Mushroom power on the rise

Medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms… “what are they?” and “are they really that great?”

You would definitely be right to think that they are becoming increasingly popular maybe even “in vogue”. But the truth is, we are just starting to skim the surface in the research world with what these amazing fungi are really capable of.

History of Mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used for centuries in China and Japan. They have been used in cooking for their nutritional applications but also commonly as a herbal medicine for their healing purposes. The Chinese people believe they have the ability to detoxify, clean and cleanse the body and even heal wounds.

Only recently has Western Medicine started to dive more into the research behind them and started to incorporate their use in complementary medicine. They are now commonly recommended by nutritionists and naturopaths for a variety of health reasons.

Today, medicinal mushrooms come in a variety of forms including capsules, powders, liquid extracts, teas and even coffee blends. They may be incorporated into smoothies, water or a tasty warm beverage like tea or coffee. And different varieties are recommended at different times of the day due to their ability to either stimulate or relax you.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Medicinal mushrooms

So, what is the difference between medicinal mushrooms and regular mushrooms you find in the supermarket?

Medicinal mushrooms (MM) can be defined as macroscopic fungi that are used in the form of extracts or powder for prevention, alleviation, or healing of multiple diseases, and/or in balancing a healthy diet. –from Bioactive Food as Dietary Interventions for Arthritis and Related Inflammatory Disease (2nd Edition), 2019.

Let me just clarify: the mushrooms you find in the supermarket such as the portabella, button mushrooms and flat mushrooms have great nutritional health benefits. They too are on the incline in popularity, possibly due to the rise in plant-based diets and the search for meat-alternatives. But today we will focus on discussing 5 specific varieties of medicinal mushrooms and their possible uses. The five varieties are:

  • Shitake
  • Chaga
  • Lion’s Mane
  • Reishi
  • Cordyceps

Here’s a summary of these five different types of medicinal mushrooms and their potential applications…

Shitake

This mushroom is used primarily for its anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing properties. It has also been used to help lower cholesterol however the research evidence for this is scarce. 

Most commonly, shitake is taken to support the immune system during the cold and flu season. Nutritionally they are a good source of fibre and are high in B Vitamins. They also have traces of Vitamin D, selenium, zinc and manganese. 

Shitake Mushroom

Chaga

Chaga is packed full of antioxidants and is commonly found in tea formulations. It’s extract is thought to possibly help boost immunity and lower inflammation, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It has even been used in conjunction with some cancer treatments. 

Most studies carried out on Chaga mushrooms however have only been done in the lab or in animal studies. More research is required for its health benefits in humans.

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s Mane mushroom tends to have more beneficial effects on the brain, heart and gut. It is being researched for its clinical use in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease as it contains compounds that may stimulate the growth of brain cells and help protect them from damage.

Other conditions they are commonly used for include mild depression and anxiety, enhancing the recovery from nervous system injuries, protecting against stomach ulcers, improving diabetes and lastly potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.

Reishi

Most evidence is shown for its use in boosting the immune system, its potential anti-cancer effects, and possible benefits for reducing fatigue and depression. It appears to have the ability to help increase the body’s white blood cells or “fighter” cells. These natural fighter cells in the body are responsible for clearing infections and cancer cells. 

Studies so far have shown it has the ability to impact the body’s immune function however more data is required to determine the extent of its benefits.

Cordyceps

The main medicinal uses for cordyceps are to help manage type 2 diabetes, improve heart health by reducing bad cholesterol, and to boost exercise performance. It appears cordyceps may have the ability to boost energy production and improve the way the body utilises oxygen. There is also some limited evidence to show cordyceps may have anti-aging properties. 

Most of the research done on cordyceps has been done either in the lab or in animal studies. There is currently limited evidence from human trials. With that said the research to date does seem promising.

Medicinal Mushrooms

Evidence

It is probably becoming clear to you that much more research is required to better understand the true medicinal power of mushrooms. The evidence to date however does seem promising. We also can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that some cultures have been using them medicinally for centuries. 

Good news is, with the growth in popularity and interest from the public, more research effort is being invested into better understanding these health benefits. 

What we do know is that mushrooms have a plethora of nutritional benefits and implementing them into your daily diet is a good idea. 

As with anything health related we always suggest you speak with your pharmacist, nutritionist and/or medical practitioner about whether the use of medicinal mushrooms is right for you. 

Alexandra Shepherd
Pharmacist