When asked to name some of the world’s most advanced medicines, most people are probably more likely to think of pharmaceutical concoctions than the humble mushrooms that grow on the forest floor and in stands of trees. Yet mushrooms are some of the most promising natural medicines available today. As researchers discover mushrooms’ ability to battle stroke, arthritis, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, cancer, brain disease and a number of other serious health concerns, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that mushrooms deserve a rightful place in our medicine cabinets.
The world is home to an estimated 1.4 million species of mushrooms, but only about 700 have been explored for medicinal properties. Here are four of the finest fungi.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
This beautiful, large, white mushroom derives its name from its long ridges that resemble a lion’s mane. Although its crab-like taste and texture make it a popular culinary mushroom, research shows this mushroom also offers some serious health benefits.
Perhaps its greatest promise is as a treatment for brain and nerve diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. New research in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found this mushroom promotes nerve cell regeneration following injuries. For many years, it was accepted as medical fact that nerve regeneration was impossible, but this exciting research may prove otherwise. Additional research found that a liquid extract of the mushroom helped grow new brain and nerve cells known as neurons.
About a dozen studies have shown lion’s mane has impressive brain-healing properties. In one study, mice with amyloid plaques comparable to those found in Alzheimer’s were fed a normal diet then compared with mice fed a normal diet plus lion’s mane. The lion’s mane mice regained cognitive capacity, were more capable of navigating mazes, and had a reduction of beta-amyloid plaques—a biomarker that suggests a reversal of Alzheimer’s.
Fresh lion’s mane mushrooms are increasingly available in gourmet food, grocery and health-food stores. To prepare, simply sauté in olive oil with salt and chopped garlic. Its bitter raw taste disappears when cooked until crispy at its edges.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi mushrooms have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Research in the medical journals International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms and Neuropharmacology shows reishi mushrooms can help protect against seizures and stroke, and potentially help treat Huntington’s disease, a serious degenerative brain disorder that affects muscles, memory and behavior patterns. Reishi appears to work on the pathways that regulate the energy centers of brain cells.
Reishi mushrooms may also hold tremendous potential for breast cancer, according to research in the medical journal PLOS ONE. Scientists concluded that reishi suppresses tumor growth and is a potential therapeutic aid for breast and other cancers. Note: Don’t take if using warfarin or another blood thinner, if on chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressants.
These study results were achieved using reishi extract, which—like chaga extract—is made by infusing reishi mushrooms in alcohol. Reishi extracts, as well as dried whole or powdered reishi, are available from most health-food stores. Add them to soups, stews or curries, or use them to make broth.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)
Cordyceps is also called caterpillar fungus because in the wild it’s a parasite that grows inside caterpillar bodies. It has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine as a lung and kidney tonic; to improve stamina, fatigue, shallow breathing and wheezing; and as an aphrodisiac. Today, it’s quickly becoming known for its anti-cancer properties, as it contains three compounds that have proven anti-tumor activity. Note: Don’t use if you have a myelogenous type of cancer, if you take insulin or other blood-glucose lowering medications, or if you take any drug that has a blood-thinning effect.
New research published in the journal Phytomedicine found cordyceps inhibits cancer growth and causes cancer cells to die without harming healthy cells. Earlier research in the Japanese journal Fitoterapiashows cordyceps works against cancer in six ways, including blocking the ability of tumors to grow (anti-tumor); blocking the ability of cancer cells to multiply (antiproliferative); stopping cancer from spreading (anti-metastatic); improving the immune system’s ability to fight cancer (immunomodulatory); attacking free radicals before they can damage cells and tissues (antioxidant); and causing cells to die (apoptotic).
Cordycepin, an active element in cordyceps, was shown effective against prostate cancer, according to research in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. A study in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology also indicated that cordyceps killed lung cancer cells. Other research found that cordyceps reduced the growth ability of the skin cancer known as melanoma.The mushroom has a spicy, cinnamon-like scent that lends itself to soups.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga, also called birch mushrooms because they grow on birch trees, are black fungi with an orange-brown patch that can grow to more than four pounds.
The Cree American Indians used chaga in ceremonies and as a treatment for arthritis. Today, research has predominantly focused on the mushroom’s anti-cancer properties. Multiple studies published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found that chaga inhibited tumor growth.
Additionally, chaga has shown effectiveness in the treatment of GI disorders, including gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers. Note: Chaga may interact with antidiabetic, anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs. The mushroom also contains sugars that prevent the absorption of glucose, thereby offering assistance in regulating blood sugar levels in diabetics.
These studies used chaga extract, obtained from infusing the mushrooms in alcohol for at least two weeks and then straining. Chaga extract is available from most health-food stores. Although dried or ground chaga can be a bit more difficult to find, you can add it to savory soups, stews or curries, or to make broth. It also can be a tea: Simmer a handful of whole chaga chunks in a quart of water for 10 minutes; strain; enjoy with nut milk or maple syrup.
Reaping the Benefits
You can supplement with medicinal mushrooms via capsule or tincture (alcohol extract), available from most health-food stores. Follow package directions for the specific product you choose. Many health-food stores also sell dried and powdered mushrooms that can be added to soups, stews, curries or other savory dishes. They are highly versatile and, added to water, make an excellent alternative to chicken or vegetable stock to use in your favorite foods. Simply add a teaspoon or two to water, followed by a pinch of salt, to get the taste you’d like. As with any supplement, use caution when purchasing medicinal mushrooms, and check with your primary physician before beginning a new health regimen. The rising popularity of some types—especially cordyceps—has led to an increase in the imitation products on the market. Always research a producer’s practices before buying supplements. One mushroom producer we recommend is Fungi Perfecti.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D., DNM is the best-selling author of Boost Your Brain in 60 Seconds, The Probiotic Promise and 60 Seconds to Slim.