Medicinal Mushrooms activate various components of the immune and nervous systems, support brain and cognitive function, the regulation of blood sugar levels and increase energy levels and stamina. And that’s not all!
Currently medicinal mushrooms are mainly used as dietary supplements or functional food. They effect multiple targets and components of health: prevention, alleviation, or healing of diseases. In other words, used medicinally, mushrooms have what it takes to become real evidence-based medicine.
A SYNERGISTIC BLEND
By combining complex mushroom strains, the overall benefits are enhanced synergistically. An interesting study (of Rossi et al) showed that a mixture of cordyceps and reishi positively influenced the performance and stress resistance of cyclists, protecting the athletes from overtraining syndrome in particular.
Mushrooms are also referred to as herbs and we know that used synergistically, the therapeutic effect of the active constituents in herbs are enhanced. A study looked at the benefits of the combined and individual formula of three mushroom species, Reishi, Shiitake and Maitake. This was the first report1 showing a potential synergistic effect as potent immuno-stimulators.
MUSHROOMS AS MEDICINE
More than 600 studies have been conducted on mushrooms used as medicine worldwide and numerous human clinical trials published. Research shows that mushrooms are very beneficial to health. And that puts it mildly. The pharmacological actions of medicinal mushrooms include immune-modulatory, cytotoxic, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, anti-allergic and anti-hyperlipidemic properties.2,3,4,5
In addition we see various studies supporting mushroom’s anti-cancer activity, stimulation of nerve growth factor, ATP and nootropic benefits (improve mental performance and apoptogenic activity). ‘Mushrooms increase the body’s natural killer activity, creating antibodies that aid in attacking foreign bodies,’ says Dave Grotto, director of nutrition at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois.
Medicinal Mushrooms can be extracted using hot water and not ethanol. Ethanol extraction may lead to a mushroom supplement high in total phenolic content (good antioxidant potential). Hot water extraction, in contrast, yields a mushroom extract with much higher β-glucan content (since polysaccharides are water soluble)7. Keep these extraction methods in mind when choosing a mushroom supplement.
Mushrooms have always been prepared for medicinal use by hot water extraction in traditional Chinese medicine – as in brewing of teas or decoctions. From a toxicological point of view, water is safer than organic solvents such as acetone, chloroform and methanol.
Let’s take a closer look at each specific mushroom strain.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), rich in β-glucans, has been one of the most highly revered longevity herbs in Taoist tonic herbalism. Also known as caterpillar fungus, it is technically classified as a parasitic fungus and not a mushroom because it grows on the larva of insects. The fruiting body it produces, is valued as a herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine, but apparently originated in Tibet and Nepal.
Traditionally the Chinese used cordyceps to stop bleeding, support the kidneys, lungs and eliminated phlegm. But today cordyceps is best known as an immune modulator8,9 and for its ability to improve erectile dysfunction, increase stamina, sperm production and to elevate sexual desire in men and women.
In the 1990s it was brought to public attention by a Chinese Olympic team – the members of which attributed their energy and endurance levels, followed by record-breaking runs, to the use of this mushroom.
Its polysaccharides help the body resist a wide range of viruses, pathogens, fungi and nano-bacteria. In one clinical trial, according to the National Cancer Institute, cordyceps displayed cytotoxicity against leukemia. The anti-tumour and immuno-modulating activity of one of the main bioactive components of cordyceps, polysaccharide, has already been brought to scientific and commercial attention.10,11
Modern experimental methods in biochemistry have proved that cordyceps has a broad medical effect, and its function of immunity regulation plays an important role in organ transplantation and the prevention of kidney, liver and heart disease.12,13
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) grow on dead and fallen trees, branches and stumps worldwide. It's named turkey tail because its concentric rings of brown and tan look like the tail feathers of a wild turkey. The rings can have different colours including white, various shades of red and orange, and all the way to blue and green. Turkey tail is one of the most common mushrooms found today.
Turkey tail mushrooms contain helpful prebiotics that are essential for gut health as they feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Gut bacteria interact with immune cells and directly impact your immune response. The wide variety of antioxidants, such as phenols and flavonoids in turkey tail help to reduce inflammation.
Turkey tail has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat lung diseases and in Japan, to strengthen the immune system when given with standard cancer treatment. Turkey tail may help repair immune cell damage caused by chemotherapy.
The active compound in turkey tail is polysaccharide K (PSK) and this has been used as adjuvant therapy in thousands of cancer patients since the mid-1970s.14
In a phase I clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, a product made with turkey tail was given to a small group of patients with breast cancer following radiation therapy. There was an increase in natural killer cells and other cancer-fighting cells in the immune system.
A study in patients with stage II or stage III rectal cancer, found that PSK had anticancer effects in tissue that received radiation therapy. PSK activates specialised white blood cells called macrophages, that protects the body against harmful substances like certain bacteria.
A study showed that turkey tail extract significantly reduced blood glucose levels of type 2 diabetic rats and increased glucose consumption during insulin resistance.15
The lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a white, globe-shaped fungi that have long, shaggy spore producing spines (greater than 1 cm length) and mostly feeds on dead trees.
Lion’s mane is extensively studied for the support of cognitive and neuronal health. In a small study, it reduced anxiety and depression.
Lion’s mane is thought to have the ability to stimulate the production of a substance known as nerve growth factor. This specialised protein is necessary for the growth of sensory neurons, and studies have shown that extracts of this mushroom promote myelin sheath growth on nerve cells.16
Since the myelin sheath is the part of the nerve cells most closely associated with the transmission of nerve messages, research suggests that lion’s mane mushroom may help to slow the progression of degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.17
For those going through times of high demand on the concentration and intellect, lion’s mane may provide an additional cognitive boost.18
In addition to the benefits it may offer to the nervous system, lion’s mane has been used in Taoist tonic herbalism to address ailments of the digestive tract. The glyconutrients (polysaccharides) in lion’s mane, like those in other medicinal mushrooms, also have significant immune-enhancing properties.
Then lions mane is also rich in antioxidants, act as an anti-inflammatory and prevents oxidation. Experts in a 2015 study,19 reported fewer depressive behaviours due to these anti-inflammatory effects. Lion’s mane may help digestive health by fighting inflammation.
The maitake (Grifola frondosa) or hen-of-the-woods is a large, earthy-brown mushroom that grows on and around the base of hardwood trees, especially oaks. They somewhat resembles the ruffled feathers of a sitting hen and grow in big clusters.
Native to north-eastern Japan and certain parts of North America maitake is one of Japan’s major culinary mushrooms. The name means ‘dancing mushroom’ in Japanese due to the consumption of maitake causing people to dance when eating it in the wild. It is equally popular in China, where it has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, especially to treat diabetes and hypertension.
Maitake may lower blood sugar levels, so they’re good for diabetic and pre-diabetic individuals.20,21
The β-Glucan content in maitake stimulate the production of neutrophils, T-cells and white blood cells. These cells help the immune system to combat illnesses, remove cellular debris, and hasten recovery from tissue damage.
The ‘MD-fraction’ in the mushroom can inhibit tumour growth. In a small 2002 study,22 cancer patients taking maitake extract either experienced shrinkage of their tumour or had a vast improvement in symptoms. A 2013 in vitro study23 reported that maitake mushroom extract could be useful in suppressing the growth of breast cancer cells.
Some studies suggest that maitake mushrooms could help your heart by naturally lowering cholesterol.24
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is a a large, dark mushroom with a deep red body, glossy exterior and a woody texture from the Ganoderma family. They grow on the stumps of trees or trees that are dying. For some reason people in the past believed that reishi mushroom harvested from oak and plum trees are the best. There are many varieties of reishi mushrooms all over the world and they come in different colours.
In Chinese medicine, reishi also known as the tree of life and the plant of longevity, has been used for more than 4 millennia and is the oldest mushroom known to man. It is no wonder why in different regions of Asia this mushroom is known under different names like heavenly, Ling Zhi (mushroom of spiritual potency) or celestial grass, the plant of luck etc.
The health benefits of reishi are immense. Look at it from above and you’ll see that it is shaped and coloured similar to a heart. Another hint that red reishi is good for the heart, is its nickname ‘king of herbs,’ supporting the ‘king’ organ – the heart. Red reishi has been shown to increase blood circulation and improve the flow of blood to the heart. The many biological compounds in reishi mushrooms may also lower blood pressure (a traditional use of the mushroom) and reduce cholesterol.25
Reishi is used medicinally as an adaptogen, immune modulator and a general tonic. A study reported protective effects on the nervous system and endocrine system.26
Unlike most fungi, containing an average of 90% water, the reishi mushroom has a dry structure (75%) and is rich in useful nutrients such as coumarin, alkaloids, antioxidants and unsaturated fatty acids.
Shown in vitro, reishi has anti-tumor activity against various cancer cells of the gastrointestinal tract. A polysaccharide reishi extract is capable of inducing apoptosis (cell death) in cells of human colon cancer.27
Reishi extract increases the production of cytokines (signalling molecules) which are used by white blood cells to mark hostile tissues and cells. It is also used for preventing the occurrence of metastasis. Used as a supplement during the process of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, reishi reduces the negative effects of these therapies like loss of appetite and fatigue.
Reishi improves liver function and provide liver protective action28 due to its adaptogen content.
The triterpenes content in reishi is tied to a reduction in allergies and histamine reactions associated with asthma29 as it lowers inflammation and inhibit histamine release. This is also possibly why reishi is used to relieve bronchitis, coughs and other inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract. Triterpenes affect the immune system, strengthen the digestive organs, protect the gut lining and improve oxygen utilisation.
In addition to all these incredible benefits, reishi is also considered one of the richest sources of natural antibiotics, and has antimicrobial and anti-fungal effects.30
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) have been used medicinally by the Chinese for more than 6 000 years and is a staple ingredient in Asian cuisine. In Japanese, shii is a reference to the type of tree similar to oak that these mushrooms often grow around and také is the word for mushroom.
During the late 1930s, Japanese professor Kisaku Mori established a mushroom research institute in Tokyo. His human trials showed the benefits of consuming shiitake in patients with stomach ulcers, elevated cholesterol levels, anaemia and other vitamin deficiencies (the shiitake mushroom is an excellent source of iron).
The beta-glucans in shiitake mushrooms are also very likely to contribute to its cholesterol-lowering impact. Lentinan (a free-radical-fighting polysaccharide) is the active ingredient in shiitake and appears to stimulate the immune system and can inhibit growth in tumour cells.31,32 Lentinan may lengthen the lifespan of people with cancer, especially when they are compared with people who receive chemotherapy alone. Both polysaccharide and non-polysaccharide components have anti-tumour effects.33,34
More recent research has shown further benefits of shiitake in the activation of the immune response,35 optimising brain function and as an anti-inflammatory.36
According to mycologist John Donoghue, co-author of Shiitake Growers Handbook: ‘Immune system failure or dysfunction is a common element in cancer, viruses, and immune-deficiency diseases.’ His book raises awareness of the health-promoting compounds found in mushrooms, especially the shiitake mushroom.
Shiitake is an antioxidant with antiviral and antimicrobial activities. The polyphenols protect the liver. As with other mushrooms, shiitake reduces cholesterol and plasma glucose levels.
The chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) looks more like charcoal than a mushroom on the outside, but is a bright orange colour inside. Chaga grows almost exclusively on birch trees in forests of Russia, Korea, Europe, Canada and the northern regions of the USA and in the forests of the Appalachian mountains.
Chaga contains among the highest amounts of cancer-fighting compounds of any medicinal mushroom known, especially in the form of betulinic acid, which is a powerful anti-mutagen naturally present in the white part of birch bark. Chaga mushroom essentially concentrates birch bark, and therefore concentrates betulinic acid in large amounts.
Chaga is unique in the medicinal mushroom family because its beneficial compounds can be absorbed directly by simply eating it. It does not harden into a woody consistency as most other tree mushrooms do when they mature.
Chaga is extremely high in vital phytochemicals, nutrients and free-radical-scavenging antioxidants, especially melanin. Melanin is the same compound and pigment found in human skin, the retina of the eye, the inner ear and the pigment-bearing neurons in the brainstem. Chaga is second only to cacao in antioxidant content. The high antioxidant content may help slow ageing and helps to remove oxidative stress.
A promising study showed chaga as a potential treatment for diabetes in the future.37
The medicinal value of mushroom intake has become a matter of great significance, particularly in preventing and treating serious chronic conditions. I would go as far as to say that a good quality mushroom complex is as essential as a good multivitamin supplement.
Take 2 capsules of Progast® Medicinal Mushrooms daily with food and at least 125 ml room temperature water. Avoid taking with fruit, which may speed up the gut transit time and reduce absorption.
SIDE EFFECTS AND WARNINGS
Mushrooms have been traditionally used as medicine for thousands of years. Today several of the mushroom compounds have proceeded through phase I, II, and III clinical studies, which have proven to be safe in large doses.
Reishi and chaga mushrooms act as mild blood thinners and so may increase the risk of bleeding, especially when paired with certain drug therapies, such as aspirin or warfarin. If you have any surgery planned, you need to stop taking them ahead of time to cut that risk.
Editor's Note: For more on Shiitake mushroom, read my article The Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms.
- Mallard B, Leach DN, Wohlmuth H, Tiralongo J. Synergistic immuno-modulatory activity in human macrophages of a medicinal mushroom formulation consisting of Reishi, Shiitake and Maitake. PLoS One. 2019 Nov 7;14(11):e0224740.
- Elkhateeb W.A. What medicinal mushroom can do? Chem. Res. J. 2020;5:106–118.
- Guggenheim A.G., Wright K.M., Zwickey H. Immune modulation from five major mushrooms: Application to integrative oncology. Med. (Encinitas). 2014;13:32–44.
- Spelman K., Sutherland E., Bagade A. Neurological activity of Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) Restor. Med. 2017;6:16–26.
- Jeitler M., Michalsen A., Frings D., Hübner M., Fischer M., Koppold-Liebscher D.A., Murthy V., Kessler C.S. Significance of medicinal mushrooms in integrative oncology: A narrative review. Pharmacol. 2020;11:580656.
- Venturella G, Ferraro V, Cirlincione F, Gargano ML. Medicinal Mushrooms: Bioactive Compounds, Use, and Clinical Trials. Int J Mol Sci. 2021;22(2):634.
- Veljović S, Veljović M, Nikićević N, et al. Chemical composition, antiproliferative and antioxidant activity of differently processed Ganoderma lucidum ethanol extracts. J Food Sci Technol. 2017;54:1312–1320.
- Koh JH et al. Activation of macrophages and the intestinal immune system by an orally administered decoction from cultured medium of Corydyceps sinensis. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2002; 66: 407–411.
- Ko KM, Leung HY. Enhancement of ATP generation capacity, antioxidant activity and immunomodulatory activities by Chinese Yang and Yin tonifying herbs. Chin Med. 2007; 2: 1–3.
- Wang JF et al. Research progress on polysaccharides from Cordyceps sinensis. Chin Trad Herbal Drugs. 2006; 37: 6–8.
- Koh JH et al. Antifatigue and antistress effect of the hot-water fraction from mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 2003; 26: 691–694.
- Kuo YC et al. Cordyceps sinensis as an immunomodulatory agent. Am J Chin Med. 1996; 24: 111–125.
- Shi YX. Update on researches of pharmacological effects of Cordyceps. Chin Pharm. 2005; 14: 72–74.
- PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®): Patient Version. 2021 Jul 28.
- Xian HM, Che H, Qin Y, Yang F, Meng SY, Li XG, Bai YL, Wang LH. Coriolus versicolor aqueous extract ameliorates insulin resistance with PI3K/Akt and p38 MAPK signaling pathways involved in diabetic skeletal muscle. Phytother Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):551-560.
- Wong KH, Naidu M, David P, et al. Peripheral Nerve Regeneration Following Crush Injury to Rat Peroneal Nerve by Aqueous Extract of Medicinal Mushroom Hericium erinaceus (Bull.: Fr) Pers. (Aphyllophoromycetideae) [published correction appears in Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 Dec 16;2018:9820769]. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:580752.
- Zhang J, An S, Hu W, et al. The Neuroprotective Properties of Hericium erinaceus in Glutamate-Damaged Differentiated PC12 Cells and an Alzheimer's Disease Mouse Model. Int J Mol Sci. 2016;17(11):1810.
- Mori K, Inatomi S, Ouchi K, Azumi Y, Tuchida T. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2009 Mar;23(3):367-72.
- Yao W, Zhang JC, Dong C, Zhuang C, Hirota S, Inanaga K, Hashimoto K. Effects of amycenone on serum levels of tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-10, and depression-like behavior in mice after lipopolysaccharide administration. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2015 Sep;136:7-12.
- Horio H, Ohtsuru M. Maitake (Grifola frondosa) improve glucose tolerance of experimental diabetic rats. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2001 Feb;47(1):57-63.
- Kubo K, Aoki H, Nanba H. Anti-diabetic activity present in the fruit body of Grifola frondosa (Maitake). I. Biol Pharm Bull. 1994 Aug;17(8):1106-10.
- Kodama N, Komuta K, Nanba H. Can maitake MD-fraction aid cancer patients? Altern Med Rev. 2002 Jun;7(3):236-9.
- Alonso EN, Orozco M, Eloy Nieto A, Balogh GA. Genes related to suppression of malignant phenotype induced by Maitake D-Fraction in breast cancer cells. J Med Food. 2013;16(7):602-617.
- Sato M, Tokuji Y, Yoneyama S, Fujii-Akiyama K, Kinoshita M, Chiji H, Ohnishi M. Effect of dietary Maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushrooms on plasma cholesterol and hepatic gene expression in cholesterol-fed mice. J Oleo Sci. 2013;62(12):1049-58.
- Berger A, Rein D, Kratky E, et al. Cholesterol-lowering properties of Ganoderma lucidum in vitro, ex vivo, and in hamsters and minipigs. Lipids Health Dis. 2004;3:2.
- Lu YZ, Wu XX, Chen S, Yuan J, Lai CH, Bao LL, Sun LH, Lu W. Effectiveness of Ganoderma lucidum preparation in treating simian acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Zhongguo Yi Xue Ke Xue Yuan Xue Bao. 2011 Jun;33(3):318-24.
- Liang Z et al. Chemical characterization and antitumor activities of polysaccharide extracted from Ganoderma lucidum. Int J Mol Sci. 2014 May 22;15(5):9103-16.
- Wu X, Zeng J, Hu J, Liao Q, Zhou R, Zhang P, Chen Z. Hepatoprotective effects of aqueous extract from Lingzhi or Reishi medicinal mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (higher basidiomycetes) on α-amanitin-induced liver injury in mice. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013;15(4):383-91.
- Bhardwaj N, Katyal P, Sharma AK. Suppression of inflammatory and allergic responses by pharmacologically potent fungus Ganoderma lucidum. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2014;8(2):104-17.
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- Ng ML, and Yap AT. Inhibition of human colon carcinoma development by lentinan from shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes), J Altern Complement Med. 2002; 8(5): 581-9.
- Kim H, Kacew S, et al. In vitro chemopreventive effects of plant polysaccharides. Aloe barbadensis miller, Lentinus edodes, Ganoderma lucidum and Coriolus versicolor. 1999; 20(8): 1637-40.
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- Yu, S., Weaver, V., Martin, K. and Cantorna, M.T. The Effects of Whole Mushrooms during Inflammation. BMC Immunology, 10, 12. 2009
- Cha, J.Y.; Jun, B.S.; Kim, J.W.; Park, S.H.; et al. Hypoglycemic Effects of Fermented Chaga Mushroom in the Diabetic Otsuka Long-Evans Tokushima Fatty (OLETF) Rat Food Science and Biotechnology. 2006.