What you will learn in this article:
- A brief history of mushrooms as medicine
- Medicinal Properties of mushrooms
- How to use medicinal mushrooms culinarily
- Mushroom Elixirs
- Mushrooms in tinctures
- General Precautions
A brief history of mushrooms as medicine
Mushrooms have been used medicinally for centuries. In fact, the oldest known record of mushroom use comes from around 5,000 BC in Algeria. Paintings depicting mushroom use were found in a cave there. The oldest written record of medicinal mushrooms is a medical treatise from India from 3,000 BC.
Medicinal mushrooms are probably best-known within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or other traditional Asian healing systems (Japanese, Korean). They are considered to be highly valuable tonics for life, energy, and longevity. These centuries-long traditional uses have now been validated by modern research, which has been compiled from around the world (more on that below).
In Europe, Finland especially stands out for mushroom cultivation and research. Some of the top chaga mushroom researchers in the world, including Dr. Kirsti Kahlos of the University of Helsinki, live in Finland. During World War II, the abundantly growing chaga mushroom was used as a coffee substitute.
In Russia, researchers have been studying how chaga, and other native mushrooms might be able to treat cancer. They discovered a particular type of compound in chaga, bioactive terpenes containing an OH group at C-22 plus a side chain unsaturated bond, to be able to treat cancer.
As a young girl when walking in the forest with my parents, they would always point out chaga and say “Oh look, the anti-cancer mushroom.”
One of the key discoveries about medicinal mushrooms is that they contain certain polysaccharides.
The two major categories of polysaccharides are homopolysaccharides (made up of starch and glycogen and have little medicinal benefit) and heteropolysaccharides, which have an impact on the immune system. They are also known as Immunomodulating Polysaccharides or IP or PS. Beta-glucans are in this category. You’ll find they are also included on the Hormones Balance site as beneficial fiber, and as such, they help to create a healthy microbiome.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma Lucidum) is known as Ling Zhi in TCM and has been called the “queen of mushrooms.”
Reishi has traditionally been prescribed for insomnia by East Asian herbalists. Even today, the State Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China year 2000 edition says that reishi helps ease the mind and recommends it for insomnia.
The book P’en-Ts’ao Kang-Mu, a Ming Dynasty herbal medicine guide by Li Shin-Chen, recommends Reishi for menopause symptoms, now known to be associated with low estrogen levels.
Some other health benefits of Reishi include:
- Balancing hormones and the immune system (monkey study)
- Regulating low estrogen levels associated with menopause (study)
- Promoting sleep (animal study)
- Weight loss via its beneficial effects on the gut microbiome (study)
- Anti-metastatic in Triple Negative Breast Cancer (study)
- Reducing anxiety and depression (in a study of breast cancer patients)
- Strengthening the immune system (study)
- Protecting the liver (study)
- Reducing inflammation (study)
- Fighting allergies and histamine, which can flare up around menopause (study)
- Anti-aging effects (study)
Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) grows primarily on birch trees (but also ash and maple) in northern climates, such as Russia, Japan, northern Europe, and some northern states of the USA. Chaga is sometimes called the “king of mushrooms.”
Some health benefits of Chaga include:
- Strong Antioxidant (study)
- Anti-cancer in animal and cell studies — not yet enough evidence in human studies (lung cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer)
- Anti-inflammatory effects (particularly Ulcerative Colitis in an animal study)
- Energy and endurance (animal study)
- Boosts cognitive function (animal study)
- Anti-diabetic — decreasing blood sugar levels and decreasing insulin resistance (animal study)
- Antiviral effects (against HIV and hepatitis C)
- Cold sore prevention (fights against herpes simplex virus)
Precautions: Chaga is high in oxalates, so keep this in mind if you suffer from kidney stones, vulvodynia, mast cell disorders, or other oxalate-related symptoms. Chaga is also a blood thinner and can help lower blood sugar levels. For that reason, it may not combine well with blood thinning medications like Warfarin or aspirin or with diabetes medications.
Cordyceps is the name given to a whole collection (genus) of 750 different fungi which are native to South Asia, Europe, and North America. Cordyceps sinensis is the most studied. However, in 2007, the fungus widely known as Cordyceps sinensis was found to be unrelated to the other cordyceps species and so was reassigned to a news genus. It’s now officially known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, but it’s still referred to as “cordyceps.”
Cordyceps sinensis is the only cordyceps-related fungus to be officially listed as an herbal drug in Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Cordyceps fungus that grows on ghost moth caterpillars (Thitarodes spp). For that reason, it’s known as “caterpillar fungus.”
Some health benefits of Cordyceps include:
- Improvements in autoimmune thyroid conditions (study)
- Anti-inflammatory effects (study)
- Protects the liver (study)
- Anti-diabetes (animal study 1 and study 2)
- Improving libido (review)
- Immune system-balancing with implications for autoimmune disease (study)
- Fighting breast cancer (study)
- May slow aging through DNA repair (study)
Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is one mushroom that’s also considered a nootropic, as it has potent impact on cognitive functioning.
Some health benefits of Lion’s Mane include:
- Improved memory (study)
- Enhancing nerve repair (study)
- Alleviating anxiety and depression in menopause (study)
- May increase bone density (review)
- Anti-cancer potential (study)
- Anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, immune-promoting effects (study)
- Combatting depression by lowering inflammation (study)
- Lowering blood sugar improving glucose tolerance (study)
- Anti-aging (review)
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) have a long history of use in traditional Asian medicine. They are traditionally used as a tonic for improving circulation, the immune system, and overall health. They are also a good source of protein.
Most studies and therapies have used concentrated extracts containing lentinan, an immunomodulating polysaccharide. In fact, polysaccharides are where the main healing components of mushrooms reside. The recommended dose is 2-6 grams per day of whole, dried mushroom.
Some health benefits of Shiitake include:
- Weight loss (study)
- Improved gut immunity and lower inflammation (study)
- Anti-cancer activity (study)
Shiitake mushrooms can be eaten on a regular basis with no known contraindications or interactions except if you’re taking immunosuppressive/anti-rejection drugs (then avoid).
Eating raw or undercooked shiitake may result in a rash/ dermatitis/ photosensitivity, but this is very rare.
Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) are also known as “Hen of the Woods.” The originate in China but also grow in Japan and North America.
Some health benefits of Maitake include:
- Balancing blood sugar (animal study 1 and animal study 2)
- Potential in suppressing breast cancer growth (study)
- Effective against Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) (study)
- Lowering cholesterol (study)
How to Use Medicinal Mushrooms Culinarily
There are all kinds of ways to use medicinal mushrooms in the kitchen. Depending on the type, they can be added to soups, stir-fries, salads, eggs, wild rice dishes, meat dishes, or desserts. They can also be taken in as a tea or elixir. Are you a fan of coffee or chocolate? Mushrooms can be incorporated into lattes and brownies and you’ll never even know the difference!
Reishi mushrooms are most often consumed in the form of a powder which may be consumed as a supplement, as tea, or even added to thicken soup. Try this Reishi Mushroom Soup with Carrots and Kale.
If you have whole dried reishi mushrooms, you can make this Winter Tonic Mushroom Soup which uses a 2-day process to make a truly therapeutic mushroom decoction soup.
It can also be hidden in sauces, such as this Reishi-baby bella bolognese served over spiralized butternut squash.
Chaga makes a great coffee substitute. It’s earthy, warming, and satisfying. Try this recipe for a miel-style Chaga Latte with coconut milk.
The flavor of chaga pairs really well with chocolate. Try this Chaga Hot Chocolate which is spiced with cinnamon and vanilla and sweetened with maple syrup.
How about some brownies? You can add a 1-3 teaspoons of chaga powder to your favorite healthy brownie recipe. I recommend my Red Velvet Grain-Free Brownies.
Cordyceps can help if you’re trying to get off the caffeine. It’s great for boosting energy levels without the insomnia – they carried me through the dreadful few days of caffeine withdrawals (I wrote about the getting-off caffeine protocol here).
Because it has a chocolatey flavor, cordyceps is another mushroom that is great with chocolate or as a coffee substitute. Cordyceps Sinensis tends to be used as an extract powder, rather than as the whole mushroom.
Add a little extract into tea or soup or add a powder into some juice, yogurt, or applesauce.
Cordyceps Militaris / cordyceps flower, however, may be used as the whole mushroom in soups, as a side dish, in congee, on salads, etc. Here’s a recipe for Cordyceps Flower Chicken Soup.
For Cordyceps Sinensis, try a superfood smoothie in the form of a Power-up Morning Cordyceps Tonic.
Or here’s a polyphenol- and adaptogen-rich recipe for Chocolate Raspberry Bars with Cordyceps.
Lion’s mane is wonderful simply sauteed in butter or olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper. Try this simple recipe with butter, white wine, and chives.
This mushroom seriously tastes a lot like deep-fried seafood when fried or roasted. No wonder these Mushroom “Crab Cakes” are so delicious! Substitute popped organic millet or flax meal for the bread crumbs.
As a delicious side dish for beef or lamb, try Roasted Lion’s Mane Mushrooms with Sherried Shallots.
Have your cake and help your brain, too. Try my No Bake Brain Boosting Brownie recipe with lion’s mane powder.
Shiitake is well worth incorporating in the diet on a regular basis. According to research from the University of Florida, eating one 4-ounce serving of shiitake mushrooms every day boosts the function of immune-boosting gamma delta T-cells and also reduces inflammatory proteins that increase the risk of disease.
For a stir-fry, enjoy either shiitake or oyster mushrooms in my Mushroom Leek Stir Fry.
Maitake is delicious in soup. Here’s a Maitake Mushroom Soup that also features shiitakes.
For a simple broth, try Roasted Maitake Mushrooms in Sesame-Miso Broth.
Maitake (“hen of the woods”) is great paired with chicken (“hen”). Try Bon Appetit’s recipe for Prosciutto-Stuffed Chicken with Mushroom Sauce.
Chef Richard Landau of Vedge restaurant in Philadelphia has a delicious recipe for Seared Maitake Mushrooms served over a Leek Remoulade, also featured in Bon Appetit.
Cooking for Hormone Balance has a wonderful recipe including maitake and other medicinal mushrooms in the recipe “Seriously Mushroom Stew.”
Or, if you just want a simple way to get the benefits of these wonderful mushrooms…
Try a Mushroom Elixir
What makes Pique Tea mushroom elixirs special? Not only have they put the King and Queen of the medicinal mushrooms into convenient tea crystal packets, they have also blended the mushrooms with complementary herbs to enhance the mushrooms’ beneficial effects.
Top Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors were enlisted to formulate these very special blends based on formulas that are centuries old.
Chaga Energy Elixir (Daytime)
Chaga Energy Elixir is a wonderful beverage to boost your energy levels while supporting detoxification and giving your brain a little extra edge. The ingredients are a synergistic blend of chaga, ginseng, and burdock. The flavor is woody, earthy, and bitter with notes of coffee.
Pique Tea’s Chaga is wild harvested from birch trees that grow in the most pristine parts of the Siberian tundra.
Each Pique tea stick delivers 275 mg of pure chaga and 27 grams of pure chaga polysaccharides.
Reishi Calm Elixir (Night time)
Reishi Calm Elixir is a blend of reishi powder, reishi extract, date extract, goji powder, and luohan fruit/monk fruit extract. The flavor is smooth, sweet, and bitter with underlying notes of dates.
Again, the synergy that occurs among the complementary Chinese herbs is what really enhances the effects of the reishi. This combination helps soothe your body at the end of the day, helping you digest food, de-stress, and prepare for deep sleep.
What else makes Pique tea’s reishi unique? Pique’s reishi is grown on grass rather than on trees or logs, as is conventionally done. This is done using a technology known as JunCao™, which is a series of comprehensive techniques used to cultivate reishi on herbaceous plants to increase its content of active constituents, including new sterol molecules that help boost memory.
This patented organic-compliant process has received more than 20 global honor certifications and results in a superior grade of reishi.
To summarize, benefits of using JunCao™ methods for reishi cultivation include:
- Increased nutritional benefits (maximizes bioavailability and potency)
- Environmentally-friendly method (doesn’t destroy wild forests)
- A more efficient way of growing
- Advantageous for picking mushrooms and collecting the spores
Each Pique tea stick delivers 250mg of pure reishi and 54mg of pure reishi polysaccharides.
What’s great about all Pique teas is that they are triple toxin screened for pesticides, mold, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. They have been analyzed by the Fresenius Institute in Germany, a top lab analysis company that’s been in the business for over 150 years. The results confirm that Pique teas are extremely clean and not only meet but surpass organic standards.
Mushrooms in tinctures
To extract the polysaccharides (the active medicinal constituents), mushrooms need a water extraction process which is then followed up with a dehydration process (just like in Pique Tea’s mushroom elixirs) or blended with alcohol (for preservation).
My favorite brand is Host Defense.
When I went off caffeine (I wrote about the protocol I used), I used these two products:
I used this cordyceps tincture to help improve my energy levels when going through caffeine detox. Even though the recommended dose was 1-2 times a day, I used it 10-12 times a day and had no bad reactions. My energy boost would last for 1 to 1.5 hours.
I used this lion’s mane tincture to help improve my mental focus when going through caffeine detox. Even though the recommended dose was 1-2 times a day, I used it 5-6 times a day and had no bad reactions. It also helped me memorize things better.
I personally prefer tinctures over pills (which are also an option) just because they get absorbed and act much quicker as compared to pills.
Just like drugs… “mushrooms aren’t for everyone.” How you react to mushrooms, herbs, or anything you consume depends on your individual physiology, genetics, and what else you might be taking, in the form of pharmaceuticals or supplements. Interactions can occur.
Some mushrooms may not be the best for those whose immune system is Th1 dominant (e.g. those with Hashimoto’s, IBS, IBD, PCOS, Type 1 Diabetes, lupus, Celiac disease, and more). These include reishi, shiitake, maitake, and lion’s mane. These mushrooms further stimulate the Th1 system, worsening the disease or symptoms.
Chaga helps balance Th1 and Th2 and cordyceps seems to balance the Th1 and Th2, but may slant slightly toward Th1, so be careful.
Bottom line: If it seems like your Th1 immune system is out of control, opt for chaga or possibly cordyceps.
Additionally, certain mushrooms are known for their cholesterol-, blood sugar-, or blood pressure-lowering effects, so if you’re on one of those medications, make sure you exercise caution and check with your doctor if you’re going to start consuming a larger quantity of them. Always do your own research. Mushrooms discussed above may have more effects than are listed. More research continues to be done.