Reishi ( Ganoderma tsugae ) growing in its natural forest habitat.
In a time when we are battling an international health crisis and our general health is worse than ever, it is crucial that we seek alternative ways to regain systemic health. Fungi have the capacity to change our lives in an immediate, powerful and exponentially beneficial manner by enhancing the intelligence of the human immune system.
Mushrooms such as reishi, shiitake, maitake and cordyceps have a multitude of healing powers and have played a huge role in Chinese medicine, where consuming mushrooms for health benefits like energy, longevity, and immunity is a part of the everyday culture. They are regarded to possess both yin and yang qualities in equal measure. The antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of most mushrooms have the potential to combat many of our largest health problems, from cancer to diabetes and from auto-immune diseases to nervous system imbalances. Current research shows that these mushrooms have properties than can inhibit cancer cell growth, balance excess hormones like oestrogens via aromatase, restore the immune system, lower stress levels and reduce chronic fatigue, and cure myriad physical, emotional and mental ailments.
For a while we seemed to have forgotten that mushrooms are a superfood. One theory is that women healers used mushrooms but were branded as witches and shunned from society, so knowledge of their medicinal properties was eradicated from western culture. A general fear of mushrooms has also developed over time, but in reality there are only a handful of varieties that are actually fatal.
The mushroom kingdom has more than 1.5 million members and 92% of plants depend on mushroom mycelium (root system) to survive. Like humans and animals, fungi are heterotophic, meaning they are dependent on other organisms for obtaining nutrients. Fungi are unique in that they essentially recycle plant life by absorbing the dead matter and redistributing the plant’s nutrients. Their root system releases enzymes that break down dead and decaying plant life to obtain water and other nutrients to feed other plants. It is an intelligent network, which also helps plants to communicate with each other, and releases toxins to fight pathogens and intruders. Their natural defence system has the ability to decompose synthetic pollutants such as the pesticide DDT, plastics and VX and sarin gas (used as chemical warfare weapons). If they can counteract the effects of such dangerous and extreme chemicals, they have incredible potential for protecting our bodies from the many less-powerful yet abundant toxins we encounter every day. They really are powerhouses in every way – even mushroom spores (fungal seeds) are made of chitin, which is among the hardest naturally occurring substances on Earth and are the fastest travelling live organisms on the planet. They are some of the most healing and powerful anti-candida substances in the world because they give the immune system the ability to fight back against bacteria and fungi, using the same chemical weaponry they themselves must produce in their own natural forest environment
I was also amazed to discover that mushrooms share roughly 85% of the same ribosomal RNA and almost 50% of the same DNA as humans, rendering them extremely bioavailable and efficient for the human body. They are an excellent source of nutrients, such as Vitamin D, biotin, pantothenic acid, selenium, copper, and riboflavin. They are used in more than 40% of pharmaceuticals available on the market today, including penicillin, immunosuppressants, and several of the most prescribed anti-cholesterol medications on the market. Not all fungi are mushrooms, but all mushrooms are fungi. Under the fungi umbrella are also moulds like those found in cheese and those used for antibiotic properties, such as penicillin. Fermented foods depend on fungi to flourish.
There are a number of characteristics of mushrooms that make them unique and potent as a superfood. The first is that many are adaptogens, which means that they protect the body from stress by stabilising and optimising its psychological functions. They can help the body in an unspecific way, adapting their healing properties to whatever the body needs in order to restore overall balance and protect from disease. Many mushrooms are also immunomodulators, offering a similar function to adaptogens but relating to the immune system. The complex polysaccharides in mushrooms found in fungi that act as immunomodulators are called beta-glucans. These complex polysaccharides fuel cells to provide lasting energy the body requires to function at optimal levels. Beta-glucans help to regulate the immune system by binding to macrophage, natural killer (NK), and other white blood cells to trigger an appropriate immune response. They also stimulate the creation of immune stem cells in bone marrow and stimulate other white blood cells to release anti-cancer molecules throughout the body, helping to reduce cancerous cells that have invaded the body. The body does not produce beta-glucans on its own and mushrooms in extract form provide high concentrations and bioavailability. Each mushroom has its own unique strains of beta-glucans with specific healing properties.
Mushrooms also contain terpenoids (also known as terpenes). These are fat-soluble chemical compounds, which act as anti-infections agents by stimulating the destruction of bacteria and viruses that invade the body and preventing the immune system from overacting. They are highly anti-inflammatory and play a powerful role in balancing hormone levels.
The edible bit is the fruiting body, the part that grows above the ground. This is the most beneficial part for humans in cooking, and for health and wellness. In order to obtain maximum health benefits, a dual extraction process is used involving alcohol extraction to pull out the fat-soluble compounds (creating a tincture), and hot-water extraction to pull out the water-soluble compounds (polysaccharides), creating a decoction.
Medicinal mushrooms are useful in all kinds of forms: mycelium biomass powder can be added to smoothies, elixirs, sauces and dips; wild mushrooms make great bases for teas and broths; alcohol tinctures of medicinal mushrooms may be consumed directly, in elixirs, and evaporated off (leaving the medicine behind) in hot teas; encapsulated extracts of mushrooms are easy to travel with and consume; and are less oxidized, thus slightly more potent. For medicinal and culinary use, there are a few powerhouse players in the mushroom kingdom:
Improve sleep, manage stress, alleviate anxiety, cure seasonal allergies
- It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for at least 2000 years as a source of longevity and vitality and is particularly revitalising for the entire body
- The terpenoids in reishi improve circulation and reduce dermal oxidation, helping to prevent physical ageing and protect cellular DNA and mitochondria from oxidant damage as well, boosting energy and alertness
- Reishi’s polysaccharides have been credited with lowering blood pressure, stabilising blood sugar, lowering cholesterol, and inhibiting tumour growth in some cancers
- It’s adaptogenic properties help to stabilise the immune system
- The specific triterpene compounds in reishi fruiting bodies support and balance the endocrine system so that the body relaxes and recovers during the night as its meant to – it’s the best mushroom to reach for at night
- The ganoderic acids in reishi help to improve oxygen flow, boost liver functionality and inhibit histamine response
- It can be added to chocolate or coffee brews to counteract some of its stimulating effects and balance acidity, so it is easier for digestion.
Ward off the common cold, have shiny, thick hair and glowing skin, lower inflammation caused by a busy , stressful lifestyle
- Chaga was widely used in folklore medicine to cure everything from cancers to GI issues
- Chaga is one of the richest sources of antioxidants found in nature, protecting from free radical damage that leads to cell degeneration
- It also contains more superoxide dismutase (SOD), zinc and melanin than any other single natural source, contributing to shiny thick hair, glowing skin and eyes
- It is immunomodulating and its beta-glucans help to boost the production of lymphocytes, helping to ward off the common cold
- The most abundant triterpene is botulin, which has anti-tumour and anti-cancer properties. It produces betulinic acid, which is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and adaptogenic – a cure for any ailment!
- It has the potential to restore balance in the entire system and lower inflammation caused by a busy, stressful lifestyle.
Perform better both athletically and sexually, increase energy, alleviate asthma or bronchitis
- The beta-glucans in cordyceps deliver oxygen on a cellular level, helping to increase energy and stamina and reduce fatigue
- They can significantly boost ATP levels in the body (the body’s main energy supply source)
- Because of this cordyseps can also have a tremendous influence on respiratory conditions and can help to alleviate asthma and bronchitis
- It is a great option for the elderly to counteract lethargy from ageing and for athletes looking to perform at peak levels
- It is anti-inflammatory, and contains a chemical compound called cordysepic acid that has been known to shrink tumours and directly stimulate lymphocyte production, to kill foreign bodies in the immune system
- Its cordysepic acid and deoxyadenosine both help with erectile dysfunction by boosting testosterone levels and increasing blood flow, so it has to potential to increase sexual performance as well as physical stamina.
Improve memory, boost concentration, protect your nervous system
- History suggests that lion’s mane was used in traditional Chinese medicine specifically for treating stomach and digestive problems, including cancers in these areas of the body
- It was also used as a general restorative due to its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and immunomodulating properties
- Its effects on the brain truly distinguish it from other medicinal mushrooms. The body contains nerve growth factor (NGF) proteins, which protect existing neurons and stimulate new neuron growth, required for the nervous system to function properly. When the brain does not make enough NGF, it can lead to degenerative neurological diseases. Through NGF stimulation from within the brain, lion’s mane can mitigate the effects of diseases such as Parkinson’s Alzheimer’s and dementia, and potentially reverse the cognitive deterioration that creeps up on all of us as we age with no known side effects!
- You can enjoy lion’s mane cooked because of its meaty texture and delicious flavour.
Have clear, glowing skin, support your liver, lower cholesterol, increase dietary vitamin D
- This is the most easily accessible medicinal mushroom and adds depth of flavour in cooking
- Medicinal uses of shiitake dates back at least as far as AD 100 in China, when it was used to treat and prevent upper respiratory diseases, boost circulation, increase energy, decrease fatigue, and as a general “chi” enhancing elixir combat and prevent signs of ageing
- It contains seven of the nine essential amino acids and a host of enzymes to aid digestion, vital minerals including magnesium and potassium, and essential vitamins such as B and D
- One of the polysaccharides in shiitakes is lentinan, which stimulates and activates the different varieties of white blood cells that fight off infections. Lentinan has been especially powerful in combatting the effects of HIV and liver disease, making it an effective treatment for any sort of bodily detoxification (including skin appearance)
- Shiitake can prevent substances from binding to the linings of blood vessels. For example, eritadenine, one of its bioactive compounds, has repeatedly show to help lower cholesterol by inhibiting its absorption in the bloodstream. It does this in part by suppressing the accumulation of lipids in the liver tissue and helping to eliminate cholesterol through the blood vessels, rather than allowing fatty acids to build up
- Along with numerous anti-inflammatory and antiviral capacities, shiitake’s ability to improve blood circulation could help those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis
- The sun’s UV rays convert ergosterol (a derivative of a triterpene sterol found in shiitake and other fungi) into Vitamin D2. With up to a hundredfold increase in vitamin D, sun-dried shiitakes can be a significant dietary source of your requirement of this vitamin.
Manage weight naturally, stabilise blood sugar, improve digestion
- Powerful immunomodulating properties, particularly due to its beta-glucan polysaccharides
- What makes it unique from other medicinal mushrooms is its SX-fraction, which counteracts the effect of metabolic syndrome, which refers to a group of risk factors including high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess fat that negatively impact health
- It can work wonders on those suffering from diabetes or obesity
- SX-fraction also works as an adaptogen, meaning it can also stabilise sugar levels in those who are hypoglycaemic
- The domino effect of solving the root of these problems can help to stabilise kidney and renal functions (which often deteriorate as a result of diabetes) and potentially reverse any existing damage
- In cooking, maitake can add a fifth flavour “umami” due to its l-glutamate content, taking culinary dishes to the next level without artificial flavours or animal products.
Treat the common cold and flu, aid digestion, help heal infections
- A mushroom of tenacity and strength, turkey tail is a pervasive grower and the easiest to forage of all the medicinal mushrooms
- What sets it apart is two of its unique beta-glucans: polysaccharide krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP). PSK has anti-cancer properties and can be used in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- Though PSP is a newer discovery, research suggests that it’s significantly more powerful than PSK, which is an exciting notion for future cancer treatments
- PSK and PSP have the ability to regenerate white blood cells and stimulate the activity and creation of T-cells, macrophages and NK cells, supporting immune system function
- Turkey tail has proven successful in stimulating the regeneration of bone marrow damaged by cancer treatments and has also been effective in treating HPV and hepatitis C.
Improve skin quality/look younger, optimise immune function, help with joint pains
- Enoki’s versatility is in the culinary realm, where it has long been a celebrated staple in Asian cuisine
- It contains many antioxidants as well as lectin which enhances the production of its antioxidants, making it antiviral, antibacterial, and an over-all restorative immunoregulator for achieving optimal wellness
- One antioxidant in particular, ergothioneine, not only rids the body of free radicals but has proven to be especially powerful in reducing photo-damage on the skin
- Because ergothioneine creates intercellular stimulation to produce ATP, enoki also has possibilities as an anticancer agent, with studies showing positive effects in treating lymphoma and prostate cancer
- Proflanin and flammulin, two of enoki’s polysaccharides, have also been shown to have tremendous effects on boosting and eliminating cancerous cells
- Proflanin has an unusally high protein to carbohydrate ratio (10:1) so it’s much lighter than many of the beta-glucans found in other mushrooms, meaning it works faster and more efficiently at targeting foreign pathogens
- Flammulin has been especially effective in fighting melanoma
- Enoki also contains high levels of vitamin B3, and can alleviate joint pain and stiffness, providing arthritis relief
- It has twice as much fibre as cabbage, so it’s effective in managing blood sugar and aiding digestion, and contains thiamine, folate and riboflavin, making it a good supplement for those in need of thyroid support.
Relax and improve your mood, improve skin quality/look younger, lower your cholesterol
- Another culinary delicacy that has historically been used in Asian cultures as a meat substitute due to its high levels of protein and meaty texture – it MUST be cooked before eating to eliminate a toxic protein it contains
- Oyster mushrooms contain lovastatin, a naturally occurring chemical that lowers cholesterol
- Like others, they contain powerful beta-glucans with immunomodulating powers, and have proven especially effective in combating colon and breast cancers
- They have high levels of zinc, iron and B vitamins, in particular vitamin B6 which works to calm the body and stimulate the production of serotonin, so it’s a good evening food.
Improve skin quality/look younger, protect your body against pathogens, alleviate asthma or chest congestion
- Known as the beauty mushroom, one of tremella’s polysaccharides has remarkable water retention properties and plays an outstanding role in reversing and counteracting the ageing process
- Tremella extract powder can be combined with oils like shea butter or coconut oil and applied topically to enhance the skin, making it soft and subtle and stimulating the production of SOD
- SOD production acts as a protective and regenerative anti-inflammatory for the skin
- Tremella also contains kojic acid, which can help fade freckles and lighten dark spots
- Its hydrating properties help replenish bodily fluids
- It was used in cough syrups in traditional Chinese medicine as a way to treat chest congestion and asthma
- Immunomodulating and has the potential to regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol
- Tremella has also been effective in regenerating bone marrow destroyed or damaged through radiation treatments by restoring the blood-producing mechanism to the bone marrow
- It contains more vitamin D than any other known single food source, is loaded with antioxidants, and has vast amounts of fibre.