Is This the Year of Mushrooms as Medicine?
Medicinal mushrooms are a trendy topic, so how much reality really exist in the matter? Can medicinal mushrooms really benefit your health?
In the past, you might’ve raised a few eyebrows if you told your friends you were eating “medicinal mushrooms.” But these days, many members of the fungi family are gaining popularity for health benefits across the spectrum. In other words, medicinal mushrooms are finally going mainstream.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness website GOOP is chiming in about the new trend, which includes mushroom-based food supplements and body products. And a cafe in Los Angeles now specializes in mushroom concoctions.
Is there any weight to the health claims, or are mushrooms just a passing fad? Here’s what you need to know about all things shroom.
A quick history of mushrooms for medicine
Mushrooms have been in medicine cabinets for thousands of years. They’ve been used in Eastern medicine to treat ailments ranging from asthma to gout. Romans and Greeks used a variety of mushrooms to heal wounds and as a cure-all for aches and pains. Otzi the Iceman, a prehistoric mummy found in the Austrian Alps, was carrying two types of mushrooms when he died 5,300 years ago.
With more than 2,000 varieties of edible mushrooms on the planet, it comes as no surprise that these tasty morsels found their way into the meals and medicines of ancient civilizations. But scientists are just now beginning to uncover the health benefits of the fungi family.
Mushrooms contain high amounts of Vitamin D, Selenium, Folate and antioxidants—nutrients known for anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties. The low-calorie, high-fiber food can also help patients with weight management and type 1 diabetes. For vegetarians, mushrooms contain important minerals like potassium, copper, iron and phosphorus, which are otherwise not easy to fit into a meat-free diet. The choline normally found in meat, fish and eggs is also present in mushroom varieties such as oyster and shiitake, helping the body maintain cell membranes, transmit nerve impulses, process fat and cholesterol and more.
The verdict is still out on some of the loftier claims about the benefits of mushrooms. (Can they really combat the effects of some neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases?) We’ll need to wait for further research to draw any conclusions. But for now, healthy people can experiment with adding mushrooms and mushroom-based supplements to a balanced diet.
Yes, you heard right: it’s time to embrace medicinal mushrooms.
Common medicinal mushrooms and what they do
While you might be familiar with the portobello, shiitake and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms from the grocery store down the street, the varieties of mushrooms that contain medicinal properties are likely foreign to all but the most knowledgeable forager.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular medicinal mushroom varieties being used today, and what they’re being used for.
- Reishi: Sometimes called “The King of Mushrooms,” this fungi has been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years to combat aging and boost longevity. It’s also commonly used as an immune booster, fighting off viral infections like influenza and re-balancing hormones. Reishi has also been used to combat high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both symptoms of heart disease. Because of their woody, bitter taste and tough texture, you’re most likely to find Reishi mushrooms as tinctures and powders.
- Chaga: These mushrooms grow on birch trees and pretty much resemble a dark clump of dirt—tasty, right? But on the inside, the “meat” of the Chaga mushroom is a super-rich source of antioxidants, with a single cup of strong Chaga tea containing the level of antioxidants found in 30 pounds of carrots. More research is needed, but preliminary studies in animals suggest that Chaga mushrooms can slow the growth of some cancers and reduce tumors. Chaga is most commonly prepared as a steeped tea.
- Auricularia auricula and A. polytricha: Commonly referred to as “Jew’s Ear” or “Wood Ear,” these jelly-like mushrooms grow on wood and have a rubbery texture. High in Iron and B Vitamins, these mushroom varieties fight free radicals, those pesky little guys that cause premature aging and can increase your chance of developing cancer and heart disease. Wood Ear and Jew’s Ear mushrooms are usually found in dehydrated form, but can be reconstituted and added to soups, stir-fries and even salads.
- Coriolus or Turkey Tail Mushrooms: These fungi grow like a shelf on the trunks of trees. Scientists believe that two substances found in the Coriolus mushroom—polysaccharide peptide (PSP) and polysaccharide krestin (PSK)—could be able to fight cancer and boost the immune system. The prebiotics found in Coriolus can also support a healthy gut biome, which is ideal for people suffering from indigestion or leaky gut syndrome. Coriolus is usually found as a powder or capsule.
Although mushrooms have pretty much been around since the beginning of time, and the phrase “medicinal mushrooms” sometimes feels like it’s been around just as long, you shouldn’t swap your medicines for mushrooms without asking your doctor first. But in the meantime, there are plenty of safe ways to add mushrooms and mushroom supplements to any recipe for an extra nutritional boost.