The magic of medicinal mushrooms
Does the thought of medicinal mushrooms scare you off? Take a deep breath and stay with us. Yes, we’re going to tell you to put mushrooms in your coffee (among other things). But there’s good reason for this, we swear.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years and have gained even more popularity as of late. Destined to be taken as powders (they’re never meant to be eaten raw or whole), you can find these fungi in all different forms, including ultra-trendy Los Angeles lattes. One of the easiest ways to get your mushroom fix, though? Simply add a spoonful to whatever’s on the menu — be it your morning smoothie, veggie stir-fry, or cup of java.
The list of health benefits medicinal mushrooms provide is lengthy (think: brain booster, hormone helper, antioxidant powerhouse). But each mushroom is unique and provides its own distinct health advantages.
Note that these shrooms aren’t a cure-all. In fact, shroom studies are still new to Western medicine, and solid evidence for humans still needs far more research. So think of them more like sidekicks for your immune system or mini-vaccines against stress, inflammation, and cancer. If you want to get in tune with the power of mushrooms, let’s get to know the top six and what makes them so great.
Take the edge off with reishi
Think of reishi as nature’s Xanax. This favored fungus is one of the most popular medicinal mushrooms, and for good reason. Reishi may be able do it all: aid in weight loss (as seen in a mouse study), keep the immune system in check, and may even fiercely fight cancer cells.
What makes this mushroom unique, however, is its calming properties — all of which are thanks to the compound triterpene, which reishi has its fair share of. These mood-boosting compounds may alleviate anxiety, ease depression, and encourage better sleep, as seen in mice. But triterpenes’ positive effect on the nervous system doesn’t stop there. Reishi can promote healing and sharpen focus, too.
Reishi can help with
Try lion’s mane for a brain boost
Bad case of brain fog? Try lion’s mane for some natural mental clarity. This feathery “pom-pom” mushroom is packed with antioxidants and strengthens the immune system like most medicinal mushrooms. But lion’s mane is rare in the fact that it fosters the production of the bioprotein nerve growth factor (NFG) and myelin (an insulation around nerve fibers).
Both NFG and myelin are absolutely crucial to brain health. An imbalance in them can contribute to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. That makes lion’s mane some serious brain food! This miraculous mushroom has also been shown to improve cognition in a small human study, memory in mice, increase concentration, and alleviate anxiety and irritability.
Lion’s mane can help with
Get your antioxidant dose with free
Chaga mushrooms are an antioxidant powerhouse, making them excellent contenders for fighting free radicals and inflammation. This dark black mushroom combats oxidative stress (which is linked to skin aging), may prevent or slow the growth of cancer, and has been found to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol. Most of the studies on chaga are done on human cells and mice, but the signs point to this shroom being good for you — inside and out.
Chaga can help with
- lowering LDL
Reach for heart-friendly shiitake
If you’re already cooking with shiitake in your kitchen, keep it up. But this popular mushroom has benefits way beyond making that stir-fry extra tasty.
These mushrooms are particularly good for the heart. Shiitakes have been shown to lower LDL in mice, and they contain compounds that inhibit the absorption and production of cholesterol in the liver. These nifty shrooms also contain phytonutrients, which aid in preventing plaque buildup and, as shown in a rat study, maintain healthy blood pressure and circulation.
Shiitake can help with
- lowering cholesterol
- heart health
- blood pressure and circulation
Help fight cancer with turkey tail
Sure, most of the medicinal mushrooms on our list exhibit anticancer properties due to their high amounts of antioxidants. But turkey tail takes it one step further.
Turkey tail contains a compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK) that stimulates the immune system. PSK is so effective that it’s an approved anticancer prescription drug in Japan. Turkey tail has been shown to improve the survival rate of people with certain cancers, fight leukemia cells, and improve the immune system of people receiving chemotherapy. (Of course, don’t stop your prescribed cancer treatment without consulting your doctor.)
Turkey tail can help with
- immune support
- cancer prevention
Need a pick-me-up? Cordyceps to the
Feeling low on energy or need a pre-workout boost? Cordyceps is the fungus for you. This mushroom is known for being very stimulating — for both energy and the libido.
Cordyceps can help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently and enhance blood flow. This can be especially helpful for athletes or those who regularly work out. This mushroom has been shown to not only improve exercise and athletic performance, but also speed up post-workout muscle recovery.
Cordyceps may help with
- athletic performance
- muscle recovery
Try it: Add a spoonful of Cordyceps to your favorite pre- or post-workout meal for a boost in energy or quicker recovery.
The fungi takeaway
Adding a spoonful of mushroom powder to your favorite recipes is a great way to reap their magical health benefits. It’s also best to keep the dosage just at that — a spoonful, or 1 to 2 tablespoons per day. Even if you do feel a boost in your health, it’s never a good idea to increase your intake, especially since these mushrooms are still waiting more trials to verify their benefits.
Always talk to your doctor beforehand to confirm if adding medicinal mushrooms to your diet is safe, especially if you’re using certain medications or are pregnant. And do a little research about the fungus that tickles your fancy before committing. Certain mushrooms can cause side effects like an upset stomach or allergies.
With all of these amazing medicinal mushrooms to choose from, which one are you most excited to try first?
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Tiffany La Forge is a professional chef, recipe developer, and food writer who runs the blog Parsnips and Pastries. Her blog focuses on real food for a balanced life, seasonal recipes, and approachable health advice. When she’s not in the kitchen, Tiffany enjoys yoga, hiking, traveling, organic gardening, and hanging out with her corgi, Cocoa. Visit her at her blog or on Instagram.