Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries. In fact, the first written document on the Reishi mushroom, perhaps the most highly prized medicinal mushroom in Eastern medicine, came in the era of the first emperor of China, Shih-huang of the Ch’in Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). Since then, the number of mushrooms to be used, studied, and found to possess medicinal qualities has expanded to include many others.
In the western world, however, medicinal mushrooms and their myriad health benefits have only just begun to receive the respect they deserve. As a result, there’s a dearth of study and common knowledge about what exactly makes a mushroom medicinal. Lucky for you, we’re here to help.
Many of the main medicinal qualities in medicinal mushrooms come from the polysaccharides — complex, long-chain sugars — they possess in their cell walls. The most potent of these polysaccharides are Beta-D-Glucans, which can be found in nearly all fungal cell walls. Beta-D-glucans’ main superpower is its ability to enhance the body’s defense against many forms of disease such as autoimmune disorders, viruses, and various types of cancer.
In a nutshell, Beta-D-glucans provide these miraculous benefits by activating the various cells — T-cells, NK-cells, B-cells, and Phagocytes — that comprise the immune system.
Take Your Terpenoids
While beta-D-glucans are universal to nearly all fungi, terpenoids vary widely in form and concentration across species of mushrooms, making them a bit more elusive. Generally speaking, terpenoids — naturally occurring organic chemicals derived from the 5-carbon compound isoprene — are anti-inflammatory and help calm an overactive immune system without suppressing its responses. Working in conjunction with Beta-D-glucans, terpenoids help the body and its immune response find homeostasis during times of stress and fatigue.
Of the many terpenoids, triterpenoids are the most active and well researched of the bunch. For example, Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum) produce at least 100 different triterpenoids between their mycelium and mushroom fruiting body.
The most common medicinal mushrooms, their scientific name, and some of their most powerful medicinal qualities:
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus); gut health and promotes creation of new neural pathways
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris, Cordyceps sinensis); anti-carcinogenic and anti-fatigue by increasing oxygenation of blood
- Reishi (Ganodema lucidum, Ganoderma sessile, Ganoderma multipileum, Ganoderma oregonensis, Ganoderma tsugae, among others); Anti-HIV, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes); Anti-tumor, anti-hepatitis, anti-HIV
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa); Anti-tumor, anti-HIV, anti-prostate cancer, helps increases insulin production
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor); anti-carcinogenic
As is often the case in mycology (the study of fungi) a lot remains to be studied in a classic western scientific sense, — i.e. human clinical double-blind placebo studies — meaning the number of beneficial beta-d-glucans, terpenoids, and other compounds within medicinal mushrooms are potentially endless.
And though to some it may all sound a bit dubious, centuries of use in Eastern medicine, a rash of new and developing studies, and a boom in interest, funding, and academic study all point to a profoundly different perspective and bright future in the relationship between humans and fungi.
- Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Paul Stamets
- Radical Mycology, Peter McCoy