Exotic-sounding and intriguing, reishi mushroom may be a newcomer in the Western diet, but Eastern medicine has used it for generations. Fans of reishi say it has a range of benefits for your health, including boosting your immunity and mood. Let’s take a look at what modern scientific research has to say about the health benefits of reishi mushroom.
What is reishi mushroom?
Reishi is a medicinal mushroom which is used in traditional Eastern medicine to treat a range of ailments. It has a flat, ear-shaped cap with a characteristic reddish-orange colour. In the wild, foragers tend to spot it growing at the base of trees, although it also lends itself quite well to cultivation.
Reishi is the Japanese name for the Ganoderma lucidum fungus. The Latin word ‘lucidus’ literally means ‘shiny’ or ‘brilliant’, and refers to the shiny cap of the mushroom.
You might also come across other names from different cultures. In China, for example, reishi is known as ‘lingzhi’, which translates as ‘divine mushroom’.
Lingzhi is known as a ‘herb of spiritual potency’ in Chinese medicine. It is particularly special because it has always been more associated with medicinal use rather than nutrition. As we will see, there are good reasons for this.(1)
What does reishi taste like?
You can eat reishi mushrooms whole, but we wouldn’t recommend it! The whole mushroom has quite a tough texture and can taste bitter, which is why most people don’t generally eat it in the same way as you might eat a mushroom from the grocer’s.
Instead, the traditional way to take reishi is in the form of a tea or tincture. Nowadays, more people are turning to powders and supplements as a more convenient way of including reishi in their diet.
Many people choose to pair reishi with strong flavours such as cacao or coffee. You might have seen a recent trend for including reishi in hot chocolate!
Traditional use of reishi
Traditional Chinese Medicine has made use of Lingzhi, or reishi, for over 2,000 years. Early medical texts such as the Ben Cao Gang Mu, which appeared in around 1590 AD, mention reishi and comment on its health benefits.(1)
At the time, practitioners believed that reishi could enhance your ‘vital energy’, improve memory and cardiac function, and even have anti-aging effects.(1)
Before we discovered ways to cultivate reishi, people who wanted to make use of its medicinal properties had to rely on finding it growing in the wild. However, that was often easier said than done.
Reishi is fairly rare in the wild, and its scarcity made it very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford it.
Some fascinating folk legends built up over the years to explain why reishi was so hard to find. Many believed that the mushroom only grew in the land of the immortals, on the ‘three aisles of the blest’.(1)
These are legendary islands thought to be off the coast of China, and which are interwoven with Taoist beliefs about immortality. It was believed that the plants that grew on these islands could grant everlasting life.(2)
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, to hear that reishi is often referred to as the ‘mushroom of immortality’.
While it might not quite be able to deliver on that claim, reishi still looks very promising in other areas of health and wellbeing.
“Many believed that reishi only grew in the land of the immortals, on the ‘three aisles of the blest’. They believed that the plants that grew on these islands could grant everlasting life.”
Reishi may boost your immune system
Recent scientific research has looked into the relationship between consuming reishi and the functioning of your immune system.
Reishi is high in triterpenes, a special type of hydrocarbon found in many plants, animals and fungi. One study showed that triterpenes extracted from reishi mushrooms had an anti-inflammatory effect(3).
Another looked at the effect of polysaccharides taken from the plant and found that they had several immune-boosting effects. These included promoting the function of antigen-presenting cells, which are essential for your adaptive immune system, and boosting cellular immunity.(4)
There’s also evidence that some of the substances found in reishi can help to support your T and B lymphocytes, which play an important role in your immune system.(1)
Most of these studies have been conducted ‘in vitro’, meaning that their hypotheses haven’t yet been tested on human beings. More research is needed to confirm whether or not the effect can be transferred to real people.
However, reishi’s traditional use, combined with the promising early results of in vitro studies, suggests that reishi might help to bolster your immune system.
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It can help you deal with stress
Reishi is an adaptogen, which means it helps to regulate certain functions of your body. This is particularly useful when it comes to stress.
When you’re feeling sluggish and unmotivated, adaptogens can help to stimulate you, whereas if you’re feeling anxious and alert, they help you to feel calmer.
Essentially, adaptogens soften your response to stress and allow you to deal with it productively for longer.
Historians think that Taoist monks used reishi as a meditation aid thanks to its relaxing properties.
While ancient wisdom has recommended reishi as an aid for relaxation for a very long time, the scientific community is beginning to establish the empirical data to back it up.
One study found that an extract from the mycelia (the thread-like structures which form part of fungi) had an anti-depressant effect on rats.(5)
Reishi protects your cells from oxidative damage
During your normal metabolic processes, your cells produce little molecules called free radicals. These occurs when an oxygen molecule is split into two unstable atoms.
These molecules are very unstable and whizz around until they find another partner and are able to become stable once more. Unfortunately, until that happens, they can cause damage to your cells, known as oxidative damage.
Free radicals are a natural part of normal bodily function, and your body is more than capable of handling a few of them.
However, sometimes environmental factors such as stress, smoking, pollution or diet can mean that there are more free radicals in your system than your body can effectively neutralise.
This is where antioxidants come in. They step in to prevent oxidative damage caused by roaming free radicals. This, in turn, defends your cells against mutations and helps to protect the cells involved in your immune response.(1)
Researches have noted reishi’s powerful antioxidant properties. They attribute these to the presence of triterpenes, the special hydrocarbon mentioned above.(1)
Several studies have demonstrated that substances extracted from reishi have an antioxidant effect in vitro.(1)
Substances found in reishi have been shown to inhibit the activity of microbes such as viruses and bacteria.
One study found that some substances extracted from reishi mushrooms were able to inhibit the herpes simplex and vesicular stomatitis viruses.(1)
In another, an extract taken from the stem of the reishi mushroom, used in conjunction with known antibiotics, helped to improve the latter’s effects against certain types of bacteria.(6)
Extract from reishi seems to have an inhibitory effect on some well-known bugs whose names you might recognise: E-coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Bacillus cereus(1), which is responsible for the type of food poisoning known as ‘fried rice syndrome’.(7)
Researchers concluded that the polysaccharides in reishi are likely to be responsible for this anti-microbial effect.
Reishi is high in beta-glucans
One of the types of polysaccharides present in reishi come under the umbrella of beta-glucans (sometimes written as β-Glucans).
Beta-glucans are a form of dietary fibre and which appears in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi and cereals.(8)
They are also bioactive compounds — a substance which affects biological activity — with a wide range of known health benefits. Researchers have linked them to anti-obesity, anti-allergic and immunomodulating effects.(8)
They may also be helpful in lowering levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol(9) and in helping you to maintain a regular weight.
What’s more, they are antioxidants, and may contribute to the overall antioxidant effect of reishi.(8)
How to take reishi
Reishi is commonly available as a supplement or powder. For greater transparency, we recommend taking reishi in powder form.
You can take reishi every day, but remember to take a break of about a week after around twenty days of use. This sort of break is sensible when taking any kind of medicinal mushroom product, as medicinal mushrooms can be quite potent and it’s important to give your body time to rebalance.
Remember to shop organic to avoid any unwanted pesticides or chemical nasties making their way into your reishi. Our Erbology Reishi Mushroom Powder is 100% organic and exceptionally high in beta-glucans.
As reishi has quite a strong, bitter natural flavour, we recommend mixing it with another flavour to make it more palatable. It mixes very easily into soups and stews, where the flavour will be undetectable but you’ll still get all the health benefits of reishi.
You can also try mixing it with cacao for a reishi hot chocolate to relax before bed, or stir a small amount into coffee to get more health benefits from your daily latte.