Updated: Sep 27
Mushrooms have been used by civilizations throughout history for medicinal as well as culinary purposes for thousands of years. The oldest natural mummy, known as “The Iceman” or Otzi, was found preserved in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps of Italy in 1991. The mummification was so absolute that though he was almost 5,000 years old, Otzi’s physical health, tattoos, last meal, clothes and equipment were all still evident. Scientists found he wore a necklace of pieces of piptoporus betulinus mushroom for medicinal purposes and fomes fomentarius mushroom as part of a fire-starting kit.
Humanity’s connection with mushrooms extends across many cultures. From the hieroglyphs of Cairo showing the use of mushrooms by pharaohs, to ancient
bas-relief depictions of Persephone admiring mushrooms in ancient Greece, to statues of a holy man under the protection of a giant mushroom from ancient Hindu Vedic lore, the evidence is clear; these fungi have been revered and sought after for their therapeutic value as well as for nourishment and even deification, for thousands of years.
In our modern scientific era, beneficial elements were first found and extracted from fungus in 1928 with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, saving over
Today, we draw on ancient systems of health, especially well-documented in Chinese and Japanese traditions, as well as new discoveries from ongoing scientific studies to help us understand some of the amazing benefits of these mysterious life forms called mushrooms.
The number of medicinal mushrooms is vast and ever-expanding, so for our purposes we’ll focus on the 13 most well-known and researched. In this, Part I of our series, we’ll explore the first 7, some history, geography and health benefits.
The Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) has been a popular folk remedy in Russia, Poland, and other Baltic regions for hundreds of years. It is still highly regarded as a treatment for stomach ailments such as ulcers and intestinal worms and is also a tonic for the liver and heart.
Found on birch trees in Siberia, Asia, Europe, Canada, and the northern United States the Chaga fungi, rich in
beta-glucans, have been used to boost immunity through its antibacterial, antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties.
Both American and Japanese researchers have found Chaga tea effective for weight loss. Due to its high fiber content, Chaga naturally suppresses appetite. It also inhibits the synthesis of fat cells, according to a Chinese study, demonstrating chaga prevents expressions of a series of genes involved in lipid synthesis. It’s usually consumed as a tea, but can also be made into a paste or tincture for treatment.
The Cordyceps mushroom (Ophiocordyceps Sinensis) is also called “caterpillar fungus,” since it can actually be a combination of fungus and caterpillar. The mushroom attaches to and grows on insects, arthropods, or other fungi. Most Cordyceps thrive in humid climates such as Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China. Ancient Tibetan and Chinese medical guides refer to Cordyceps as a powerful aid for boosting immunity, energy, libido and athletic performance.
It was also regarded as anti-aging and anti-stress. Researchers today see its potential as an
anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hypolipidemic (lipid-lowering), hypoglycaemic (blood sugar-regulating) and neuroprotective (cell death protective) aid. Its reported antitumor and antimicrobial qualities have made it the subject of many studies.
Cordyceps helps the body use oxygen more efficiently, stimulating blood flow, thereby improving performance for athletes. The mushroom seems to speed muscle recovery after exertion as well, making it a popular supplement.
Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is found on decaying trees throughout Asia, Australia, Southern Europe, South America and Southeastern North America. The fruiting body of the fungi– what is usually referred to as the “mushroom”-- is so tough and resilient that to be eaten it must be ground into a powder for capsules, teas or soup.
The history of the Reishi as a medicine extends thousands of years through China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, where it was revered as a tonic for success, divine power and longevity, reserved exclusively for royalty. Today, studies are underway exploring the amazing healing properties of this beautiful mushroom.
These include studies regarding its use as a possible adjuvant treatment in cancer. Researchers found Reishi extract inhibits the growth of metastatic cancer cells without destroying noncancerous mammary epithelial cells. Reishi is also being considered as a promising weight and cholesterol control supplement. In a study across several French, German, and Swiss universities, Reishi extract significantly reduced TV, LDL, and HDL cholesterol levels. Like Cordyceps, Reishi are neuroprotective.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) are striking in appearance, with their flowing cascades of pale spines hanging from the trunks of hardwood trees in Northern forests of Asia, Canada, Australia and even the U.S. The mushroom is also valued for its culinary use as a meat substitute and is enjoyed fermented, extracted, or cooked, with a taste often compared to crab or lobster. Its most touted medicinal use is its brain function support, though it has many other health benefits.
Highly regarded as a nootropic
(cognitive enhancer), Chinese herbalists, Japanese monks and even indigenous peoples of the United States have used Lion’s Mane to enhance memory, concentration and mental acuity. Its active compounds, hericenones and erinacines are thought to be the primary factors in this. Erinacines help the brain produce Nerve Growth Factor, essential to concentration, while erinacines cross the blood-brain barrier, supporting production of new neurons, essential to concentration and mental acuity.
Along with its most famous use for the mind are benefits we’ve seen in other medicinal mushrooms, including its support of digestive health and its energy and vitality enhancing effects. Science reveals a number of health-promoting substances in Lion’s Mane, including antioxidants and a high level of beta-glucan.
Lion’s Mane is also credited with improving insomnia, general mood and even helping to alleviate depression. More studies on this are ongoing and hopeful.
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes) are treasured for their distinctive rich, smokey flavor and are the most popular mushrooms in the world. They have been cultivated throughout East Asia for over 2,000 years, mostly on poplar, ironwood, beech, oak, northern maple, and Chinese chinquapin trees.
Shiitake has many health benefits, studied in the West only recently. These include
immunoprotective capabilities attributed to immunity-related messaging molecules, interleukin-23 or IL-23.
The mushrooms produce this in the lower digestive tract. Shiitake may also improve regulation of blood sugar levels and insulin, inhibit the growth of various tumors, and support cardio health.
In general, the nutritional content of Shiitake mushrooms is high, with impressive and beneficial levels of vitamin D, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, Folate, copper, selenium, potassium, manganese, magnesium, iron and phosphorus.
Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes Versicolor) are one of the most common mushrooms in the world. They grow on dead logs of hardwood forests in North America, Europe or Asia. They are striking in appearance with their brown, white and tan rings, resembling the tail feathers of a turkey.
Traditional Chinese medicine has recommended turkey tail for thousands of years for digestive and lung health while supporting general vitality.
In Japan and China, a powerful derivative of the mushroom, PSK, is used to strengthen the immune system against cancer. Turkey tail also has one of the highest levels of beta-glucans, which can enhance the immune system.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) often grows in large dewy or dry clusters. It is also known as “Hen of the Woods” or “The Dancing Mushroom,” and is used for culinary purposes since it has a nice texture with a mild and pleasing flavor.
It is said that Maitake mushrooms were so highly prized that people would dance with joy upon finding one.
Though it also grows on trees, it doesn’t have the characteristic stiff, woody shelf structure as other mushrooms on our list.
Maitakes are mostly found near oak, elm and maple trees, and are widespread in the Northern U.S and Japan. They are quite large, weighing up to 50 pounds.
Maitake, like so many species of fungi, has a vast and growing library of scientific research for its anti-cancer effects as well as other health benefits. It is known to help maintain healthy blood pressure, treat diabetes and high cholesterol, and support immune function.
The Okinawans of Japan used this mushroom extensively in their cooking and with Okinawans noted as some of the longest living people in history, some up to 120 years, these mushrooms merit further study for their longevity effects.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration into some of the most common medicinal mushrooms in the world. Join our email list and keep up to date on new developments. We hope your curiosity leads you to continue with us in
Part II of our story!
This concludes our general exploration of some of the world’s most powerful medicinal mushrooms, but this list is only the beginning. There are over 10,000 different species of mushroom known to man, and countless that may not even be discovered yet.
Follow us at NanoFungi.com as we dig deeper into the mysterious and wondrous world of mushrooms; what they can offer us and how we can work with them now and in the future, in new and surprising ways.
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