by: Lindsey Bussie, contributing writer
Picture this: You’re snuggled up on the couch, drinking a warm mug of mushroom coffee while watching the Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi. Maybe you have some freshly cultivated lion’s mane in your fridge you picked up from the farmers market. Or that faux leather bag in your closet might actually be made from, that’s right, mushrooms.
The mushroom mentality of today is a far cry from the psychedelic, underground, watch-out-for-parents-and-cops mentality of the 1960’s. Like many other natural health solutions (ahem, cannabis), mushrooms were colored in a bad way, inducing fear in the majority of the population. The shadow of this fear can still be seen in generational perspectives as well as legislative issues as more open-minded doctors push for more legal, alternative treatments. Mainstream has started to pick up on the fact that mushrooms (the fruiting bodies of fungi) and fungi are where it’s at. From coffee blends and alternatives, Netflix documentaries, to the potential for sustainable clothing and building materials, fungi can serve us more than just a good pun every once in a while. Turns out, the health benefits are more than we could have imagined.
Even though mushrooms seem to be a new trend, they are anything but that. Like many natural remedies and treatments, they run further back in human history than any OTC drugs you can find at your local drug store. There are so many mushrooms, how do you know where to start? Let’s focus on the most well-known mushrooms and explore their benefits.
Hericium erinaceus, commonly known as Lion’s Mane mushroom, is a species of fungi that grows on hardwood trees in North America, Europe, and Asia. Its striking appearance, with cascading white tendrils, resembles a lion’s mane, hence its name. You can find lion’s mane in many culinary dishes, and the flavor is said to mimic that of lobster or crab. In addition to eating it in dishes, you can also receive its medicinal benefits from it being powdered or made into tinctures. Lion’s mane can help with:
One of the most celebrated benefits of lion’s mane is its potential to enhance cognitive function and support brain health. This mushroom contains compounds known as hericenones and erinacines, which have been shown to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain. NGF is a protein that plays a vital role in the growth, maintenance, and survival of nerve cells (S).
Studies suggest that lion’s mane may improve memory, concentration, and overall cognitive function (S). It has shown promise in mitigating the cognitive decline associated with aging and could potentially be used in the prevention and management of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (S). These cognitive benefits also extend to supporting mood and mental health (S).
Lion’s mane may have a positive impact on digestive health. It has been studied for its potential to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and improve gut barrier function. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for proper digestion and can have far-reaching effects on overall well-being (S).
Chronic inflammation is a common underlying factor in many chronic diseases. Inflammation can be caused by allergies, food sensitivity, diseases, and more. If you find yourself battling chronic inflammation, lion’s mane may help. It contains compounds with potent anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce inflammation and support overall health (S).
Also known as Lingzhi (scientific name of Ganoderma lucidum), reishi can be traced back to traditional Chinese medicine as early as 200 B.C. It has the nickname “the elixir of immortality.” It is a tough, woody mushroom, best used in teas or extractions. Here are a few of reishi’s medicinal benefits:
Immune System Support
One of the most well-documented benefits of reishi is its ability to enhance the immune system. This mushroom contains bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides and beta-glucans, which stimulate the production of immune cells and improve their activity. By bolstering the immune response, reishi can support the body when it fights off infections and diseases. (S)
Free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage cells and DNA, play a significant role in the aging process and the development of various diseases. Reishi is rich in antioxidants (also known as free radical scavengers), such as ganoderic acids and ergosterol, which combat oxidative stress and neutralize free radicals. This antioxidant activity may protect cells from damage and support overall health(S).
Everyone knows that our liver is responsible for detox but has many other responsibilities. The liver also helps regulate glucose, produces bile to aid in digestion and hormone metabolism, including sex and thyroid hormones, supports immune function, and so much more. Liver support is crucial. Reishi has been shown to support liver health by enhancing detoxification processes and protecting liver cells from damage. (S)
Turkey tail gets its name from its stripping and coloring because it (obviously)resembles a turkey tail. Unlike reishi, turkey tail is incredibly common in North America. If you’re a hiker or live where there are a variety of hardwood trees, chances are you might have already seen turkey tail. Turkey tail can be cooked in soups, salads, and other dishes. Older turkey tail may be chewy and more difficult to eat, so if you use it for culinary purposes, keep that in mind. You can also get benefits of turkey tail from powdered form and extracts.
In addition to its immune-enhancing properties, turkey tail has demonstrated antiviral activity. Some studies have indicated that it may help the body fight viral infections like influenza, COVID-19, and human papillomavirus (HPV). While more research is needed, these findings highlight the potential for this mushroom in antiviral therapies (S). One thing to note about turkey tail in these studies is that many used the mycelium vs. the fruiting body. As mentioned earlier, the fruiting body is the mushroom part of the fungi. The mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungi. It’s an underground network of tiny hair-like structures that often run miles underground.
If you’ve recently seen the HBO hit The Last of Us, or played the video games, you might have a newfound fear of cordyceps. This pop culture zombie narrative gave this fungus its infamy. In nature, a subset of cordyceps called ophiocordyceps has the capability of hijacking certain insects’ minds in order to spread the reproduction of the ophiocordyceps. While this sounds a little scary, it’s limited to insects and doesn’t have this effect on humans. On the contrary, cordyceps have several benefits for humans. Like several other mushrooms, cordyceps can be added to dishes for culinary purposes. If you want to consume it for its medical value, you can do teas, tinctures, or a powder.
Enhanced Physical Performance
Cordyceps has been celebrated for its potential to improve physical performance and endurance. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts have turned to cordyceps supplements to boost their stamina, increase oxygen utilization, and reduce fatigue during exercise. Some studies suggest that cordyceps can enhance aerobic capacity by increasing the body’s production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule essential for energy transfer in cells (S). Some studies have used the fruiting body, while others used the mycelia. Along this same idea, cordyceps has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for respiratory conditions and can support respiratory health (S).
In traditional medicine, Cordyceps is often used to support kidney health. It is believed to improve kidney function and may benefit individuals with kidney disorders. Some studies suggest that Cordyceps may help regulate blood pressure and reduce the risk of kidney damage (S).
Sexual Health and Libido
Cordyceps has gained popularity as a natural aphrodisiac and sexual health enhancer. It is believed to improve libido, fertility, and sexual performance in both men and women. Some research suggests that Cordyceps may increase the production of sex hormones and improve blood flow to the genitals (S) (S).
The last in our mushroom lineup is Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). It can be found in deciduous forests around the world, and if you live near woods and like to hike, there’s a strong possibility you’ve seen this strange growth on a tree or two. Chaga is extremely tough and can only be consumed in teas, tinctures, and powders.
Chaga’s high antioxidant content helps neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage to cells. This benefit can contribute to overall health and longevity. Its antioxidant load can also support the body in reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system (S).
While all 5 of these fungi have different medicinal benefits, they shared several amazing benefits too that we can put all together. Instead of repeating it five times over, each of these fungi:
- support the immune system
- high in antioxidants
- used to support the body with cancer or tumors
Also, a quick note about the modern-day scientific data – while many studies are linked and shared here, the data is often on animal studies, and the human studies are generally small. This data should be teamed with historical information, as well as individual experience. Modern-day science is just starting to catch up with the historical documentation of the medicinal benefits of fungi.
How to start adding fungi to your daily life
Are you ready to start experiencing health benefits from fungi? Here’s a few ways to add them to your daily life. Lions mane, turkey tail, and cordyceps can be added to soups, strews, quesadillas, and even eggs! Not everyone is a fungi eater, and not every fungi (like reishi and chaga) are meant to be eaten. So, if you want to cut to the chase, you can do powders and tinctures. Earthley happens to have both (!), and you find them here and here.