Reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, chaga… these exotic names belong to medicinal mushrooms which have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine.
The Western world is finally beginning to recognise the value of these fascinating fungi. However, without the benefit of thousands of years of knowledge behind us, it can be hard to know where to start.
Allow us to take you on a journey to understand medicinal mushrooms and how they might benefit your wellbeing.
Medicinal mushrooms in ancient times
China; The Han dynasty.
Stretching for over 400 years, from 206 BC to 220 AD, it was the second imperial dynasty of China. The dramatic events that occurred in the family’s royal courts, which included murder, intrigue and rebellion, brought the dynasty renown over the whole region. Members of the dynasty also presided over a crucial moment in China’s history.
Under their watchful eye, the Silk Road trade route opened between China and Europe, In, 105 AD, paper was invented.
Around one hundred years later, just as the Han dynasty’s star was waning, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was completed.
One of the most important medical texts ever written, its name translates to ‘The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica’. Historians believe that it was written by a collection of practitioners based on oral wisdom. Thanks to their knowledge, the text captures the details of the most important herbs and plants for medical treatment at the time.
Within its pages are advice about the use of medicinal mushrooms, including reishi, cordyceps and chaga. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
How were mushrooms used in medicine?
Imagine if you had been living around this time, and were suffering from asthma, coughing, dizziness, insomnia or shortness of breath. You might have chosen to visit a medical practitioner. In order to treat your ailments, they would have taken your pulse and prescribed a handful of ingredients with instructions for their preparation.(2) Reishi is likely to have been among them.
Meanwhile, if you were suffering from gut issues, you may have been prescribed lion’s mane.
The lengthy use of medicinal mushrooms tells us two things. Firstly, that they are safe to take (when correctly prepared and dosed). And, secondly, that practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have appreciated their value for almost 2,000 years.
Fortunately, we now have the benefit of modern scientific research to help back up traditional knowledge about medicinal mushrooms.
Just as in ancient times, the mushroom you should use will depend on your individual health. So, we’ve compiled a handy guide to which mushroom to choose based on common health concerns.
Best for energy and vitality: cordyceps
During the Han dynasty, you might have been prescribed cordyceps as a tonic for ‘vigour’(3). Leading on from this, modern research has brought forth some compelling evidence to back up cordyceps’ health benefits.
Cordyceps’s official name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis or simply Cordyceps sinensis, which translates as ‘club headed [fungus], from China’.(3).
In the wild, it grows from a living host: moth caterpillars. However, a spike in demand and a reduction of its natural habitat means that most cordyceps (including ours) is now cultivated in a liquid medium. No caterpillars required!
When fresh, cordyceps looks like yellow-brown fingers, and when dried, it resembles autumn leaves. And, just as traditional medicine predicted, cordyceps may be the mushroom for you if you’re in need of an energy boost.
One study conducted on mice found that cordyceps helped to reduce fatigue and improve their endurance.(4)
Another found that the anaerobic performance of human athletes improved when they took cordyceps. They were also better able to clear lactic acid from their systems.(4)
What’s more, there’s evidence that cordyceps might increase your sex drive. The same study which looked at fatigue and endurance in mice also observed that cordyceps improved the sex drive of rats.(4)
This makes sense, given that Tibetan healers have been prescribing cordyceps as an aphrodisiac for generations.(5)
Unlike some medicinal mushrooms, cordyceps has quite a traditional ‘mushroom’ taste (earthy and slightly nutty). So, it’s easy to mix our 100% Organic Cordyceps Powder into your normal recipes.
Best for brain health and mood: lion’s mane
Lion’s mane mushroom is a creamy white colour and grows on deadwood. It has a multitude of long, thin tendrils which look similar to a lion’s mane, or the beard of a wise old man. This might explain one of its many alternative names, ‘satyr’s beard’!
Back in ancient China, lion’s mane was prescribed to treat ‘Qi deficiency’. Your Qi is your life force, so a deficiency might look like low energy, insomnia and weakness.(6)
Modern science has particularly linked lion’s mane health benefits to the brain and mental wellbeing.
One study took a sample group of men and women with mild cognitive impairment and gave them lion’s mane over the course of 16 weeks. The study found that the participants who had taken lion’s mane scored higher on a cognitive function test than a control group who took a placebo.(7)
There’s also evidence that it can help treat depression. Research has shown that compounds in lion’s mane are able to somewhat mimic the effect of antidepressant medications. They support the neurotransmitter and neuro-endocrine systems, help the brain to form new neurons, and protect against oxidative stress and inflammation.(8)
Furthermore, another study looked at a group of patients who were overweight or obese and suffered from a mood or sleep disorder. When put onto a calorie controlled diet, the participants who took lion’s mane reported decreased depression, anxiety and sleep problems.(9)
So, if you’re looking for natural ways to boost your brain, simply add our 100% Organic Lion’s Mane powder to soups and stews.
“Fortunately, we now have the benefit of modern scientific research to help back up traditional knowledge about medicinal mushrooms.”
Best for immunity: reishi
This rather pretty mushroom was so valued by people in ancient times that it was thought to grow only on the isle of the immortals.(10) Taoists believed that plants which grew on these ‘blest aisles’ were able to grant everlasting life.(11)
It might not quite be able to deliver on that promise. But, researchers have linked reishi to improved immunity and lower stress levels.
In terms of immunity, ‘in vitro’ tests have shown that triterpenes, a compound found in reishi, had an anti-inflammatory effect.(12)
Furthermore, other polysaccharides have been shown to boost cellular immunity and promote the function of antigen-presenting cells. These cells are essential for your adaptive immune system.(13)
Substances in reishi may also support your T and B lymphocytes, which help rid the body of invasive germs.(14) There’s also some evidence that compounds in reishi are anti-microbial and can protect against some viruses.(14)
As we know, stress is a major factor in immunity, putting a dent in your defences if it isn’t kept in check.
In ancient times, reishi is thought to have been used as a meditation aid because of its relaxing properties. Again, scientific research seems to back up traditional use. For instance, a recent study on rats also found that an extract from the mycelia (the thready parts) of reishi had an anti-depressant effect.(15)
Of all the medicinal mushrooms, reishi has a rather bitter taste, so it’s best to pair it with strong flavours. That’s why we recommend adding our 100% Organic Reishi Powder to coffee and hot chocolate. This way, you’ll get all reishi’s health benefits without any bitterness.
Best for blood sugar and cholesterol: chaga
Chaga is a fungus which grows on birch trees in the northern hemisphere, including Japan, Siberia, Ukraine and Canada. Hugging onto its birch tree host in the wild, it looks a bit like brittle charcoal.(16)
Scientists found that polysaccharides present in chaga were able to reduce glucose, triglycerides, fat acids and cholesterol levels in the blood.(17)
Another study found that chaga was able to help repair damaged pancreas tissues in mice with diabetes.(18)
Chaga may also have benefits for your cholesterol levels. As a quick recap, it’s thought that there are two types of cholesterol: ‘good’ HDL and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the type which is associated with a build-up of matter in your blood vessels.
Research on mice has shown that chaga reduced ‘bad’ cholesterol and increased blood levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.(19)
However, it’s important to note that this research has broadly been conducted either ‘in vitro’ or on animals such as mice and rats.
While the results look very promising, more research is needed to see if the same health benefits can be applied to humans. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
Best for gut health and immunity: turkey tail
Turkey tail mushroom is another attractive-looking mushroom which grows in multicoloured fan shapes. It is found everywhere from Asia to North America, Scandinavia and even down towards the mediterranean.
Like reishi, it’s quite tough and woody. Therefore, it isn’t traditionally eaten whole, but rather taken as a tincture.
Back in ancient times, it was prescribed to promote general health and longevity.(20)
Given that your gut and your immune system are closely linked, it isn’t a surprise to see that one of our mushrooms, Turkey’s tail (Trametes versicolor) may well have benefits for both.
One type of substance from turkey tail which is proving particularly interesting in scientific research is polysaccheropeptides (PSPs). An ‘in vitro’ study showed that PSPs were able to stimulate human immune cells. However, the researchers called for further studies to confirm the effect in the real world. (20)
Meanwhile, other scientists were looking into turkey tail’s effect on the gut.
Good gut health depends on maintaining a careful balance of the different types of bacteria in your system. One study found that turkey tail had beneficial effects on the gut microbiome due to its natural prebiotic qualities.(21)
Which mushroom is right for you?
While certain mushrooms seem to stand out in certain areas of health, it’s important to note that there’s a lot of crossover in their health benefits.
For example, all of the mushrooms mentioned above have antioxidant properties. These promote overall wellbeing and protect against oxidative stress.
To feel the full benefits of medicinal mushrooms, you could also try them in a mixture, such as our Immunity Mushroom Blend.
It’s also important to consider the way your mushrooms are cultivated. Many mushrooms are grown on grains or starch, and when they are fully grown and ready to be processed, the grain is not removed.
That means your pack of mushroom powder may contain a large percentage of starch, limiting its benefits for your health.
Instead, look for a supplier who grows their mushrooms in liquids. This method of cultivation supplies the mushrooms with all the nutrients they need without having to add in ‘fillers’ such as starch. So, you can be sure that you will be getting 100% mushroom in your final product with a high proportion of healthy beta-glucans.
One final reminder: whichever mushroom you choose to try, make sure you source it from an organic supplier to make sure no pesticides or chemicals get in the way of your medicinal mushroom’s health benefits.