damage, but the connection between the whole mushroom itself and the extract is still unclear, and it is believed it may be due to interactions with other medications people are taking.[32]


Lion’s Mane

History and Basics:Lion’s Mane mushroom is originally from Asia, and is known for its white fluffy texture that resembles a lion’s mane as it grows, hence the name. The official name of the mushroom is Hericium erinaceus. Lion’s Mane is now found in North America as well as Asia, and is popular both in culinary, as in medicinal uses. It also grows on trees.

Nutritional and Culinary:Lion’s Mane mushrooms can be eaten fresh, but are popularly enjoyed in Asia within soups. This is because the flavor is often compared to tasting similar to seafood, such as lobster or crab. This mushroom is also very nutritious in terms of protein, as well as rich in amino acids and a good source of B vitamins, making it a great addition to vegan diets.

Popular Potential Medical Properties:The Lion’s Mane mushroom has been shown to affect cognitive performance positively with daily use, and it seems to have a mild sedative effect that could help with anxiety. It is also shown that the mushroom contains a high amount of antioxidants and potentially anti-inflammatory compounds, which could help reduce the impacts caused by daily stressors.

If you’d like to read more details on the current research and benefits on Lion’s Mane, check out our Lion’s Mane Herbal Highlights in the wellness library, where we go into more details on the research that is currently out there on this mushroom.


Maitake


History and Basics:Maitake mushroom, officially named Grifola frondosa, grows in parts of North America, China, and Japan. The popular name, Maitake, comes from Japanese, and means a dancing mushroom, because people were said to dance from happiness upon finding a mushroom with such health properties in the wild. The mushroom grows at the stump of Elk, Oak, and Maple trees, but is now widely cultivated using a substrate composed of hardwood sawdust, coarse wheat bran, crushed gypsum or lime, composted soil, and sucrose. The Maitake mushroom has been used traditionally and ceremoniously in China and Japan for thousands of years, as a medicinal mushroom offering health and longevity.  

Nutritional and Culinary:Maitake is decent in calories, but high in antioxidants and Vitamin D. It’s also a very good source of Niacin, making this another useful mushroom for vegans to include in their diet. It is also popular in Asian, and especially Japanese, cuisines because of its strong, earthy, umami taste that pairs well with red meat or cruciferous vegetables, as well as soups made with meat stocks.

Popular Potential Medical Properties:Currently, most research is on possible adaptogenic benefits of the polysaccharides of the Maitake. It is rich in beta-glucans, so it may have the same benefits as other mushrooms rich in that component.[33] Ironically, it has only spent much of it’s time under investigative and preliminary research mostly ignored because it’s been such a popular culinary mushroom for so long, thus causing a lack of incentive to take a closer look at this mushroom.


Shiitake


History and Basics:Shiitake mushrooms, officially known as lentinula edodes, are grown mainly in Japan, but are also produced in other parts of Asia, as well as North America. Shiitake have been used traditionally as medicinal mushrooms for general health in Japan, China, and Eastern Russia, and can be found on fallen decaying hardwood trees. 

Nutritional and Culinary:Shiitake mushrooms are high on calories - at least, for a mushroom that is - but they have a good amount of fiber, B vitamins, and amino acids. They are mostly composed of carbohydrates, and thus are very rich in a multitude of polysaccharides. They have a rich umami taste that makes them popular to use in cooking, especially in seafood or meat soups. Shiitake can be eaten raw, cooked, dried, or as a dietary supplement, and the dried method is preferred because of the stronger umami flavor, making it very commonly used as a base for a soup stock. It is extremely popular in Japan, but is starting to see a rise in popularity in the USA as well since it’s commonly used as an ingredient in authentic Ramen soup.

Popular Potential Medical Properties:Shiitake mushrooms have been shown to be very good at lowering cholesterol and blood pressure when compared to diets containing other protein based foods.[34] It also shows promise in containing metabolites or nutrients that help increase immune system effector cells, as well as reducing inflammatory response, likely making this mushroom a strong adaptogen.[35] 


Turkey Tail

History and Basics:Turkey Tail, officially known as Trametes versicolor and sometimes as Coriolus versicolor Polyporus versicolor, depending on the region, has been used around the world as a medicinal mushroom. Its common name comes from its vibrant autumnal colors and wavy shape. Turkey Tail mushrooms are most commonly found just about everywhere, but especially Europe, Asia, and North America. They grow on a variety of woods, such as on dead hardwood stumps, downed hardwood trunks or branches, and the wounds of living trees.

Nutritional and Culinary:Like other tree growing mushrooms, the Turkey Tail contains a lot of antioxidants. It is also a great source of potassium and fiber, which is less common for a mushroom. The mushroom, while edible, isn’t too popular, due to its tough and rubbery texture. It’s taste is slightly bitter and somewhat earthy, but with notes of a steak-like cut of beef included as well, therefore it’s most common form is as a powder to be used in soups. It especially pairs well with non starchy vegetable soups.

Popular Potential Medical Properties:Turkey Tail mushrooms are mostly being studied for, and you may see a pattern here with mushrooms that grow on trees, it’s effects on the immune system. It too is high in beta-glucans. Evidence is still a little lacking, but there is still more research to be done. There is however some evidence it may have some mild anti-inflammatory and antihistamine compounds that become more bioavailable when exposed to heat, but more research and testing is needed.[36]


Cordyceps Militaris

History and Basics: Cordyceps militaris is a parasitic fungi that grows from the larvae of insects. The picked and dried fungi has been used as a traditional medicine in Asia for centuries to treat fatigue, and low sex drive in men. These days it is grown most commonly on substrates made of rice or cereals mixed with a nutrient formula.

Nutritional and Culinary:Cordyceps militaris is actually used as a food in Asian, and more commonly in modern times, Indian, cuisine.  The mushroom is actually quite tasty, having a taste similar to the common button mushroom, but with a strong note of savory sweetness, like that of a very ripe tomato, or a cooked down onion. That makes them very versatile, going well with pastas, meats, salads, vegetables, soups, and other savory dishes or dishes that benefit from sweet savory notes. In dried form, they can become sweeter, making them useful as an addition to protein shakes. They are very rich in protein for a mushroom. They do always have to be cooked though, as similarly to kidney beans, they contain a toxin that degrades completely when exposed to heat (though they can be processed with alkaline as well). So do not eat this tasty mushroom raw.

Popular Potential Medical Properties:There is clinical data that shows that this mushroom increases lymphocyte production in mammals in general, including humans, but the exact mechanism of how is not known yet. It can also aid in reducing inflammation by reducing excess purines in the bloodstream by binding to them, reducing the formation of uric acid, which is potentially very useful to the elderly and those suffering from kidney failure. In vitro studies have also demonstrated strong cytoprotective effects against oxidative stress.


If you’d like to know the finer details about Cordyceps Militaris, look up our Herbal Highlights on Cordyceps Militaris in the wellness library, where we delve deeper into the research that is currently available on this mushroom.


Considerations

Consumption

When dealing with mushrooms, it is typically better to consume cooked rather than raw. Some mushrooms are slightly toxic when raw and can cause a stomach ache, but become completely safe when cooked, as the heat renders the mild toxin inert.[37] Otherwise, they can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. Mushrooms overall lean towards having an umami taste, making them best eaten with savory meals and foods, such as meats, soups, cruciferous vegetables, seafood, and other mushrooms. Some do have a sweeter taste though when dried, and can be taken in powder form as part of a protein mix, a herbal smoothie, or used as a soup flavoring. Dried mushrooms and mushroom powders also preserve well and won’t spoil as long as kept in a dry environment.


Safety

Most mushrooms are not known to typically interact in a significant way with a lot of medications, but if you have any doubts, always ask a doctor before taking any concentrated supplementation, or if you take medication that typically reacts with foods. It is not recommended to consume mushrooms you may find growing in the wild though unless you are very highly trained and have prior experience, due to the very high risk of misidentification. One mistake can result in death, as many wild mushrooms are extremely toxic, so it is best to stick to mushrooms that have been cultivated if you are not sure what you are doing or have doubts. 


Conclusion

We hope this article answered most questions you may have had about medical mushrooms, as well as that it may serve as a jumping off point to look further into certain mushrooms, either for supplemental use or as part of adding them more into your diet. Here at Peak and Valley, we strive to offer the truth as much as possible, with as much detail as possible, so that you can be an informed consumer and come to make the right decision on what’s best for you. We put in hours of research and verification so that you don’t have to. That’s why we have our Wellness Library, which contains other informative and researched articles on adaptogenic herbs along with more, such as recipe ideas and other guides related to adaptogens.



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