Medicinal Mushrooms, Potent Superfoods for Building Immunity

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Medicinal mushrooms are specific strains of wild edible mushroom species that are used for their unique and extraordinary health enhancing compounds. They are a class of superfoods created from the actual fruiting body as well as the mycelium biomass and spores or seeds of the mushroom.  

Many of these varieties have existed on earth for millions of years and have been utilized by humans since the beginning of ancient folk medicine. Some of the popular ones, such as reishi and cordyceps, are famous as top major tonic herbs and have thus been prepared in traditional Chinese tea formulations for centuries.

Chaga, maitake, reishi and turkey tail mushrooms are frequently highlighted in news headlines for their profound health-enhancing properties. While others, like lions mane, agarikon and agaricus blazei, are less known but becoming more popular among mainstream health seekers. 

Current scientific research, as well as the historical and cultural use of mushrooms around the world, has shown that these medicinal fungi have a very positive relationship with, and influence on, the human body when consumed.

What is Mycelium?

Mycelium is the fine, white, thread-like fabric, a network of cells that decomposes plant and animal matter. The mushroom is the fruiting body of this complex matrix. Mycelium is essentially the very construct of the food chain that evolved over 1.7 billion years ago, preparing the way for the evolution of all plant species in existence.

In the words of mycologist Paul Stamets, "The entire food web of nature is based on these fungal filaments, the mycelium network that infuses all land masses in the world is a supportive membrane upon which life proliferates and further diversifies."

This mycelium "fabric" is often described as the Earth's living "internet", sharing complex biological information and nutrient flow. High quality mushroom extracts often include this mycelium biomass, in addition to the fruiting body and sometimes spores of the mushroom species.

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Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms

Immune Modulating "Host Defense Potentiators"

These types of mushrooms are potent superfoods for the immune system. Containing polysaccharides, like highly structured beta-glucans, as well as various other myco-nutrients and antioxidants, including triterpenoids, glycoproteins, flavonoids and ergosterols, they are extremely beneficial for building a natural resistant to disease, viruses and environmental toxins.

The term "host defense potentiators" (HDPs) is often used to describe the immune-modulating effects that mushroom compounds can have on infection and disease. This is a claimed ability to enhance one's (the host's) defense mechanisms rather than killing any one pathogen directly.

Each specific medicinal mushroom species has its own distinct combination of polysaccharides which boost the activity of immune system in different ways. They are all considered "immunomodulators", containing powerful adaptogenic substances that help the body "adapt" to stress factors brought on by external environmental influences or internal imbalance. Specifically, they can significantly increase the body's resistance to trauma, anxiety and fatigue as well as encourage protective effects against environmental pollutants and toxins.

Mammals actually share a deep evolutionary history with the fungi kingdom and likewise share similar risks of infection from a number of the same microorganisms. Out of the need to protect against bacterial invasion, medicinal mushrooms have developed a strong antibiotic immune defense system, which also happens to be effective for building immune response in humans. 

In fact, some of the very first Western medical antibiotics were extracted from these mushroom varieties. Some of the common ones many people use today, like penicillin and tetracycline, are derivatives of these fungal metabolites.

When you think about it, this particular family of edible and extracted mycelii provide us with the same immune building properties that also protect and weave together the soil and earth itself! 

In the book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, it states that: "We are now entering a time when mycofilters of select mushroom species can be constructed to destroy toxic waste and prevent disease, such as infection from coliform or staph bacteria and protozoa and plagues caused by disease-carrying organisms." 

Many top health authorities today are likewise beginning to understand the health enhancing potential that medicinal mushrooms can offer to a wide range of people seeking improved immunity in the ever-changing world around us.

Here is our top list of medicinal mushrooms, each containing their own unique constituents that may be more or less appropriate depending on your individual needs and specific health goals.

Top Medicinal Mushrooms List

1) Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

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Chaga mushroom, also called "cinder conk", often grows on birch trees found in colder climates throughout the world and has been long used by Russian herbalists as a remedy for restoring vitality and maintaining health.

In addition to sterols, polyphenols and polysaccharides, the mushroom also contains a host of other antioxidant constituents including melanin, superoxide dismutase and triterpenes, like betulin, inotodiol and lupeol. One of its main compounds is betulinic acid which it concentrates in high amounts from birch bark. (*) Inonotus obliquus, and its crusted charcoal-like layer, is also a natural source of melanin.

2) Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

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Lion's mane is highly valued for its support to the brain and nervous system. It is in fact the top medicinal variety for its benefits as a neurotrophic and nootropic superfood. Containing two unique compounds, hericenones and erinacines, it has been shown in research since the 1990's to stimulate the synthesis of nerve growth factor and the secretion of proteins that play a major role in the maintenance, survival and regeneration of neurons. (*)

As a "nootropic" dietary supplement, it is often utilized to enhance cognitive functions, including memory, focus and decision-making. Other research also continues to confirm its neuroprotective effects and potential usefulness for dementia and conditions such as Parkinson’s (*) and Alzheimer’s disease. (*

3) Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

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Maitake, also called "hen of the woods" or "signorina", is a wild perennial fungus that often grows in the same place every year, usually at the base of oak trees. In recent times is also frequently cultivated to be sold fresh, dried or prepared for supplement use. One of its main polysaccharides is a unique protein-bound beta-glucan referred to as D-Fraction. This myco-nutrient is one of the main substances reported to be responsible for maitake's powerful immune-modulating activity. Maitake is commonly cooked as a fresh variety, especially in Japan, but is likewise used by chefs worldwide as a "gourmet mushroom" in soups, sauces and numerous recipes.

4) Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

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Cordyceps sinensis is supportive to adrenal functions and is known in TCM to be particularly nourishing to the lungs and kidneys. It is valued as an aphrodisiac with a rejuvenating potential on sexual organs in both men and women.

Cordyceps contains beta-glucans and CO-1, plus the compound called "cordycepin", which is unique to this mushroom variety. Often compared to that of ginseng for its restorative qualities, it is revered as a "Chi" building herb with effects claimed to "activate life energies." C. sinensis is popular for use as an athletic tonic for revitalizing physical stamina and encouraging a performance-enhancing outcome.

5) Coriolus (Trametes versicolor)

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Coriolus is a very popular mushroom species that grows all over the world in a number of climate zones. It is easily identified, usually forming great shelf-like colonies on decaying logs and trees. Referred to as "turkey tail" for it's shape, lines and colors that resemble wild turkey tail feathers, it is one of the most studied of the medicinal mushrooms varieties. 

Coriolus or turkey tail contains two specific polysaccharides, kresin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP), its primary beta-glucan rich elements. Also referred to as "the cloud mushroom", it is known in TCM to positively affect all three treasures: Chi, Shen and Jing. The best and most medicinally effective way to use this mushroom is to use powdered extracts.

6) Agaricus blazei (Agaricus subrufescens)

Agaricus blazei is a Brazilian mushroom species also called "cogumelo do sol" (mushroom of the sun) and also goes by the name Agaricus brasiliensis. It is another type of mushroom that can be eaten fresh and is described to have a sweet almond-like taste.  However, like all medicinal mushrooms, it needs to be heated or prepared in hot water or an alcohol solution to release beneficial healing components.

Agaricus has a high concentration of beta-glucans which help to modulate immune functions.    It is related to the white button Agaricus bisporus variety, also known as cremini or portobella mushroom. The white mushroom cultivar commonly found in markets is, however, largely void of medicinal properties according to research.

7) Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)

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Reishi, has been documented in the earliest pharmacopoeia texts in Asian culture dating back thousands of years ago. It is considered a potent "Shen" tonic because of its proposed ability to calm the nerves and kidney system. 

It is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine to "open the spirit" and has been used by Taoists for achieving "spiritual immortality" or enlightenment. Ganoderma lucidum is also known to help with nerve rejuvenation and insomnia, claimed to be useful for a good night's sleep. The reishi mycelium contains many different constituents including triterpenoids, polysaccharides, peptides, nucleotides, sterols, steroids and various trace elements.

8) Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)

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Shiitake is one of the most popular edible "gourmet" mushrooms because of it's rich flavor and soft meaty texture. Many people do not realize that shiitake is also incredibly medicinal in nature providing a host of compounds. Comprised of beta-glucans and other polysaccharides, such as lentinan, emitanin and KS-2, it has been extensively researched for its potential pharmacological actions.

For increased medicinal potency, it is also frequently consumed as a dietary supplement or hot water extract, usually produced from either the whole fruiting body, the mycelium biomass or isolated bioactive constituents, as is the case with the lentinan extracts.

9)  Agarikon (Laricifomes officinalis)

Agarikon, although once widespread, is now a rare and endangered species found almost exclusively in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. and Canada. Wild spore strains of the mushroom are being genetically preserved to a large degree through the efforts of mycologist Paul Stamets and his company Host Defense.  Agarikon contains a full spectrum of myco-nutrients coming directly from one of the most beautiful and pristine habitats on planet earth. 

Agarikon contains constituents such as beta-glucans, glycoproteins, ergosterols and triterpenoids.  The mushroom has been researched extensively by the Bioshield Biodefense Program administered by the U.S. Dept of Defense for its impressive array of anti-viral compounds that may be potentially effective against lethal viruses like the poxvirus.

How to Use

Medicinal mushroom fruiting bodies need to be heated to release their beneficial properties.  The cell walls in these mushrooms are actually made up of a substance called "chitin", an extremely hard cellulose-like structure similar to lobster shell.  The polysaccharides are trapped within this shell wall which needs to be broken through high temperatures.  The three most common ways to do this are as a tea decoction, a hot water extraction or a hot ethanol extraction.

Medicinal Mushroom Extracts

For the most potent intake of mushroom medicine, it is best to consume mushroom "extracts", which are powdered mushrooms that have gone through a hot water extraction process.  These extracts are highly concentrated substances using state of the art biotechnology and the most proven effective for therapeutic use.

They simply make the myco-nutrients within the cell walls of the medicinal mushrooms more "bioavailable" and readily absorbed in the digestive tract.

Powdered extracts (using hot water) or liquid extracts (using organic ethanol), are usually produced from the actual mushroom body, while the white mycelium biomass and spores are usually added or used exclusively as the main supplement ingredient.  It is becoming increasingly popular these days to find hot water extracts that also include the spores as well as the mycelium biomass.

The following brands are some of the highest quality mushroom supplements on the market.

Sometimes the powdered extracts come in the form of a bulk powder and sometimes they are encapsulated.  For convenience you can take the mushrooms in capsule form or open them up and use them as a straight powder in tonic teas, blended drinks, desserts or even raw chocolates. 

Tea Decoctions

Tea decoctions are made by simmering the raw dried mushroom powder, slices or pieces in water for at least 20 minutes, preferably one hour or longer.  The strained liquid can be consumed as a straight tea or used as a base for shakes, soup broths or when making nut milks.  You can also eat some of the mushrooms after this process, depending on the variety, but the tea is where the nutrients are concentrated.

(See our herbal tea preparations page for more info on the decoction technique in the link below.)

Many of these mushrooms can be purchased in bulk quantities by the pound in the form of a powder, whole mushroom, slices or pieces.

Making medicinal mushroom teas is another way to break down the chitin and release the polysaccharide-rich medicine.  But teas, remember, are sometimes a little less potent than extracts unless you are using a lot of mushroom mass per quantity of water and slow brewing it in a crock pot for many hours.

In preparing teas, you also have the option to add in Chinese tonic herbs as well as Ayurvedic herbs to your tea formulas.  This can increase the potency and effects of the ingredients used and is the traditional way they have been brewed for thousands of years.

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