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What are Medicinal Mushrooms?


Medicinal mushrooms are mushrooms used as medicine. They have a long history of use in many parts of the world, especially in Asia. In folk medicine, medicinal mushrooms are mostly used to manage infections, boost the immune system and to improve the overall health, strength, and longevity.

Today, medicinal mushrooms are mostly recognized for their potential to fight cancer. There is some scientific evidence they can help manage diabetes, support the immune system, and promote liver and lung health. They also have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.

Some of the most popular medicinal mushrooms are reishi, medically known as Ganoderma lucidum, turkey tail (Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor), shiitake (Lentinus edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa), chaga (Inonotus obliquus)and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus).

Medicinal mushrooms contain hundreds of nutrients with health benefits, and some of the most well-researched include beta-glucans and a powerful antioxidant and antiinflammatory compound called ergothioneine. Mushrooms are also a source of fibers, vitamins like vitamins D, B and C, minerals like selenium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and copper, as well as other biologically active compounds.

Common medicinal mushrooms and their health benefits

Reishi has several health benefits. It supports healthy blood sugar levels, modulates the immune system, may help manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Reishi promotes liver health, has antimicrobial effects, fights fatigue and supports mental emotional well-being. It also has anti-aging qualities and may help fight cancer, too. Researchers identified over 400 active ingredients responsible for health benefits in reishi.

Turkey tail is used in traditional Chinese medicine as an anticancer agent and to treat lung diseases. Extracts from turkey tails are used routinely by doctors in China and Japan. In China, there are at least 12 drugs derived from turkey tail that are approved for clinical use, especially in cancer treatments. This mushroom may also help manage colds and flu, aid digestion, promote bone health and manage diabetes.

Shiitake is widely used in Japan for the treatment of cancers, especially for stomach cancer. This mushroom also promotes healthy skin, reduces inflammation and helps maintain healthy weight.

Lion’s mane is best known for its potential to support brain health. It has antidepressant qualities, may help prevent brain degeneration and reduce brain damage after a stroke. There is also some evidence this mushroom may help prevent diabetes and cancer.

Maitake seems to be particularly beneficial for those who want to prevent or better manage diabetes. It also has anti-cancer effects, particularly against breast, lung, liver and stomach cancer.

Chaga helps improve blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and fight cancer. It also supports a healthy, strong immune system and helps manage stress.

The anti-cancer benefits of mushrooms

According to the US National Cancer Institute, more than 100 mushrooms are recognized for their health benefits in Asia. For over 30 years, medicinal mushrooms had been approved as an add-on therapy to standard treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.

Overall, medicinal mushrooms are among the most commonly prescribed anti-cancer natural supplements, and turkey tail in particular has been researched for its ability to fight cancer. Medicinal mushrooms have a few different mechanisms of action that explain their anti-cancer effects. They inhibit the growth of the cancer cells, reduce the risk of spread (metastasis), modulate the immune system and reduce inflammation.

Polysaccharide K (PSK) contains beta-glucans and is one of the key active compounds. PSK has been studied and showed benefits in individuals with breast, stomach, colorectal, and lung cancers, either alone or in combination with standard anticancer treatments. Furthermore, studies also found that PSK derived from mushrooms is well tolerated and safe. Other compounds with anticancer qualities found in medicinal mushrooms include triterpenes, phenolic compounds, sterols, eritadenine and chitosan.

Mushrooms from grocery stores are healthy, too

It is worth mentioning that regular mushrooms found in grocery stores, like crimini, button, enoki, oyster, and portobello have well documented health benefits, too. Based on a review of multiple studies, simply eating 18 grams of mushrooms (equal to roughly 1/8 cup or two medium mushrooms) daily may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 45%.

Regular mushrooms also support a healthy brain function, a strong immune system, a better digestion and lower cholesterol levels. They are also rich in vitamins D and B, as well as selenium, which are key nutrients that promote immune health. Mushrooms are naturally low in fat, calories and sodium, while providing proteins, vitamins, minerals, fibers and plenty of antiinflammatory compounds.

The “magic” mushrooms

Magic mushrooms, often in the Psilocybe genus, contain a hallucinogenic substance called psilocybin. Although they are best known as a street drug, they are researched for several conditions including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, addictions and cluster headaches. However, psilocybin mushrooms are still classified as a Schedule I drug according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which means they are not accepted for medical use and have a high potential for abuse.

Conclusion

Medicinal mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in Asia, and are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world. Although they are not approved by the FDA to treat any disease, research studies suggest medicinal mushrooms have anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and immune modulating qualities.

Medicinal mushrooms are found in health foods stores either as a single mushroom like Lion’s mane, or a combination of three to four mushrooms, in capsule or powder form. Even regular mushrooms like button mushrooms or cremini from grocery stores provide several health benefits.

Key takeaways

Medicinal mushrooms are natural fungi that have been used for thousands of years in Asian countries.

Modern research suggests medicinal mushrooms may help fight cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation, infections, and support liver and lung health.

Medicinal mushrooms are widely available in health foods stores.

Regular mushrooms from grocery stores are also rich in nutrients and provide several health benefits.

Resources:

US National Cancer Institute (NIH). Medicinal Mushrooms.

Science Direct. Medical Mushrooms. An Overview.

Johnson, M.W., Hendricks, P.S., Griffiths, R.R., Streeter Barrett, F. (2018). Classic Psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, mystical experience, brain network function, and therapeutics. Pharmacology Therapeutics.

UCLA Health Connect. 7 Health Benefits of Mushrooms.

Venturella, G., Ferraro, V., Cirlincione, F., Letizia Gargano, M. (2021). Medicinal Mushrooms: Bioactive Compounds, Use, and Clinical Trials. International Journal of Molecular Science.

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