Medicinal Mushrooms: What Are They and What Do They Do?

If you’ve browsed the supplement aisle of your grocery store or taken a look at the trending topics of a healthy living blog lately, you’ve probably seen the words “medicinal mushrooms” pop up. These supplements have gained notoriety, but they are far from new—their medicinal use goes back centuries. If this is your first time coming across them, you might be wondering: What are they, and are they right for me?

Medicinal mushrooms are natural mushroom species that have been found to hold numerous benefits for human (and pet!) health. They’ve commonly been used as alternative therapies for serious conditions, but lately, they’ve entered the mainstream as a popular aid for daily health. Here’s a deeper look into medicinal mushrooms and what they might be good for.

The roots of medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms were originally a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine and other eastern medicinal practices thousands of years ago. Since then, they have been studied and examined, finding a foothold in alternative medicine that’s popular in the West. Many pharmaceutical medicines utilize components of medicinal mushrooms in their blends, but mushroom supplements on their own have grown in popularity, touting multiple health benefits.

Their medicinal qualities are found in the compounds they hold. These mushrooms contain a range of vitamins, antioxidants, terpenes and special polysaccharides called beta-glucans. Together, these compounds are believed to improve numerous aspects of health.

Not all mushrooms are medicinal. Many mushrooms contain medicinal properties, but a select few have been studied and are believed to be the most impactful. The most common of these include:

  • Lion’s mane
  • Turkey tail
  • Reishi
  • Shiitake
  • Chaga
  • Cordyceps
  • Maitake

Additionally, each mushroom is unique, providing a different set of compounds that can have slightly different health effects.

How are medicinal mushrooms taken?

In some parts of the world, medicinal mushrooms are eaten just like any other mushroom. However, they are more commonly found in the form of extracts or powders. These might be added into things like tinctures and teas, or they might be incorporated into pills or capsules.

Many experts believe that taking multiple medicinal mushroom species together can create a synergistic effect that bolsters the powers of each mushroom. However, the particular mushrooms that are best for you might differ based on your health conditions and desired results.

No one should go out and hunt for medicinal mushrooms in the wild, since some species of mushrooms are poisonous, and a simple mistake could be fatal. Instead, speak with your doctor about whether medicinal mushrooms are a good choice for your health, which mushrooms you should take and what an adequate dose is for you. Daily “maintenance” doses are generally far lower than “condition” doses that address specific health concerns.

Potential benefits of medicinal mushrooms

The long history of medicinal mushroom use has been well documented, but experts are just now studying these fungi to determine why, exactly, they appear to be so great for human health. Research has uncovered that because of these mushrooms’ range of medicinal compounds, they may provide numerous health benefits when taken regularly.

Medicinal mushrooms have the potential to:

  • Neutralize free radicals: Many medicinal mushroom species are packed with powerful antioxidants. These compounds are known for reducing the activity of free radicals—unstable atoms within your body that can damage cells. High free radical activity may lead to a number of diseases, so neutralizing them may reduce your risk for health problems later in life.
  • Bolster brain health: A few medicinal mushrooms are considered “nootropics,” or substances that bolster cognitive function. Taking these might be beneficial for improving concentration and memory and even reducing the risk of cognitive decline. For example, the lion’s mane mushroom is believed to stimulate nerve growth in the brain, keeping your neurons healthy and strong and potentially reducing the risk or severity of cognitive disorders.
  • Strengthen the immune system: The beta-glucans found in many medicinal mushrooms are believed to stimulate the immune system, producing higher numbers of pathogen-fighting cells. This can be useful in day-to-day life to help reduce the risk of getting sick. However, medicinal mushrooms might also be useful in much more serious situations. For example, they’re commonly used for fighting malignant cell growth. Some studies have shown that certain species of mushrooms can stimulate the body’s natural killer cells, turning them against harmful cells and other pathogens. It’s believed that medicinal mushrooms could discourage the spread of tumors and even reduce tumor size. They’re also commonly given to patients with chronic diseases to improve quality of life and reduce inflammation.
  • Reduce stress: Some medicinal mushroom species have been linked to lower levels of stress. The reishi mushroom in particular is recommended for people who deal with high amounts of stress on a daily basis. Reishi is considered an adaptogen, which are natural substances that improve the body’s resiliency to stress. Adaptogens can help improve your mood by limiting the production of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. By reducing these hormones, reishi could potentially help your mind and body recover more quickly from stressful situations.
  • Boost athletic performance: Medicinal mushrooms have proven useful for anyone looking to get more out of their workouts. They can increase your energy levels, which allows you to exercise for longer periods of time. Medicinal mushrooms might also increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance. Cordyceps is the best option for boosting athletic performance, as this species is packed with adenosine and cordycepin. These compounds ramp up the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that transports energy into cells.

Other possible uses for medicinal mushrooms include improving sleep and lowering cholesterol. More research is necessary to unlock and understand all the potential benefits medicinal mushrooms can offer. With that said, there’s a reason these fungi have been used for thousands of years—they’re good for you!

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in August 2020. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.

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