Medicinal mushrooms have historically played important roles in many ancient cultures. They aren’t new, modern, or trendy despite current fads and a resurfacing of their use. Many native and indigenous people relied heavily on nature as medicine, and medicinal mushrooms were a part of their wellness.
Modern medical practices are largely Westernized and rely strongly on pharmaceuticals and synthetically manufactured medications in place of the natural medicine offered by plants, food, and fungus. A return to the idea of medicinal mushrooms might be indicative of a lack in modern medicine. Either way, it’s something to be celebrated.
But before we celebrate what often comes with some social stigmas, it’s important to understand how medicinal mushrooms work. So often natural remedies come with a bigger warning label than their synthetic counterparts, and while any medicine—natural or synthetic—should be used with caution, understanding medicinal mushrooms goes a long way to helping people see the minimal risk and maximum benefits to be had.
Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
Before we dive into the benefits of medicinal mushrooms, it’s important to note that this practice is vastly different from recreational use. The use of medicinal mushrooms does not result in any kind of high or psychedelic experience. Because of the low dosing and natural occurrence, medicinal mushrooms are generally safe for anyone, including pregnant or nursing women. (Although, as always, do your own research and consult with your own medical practitioner before beginning use, as this is not intended as medical advice.)
That said, there is a host of benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Perhaps one of the most pressing is immune response. The body’s immune response is its ability to respond to concerns of the immune system—think viruses, bacteria, infections, allergies, etc. Mushrooms work at a cellular level to stimulate activity and proactive responses to strengthen and support the body’s natural defense. In this way, medicinal mushrooms can benefit anyone.
There is also research that suggests medicinal mushrooms can support nerves and neurological issues. By encouraging nerve cells to grow and repair more quickly, certain mushrooms may decrease nerve damage and quicken nerve regeneration. This is very different from a pharmaceutical approach to pain management. Naturally, decrease nerve damage and regenerating new nerve growth at the cellular level would result in decreased pain, but it also addresses the problem instead of just putting a band-aid over the pain.
As might be expected, if medicinal mushrooms work at a cellular level to repair cells and nerve endings, among other things, a third top benefit is mental clarity. We can all use that, right? Nerve and neuron growth are directly tied to cognitive function and are related to focus, memory, and concentration.
There are too many other benefits of medicinal mushrooms to cover here—antioxidant support, breathing, digestion and gut health, detox, mood disorders, and more. But you can find information on medicinal mushroom benefits pretty easily to decide if they are right for you.
Types of Medicinal Mushrooms
Much like the benefits of medicinal mushrooms, the types available are just as vast. But some of the most popular and reaching in their effects are Reishi, Lions Mane, and Cordyceps.
- Reishi mushrooms check all the boxes. They help with nearly everything from general wellness and increased energy to more specific health concerns such as heart support or glycemic balance.
- Lions Mane also serves many functions, but is perhaps best known for its capacity to help with memory and cognition, mood, stress, sleep support, and nerve support. It is excellent at reducing inflammation, too.
- Cordyceps come close to checking as many boxes as reishi does. But it is mostly touted for anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, which may help boost stamina and exercise performance, promote anti-aging, and manage/prevent various ailments such as tumors, cancer, and diabetes.
Other medicinal mushroom types you might hear about are Agarikon, Chaga, Maitake, and Turkey Tail. But again, this list is not comprehensive. The world of mushrooms is largely still undiscovered and the varieties that we know are just some of what exists.
Sourcing Medicinal Mushrooms
Like any good supplement, where you get medicinal mushrooms matters. This is more than just shape and color control. Where your mushrooms grow, the sanitation of their conditions and potential for cross-contamination, their age, and other factors all contribute to their overall effectiveness. If not properly cared for and harvested, at best they may be ineffective and lack the internal structure that provides all of those wonderful health benefits.
At worst, poorly maintained medicinal mushrooms could become contaminated and pose their own health risks. You wouldn’t get antibiotics from anyone but your doctor, and you wouldn’t take a pill from some random person at the grocery store. Be just as picky about the source of your medicinal mushrooms.
One of the top brands for medicinal mushroom quality, diversity, and form is Host Defense Mushrooms. Founded by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, Host Defense sells specialized mushroom supplements and is one of the best-documented and longest-standing mushroom supplement companies in the USA. Their grow conditions are heavily monitored and regulated for the highest possible quality.
They offer a wide range of forms of medicinal mushrooms, too, so you can pick your preference or level based on your needs and experience with mushroom supplements, ranging from capsules to powders, to liquid extracts and more.
If you’re looking for a lower slower start that still has a few types of medicinal mushrooms in the ingredient list, MUD\WTR is another solid option. Marketed as a coffee alternative, this chai-like powder blend mixes easily in milk, water, or with any other liquid of your choice for easy-to-palette drinking.
You can even grow your own medicinal mushrooms with the help of grow kits like North Spore. They offer most medicinal mushrooms that you might want. The quality of the spores and grow medium are solid choices, but ultimately the growing climate will depend on you. They are easy to set up though.
Essentially, North Spore grow boxes arrive in a self-contained cardboard box that acts as a grow room for the spores inside on an inoculated grow block. You can simply tent the box in a small dome or plastic wrap to protect the moisture and provide a stable humidity index. Daily misting and the right light results in your own home grown mushrooms in a few days to weeks.
How to Eat Medicinal Mushrooms
It’s one thing to recognize the immense benefits of medicinal mushrooms. It’s another to find the mushrooms you want and actually incorporate them into your diet. Surprisingly, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. There are many options for incorporating medicinal mushrooms into your everyday routines.
The most obvious and straight forward method is to put medicinal mushrooms right into your food. Sautéing, adding to soups, salads, and stir fries are all easy options. But the challenge with this approach is 1) not everyone likes the taste and texture of mushrooms, and 2) it can be difficult to find the variety of mushrooms you want to support your specific needs, even in whole foods grocery stores, and growing your own can take time, so you may not have a constant supply.
The varieties most often found in grocery stores are basic white caps, portabellas, and shiitake. Occasionally a few other varieties can be found, but often their sourcing is not clearly stated on the packaging, so the quality is always a little unknown.
Capsules & Tinctures
That’s where alternative methods of consuming medicinal mushrooms come in. Host Defense offers medicinal mushrooms in the form of capsules, powders, and tinctures that can be more easily consumed without the extra prep and flavor.
Capsules can be taken like any capsule medication or supplement, with a drink of water.
Tinctures might still possess strong flavors that are difficult to mask, even in your favorite beverage. But the often have the added benefit of being extremely bioavailable (easy for your body to use) and concentrated potency. You can probably get more bang for your buck here.
Powders can be easily mixed into meals, although you may not be able to guarantee a full dose if you’ve prepared a large dish with multiple servings. Instead, this option is probably best used by mixing the powder into a beverage. If the powder is mostly flavorless (and some are), you can choose your beverage and just whisk the powder in until incorporated.
Other powdered forms have a stronger flavor profile, like MUD/WTR and other similar brands, and advertise as being a coffee replacement. MUD/WTR specifically has a chai-like flavor that is quite tasty in just water or a diluted milk base (yes, you can use your choice of milk/milk alternative here). It is quite palatable.
Mushroom coffee can either be your new coffee or can easily be added to your coffee or tea as more of a spice so that you get the benefits of the mushrooms while doing something you would do on any given day anyway.
It’s really that easy.
That’s Just the Cap
The health benefits of medicinal mushrooms are seemingly endless, and the risks are very low. The unfortunate downside is that there aren’t many peer-reviewed studies about their use in specific illnesses or under certain circumstances. There is also a lot that we don’t know about the fungal world, like species, functions, and of course, health benefits. Like the iceberg metaphor, what we know about mushrooms is really just the cap—there is so much beneath the surface that we still need to understand. But where formal research is lacking, personal testimony isn’t.
The internet is really amazing with its ability to bring together people with similar interests and experiences. It doesn’t take much to find social media groups, hashtags, and accounts dedicated to sharing their personal experiences with medicinal mushrooms in a range of situations across the globe. It may not be officially peer-reviewed, but the human experience counts for something.
And let’s not forget the vast and varied ways that so many cultures have historically used medicinal mushrooms. In times and regions where modern medicine has no reach, people turn to nature. That tribal and ancestral knowledge is strong and not unfounded. It’s worth tapping into.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t conduct your own research. Centuries of anecdotal evidence are not foolproof, and are often accompanied by factors and considerations that are different from modern circumstances. Certainly, talk with your medical provider, but also talk to people who have real lived experience with nature’s medicine. The scope of benefits of medicinal mushrooms might just surprise you.
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