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‘Shrooms are in, man. I’m not talking about the psychedelic mushrooms that can take you on otherworldly trips, but the ones that can bolster your health. Modern cultures across the globe are reviving a medicinal mushroom culture to treat numerous different conditions, and today mushrooms are making their way into our kitchens and supplement cabinets. Personally, I find mushrooms to be downright fascinating for so many reasons. They have an entire biological kingdom (Fungi) to themselves. They’re neither plants nor animals, though, surprisingly, they’re more closely related to the latter. Thousands of different fungi exist in the world. Of these thousands, there are edible, glow-in-the-dark, medicinal, and poisonous fungi. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the 3 to 4 percent of the Fungi kingdom that we can call upon to boost our health and well-being.
A Fungal Foundation
Important for the ecological balance of our planet, mushrooms primarily feed on organic or decaying matter; these are called saprophytic mushrooms. Parasitic mushrooms, such as cordyceps, attach to living plant or animal hosts. And still others form interdependent, symbiotic relationships with other species.
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What we usually consider the mushroom is actually the fruiting body of the fungus, sometimes simply known as the fungal fruit, which emerges aboveground to reproduce. Mushrooms are attached to a living, breathing, underground network, called the mycelium. When compared to a plant, the mushroom is like the flower, and the mycelium like the roots. Mycelium is thought to be nature’s worldwide web, stretching for miles, connecting all manner of living things in a vast communication matrix. Although this part of the fungus plays a vital role in the wild, the fruit is where most medicinal properties are concentrated. For this reason, it’s a good idea to look for mushroom supplements made from the fruiting body of the fungus only, with no added mycelium.
Nearly all mushrooms offer health benefits, even the white button mushrooms in grocery stores. But the following fungi take their healing powers to the next level.
And a quick note for you adventurous types: Don’t, under any circumstances, consume a mushroom that you’ve wild harvested without a confirmed identification. Bring an expert or two with you, and look up the mushroom in at least two different guidebooks, lest you fall prey to a very uncomfortable or even deadly poisoning.
1. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Fun facts: This unique mushroom gets its name from its scruffy appearance: a bundle of long, white, fuzzy fungus resembling a lion’s mane. It’s saprophytic, and grows on dead or decaying broadleaf trees throughout North America, Asia, and Europe. Lion’s mane typically gets harvested in late summer and fall. Many compare the taste of lion’s mane to mild seafood, such as lobster or crab meat.
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Medicinal properties: This popular mushroom is a nootropic, meaning it’s used for boosting a variety of cognitive neurological functions, and it’s long been utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for this purpose. Extensive animal studies have proven its ability to stimulate nerve cells in the brain, leading scientists to believe it may protect against dementia, ease mood disorders, banish brain fog, and improve memory. Additionally, lion’s mane possesses strong antioxidant and immune-boosting properties that may balance gut health and fight cancer.
Grow your own? Since lion’s mane is difficult to find in most grocery stores, it makes a great grow-at-home project. This fungi is easy to grow, and there are many kits available online for beginner mushroom growers. Lion’s mane is quite delicate, and prone to dehydration and bruising, so use extra care when cultivating it.
2. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Fun facts: Chaga doesn’t look like an ordinary mushroom. In fact, you may not recognize it as a mushroom at all! It’s a slow-growing parasitic fungus that grows mainly on birch trees in colder climates. It looks like a lump of burnt charcoal. This woody growth is tough on the outside, but open it up, and you’ll discover a softer orange core. Chaga has an earthy, coffee-like flavor, and blends well with cocoa, vanilla, hazelnut, and other nutty-flavored foods.
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Medicinal properties: Of all the superfoods, chaga mushrooms have the highest antioxidant potency score. Long used in Russia as a vitality tonic, they’ve been shown to halt cancer progression by boosting cancer-fighting killer T-cells, reduce inflammation in the body, reduce cholesterol levels by breaking down low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in the bloodstream, and support cardiovascular health with their rich polysaccharides. Chaga is used to treat autoimmune disorders, and it also modulates the immune system to attenuate the body’s response to common allergens.
Grow your own? Interestingly enough, most of wild chaga’s powerful components come from its relationship with the birch tree host. Because cultivated chaga lacks the same medicinal properties, it’s not recommended for DIY growing.
3. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Fun facts: Sometimes known as the “mushroom of immortality,” reishi is used as a longevity and vitality tonic in many countries across the globe. It’s also classified as an adaptogen, meaning it works on multiple body systems simultaneously for overall resilience. This special mushroom loves to grow near the base of maple and hemlock trees. Reishi is quite bitter, and doesn’t work well in culinary dishes, so its use is strictly medicinal.
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Medicinal properties: Reishi modulates the immune system, and may even help prevent cancer. This powerful fungi has been shown to inhibit tumor growth and reduce inflammation. It’s also been useful in liver detoxification, hormone balancing, and reducing symptoms of allergies and asthma.
Grow your own? Reishi can be grown at home, although it’s best cultivated by more experienced growers. It grows somewhat slowly, prefers warm temperatures, creates lots of spores, and can develop truly magnificent patterns!
4. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Fun facts: Not your average mushroom, parastic cordyceps fungus grows in the brains of various insect species, replacing their body tissues with its own mycelium. Thus, it’s easy to understand why it’s also called “zombie fungus.” Most often, it’s found growing on the bodies of caterpillars in China, which is why its shape commonly resembles a caterpillar. Although this sounds like something out of a horror film, this mushroom has proven to be a powerful medicine. In TCM, the long, slender arms of the cordyceps fungus are harvested from the wild and used to treat a variety of illnesses. It doesn’t lend itself well to cooking, so its extracts are only used medicinally.
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Medicinal uses: While researchers are still learning about this incredible fungus, it’s tremendously beneficial for reducing fatigue and improving cardiovascular performance. These effects are most likely due to its properties that allow the body to use oxygen more efficiently, and to deliver more energy to the muscles. Cordyceps has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. Animal and lab studies have proven its ability to reduce some tumors. It’s sometimes used to treat asthma and allergies, as well as to improve fertility and libido.
Grow your own? Fortunately, you don’t need to infect a bunch of insects to grow your own cordyceps! Many home growers use spores from a cousin strain, Cordyceps militaris, or the synthetic (Cs-4), for easier growing. It’s a tad harder to find a grow kit for this fungus, but it’s not impossible. This mushroom is best suited for more experienced growers.
5. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Fun facts: Even though it’s one of the most common mushrooms in the world, turkey tail contains immense healing power. Its name is derived from its beautiful circular stripes of color that resemble a turkey’s plumage. Especially prized in Japan, they’re also called “cloud mushrooms” for the image of swirling clouds they evoke. Since it has little culinary value, turkey tail should be reserved for strictly medicinal use.
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Medicinal properties: One of the most potent immune boosters in nature, turkey tail fights viral infections, including colds and flus, HPV, and HIV. It’s also been shown to reinvigorate the immune systems of women with breast cancer following chemotherapy. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the number of natural killer cells — which become compromised during chemotherapy — increased after chemotherapy when turkey tail was consumed. You can actually find derivatives of this mushroom in many modern pharmaceuticals. It’s also shown anti-cancer activity, and has been proven to benefit the health of the gut microbiome.
Grow your own? For beginners growing at home, this mushroom makes a great DIY project. There are kits available online, or you can buy inoculation kits for fallen logs or trees you may have in your backyard. It prefers moderate climates.
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These five superstar mushrooms are my top votes for everyone’s medicine cabinets, but they’re only the beginning. A few others to consider include: maitake (Grifola frondosa), also known as “hen of the woods;” shiitake (Lentinula edodes); zhu ling (Polyporus umbellatus); and royal sun agaricus (Agaricus blazei). No matter what condition you’re trying to treat or prevent, mushrooms may be a worthy addition to your life.
Kingdom Fungi contain extremely diverse, fascinating, and powerful medicines about which we still have so much to learn. I highly recommend you bring one or more of these mushrooms into your life, and try to grow them yourself, if you can. Mushrooms have been used for centuries to treat and prevent disease, but they may very well be the future of medicine, too.
Melani Schweder is a certified health coach, reiki master and teacher, and guide for those who want to live life in full color, even through struggle. Her unique coaching process combines her knowledge of whole-food nutrition, reiki, mindfulness, herbal medicine, and positive psychology. Find out more about Melani at A Brighter Wild.