Medicinal Mushrooms List: The top 7 you need to know about
In the last few decades western society has been plagued by chronic illnesses. The symptoms range from the inconvenient to the incapacitating. What has changed to contribute to this?
More and more research points the finger at the typical western diet, which feeds inflammation and stresses our cardiovascular and other systems.
One of nature's greatest gifts to counteract these problems may be growing right outside your home. For hundreds of years people have turned to mushrooms to aid their health, and in recent years science has validated what those people have known all along.
In this medicinal mushrooms list, we'll discuss the top seven mushrooms that can benefit your body, and offer simple recipes that make it easy to incorporate them into your diet.
The Chaga mushroom has been rapidly gaining popularity in the west for its broad range of health benefits.
It has been used for hundreds of years in Siberia and Asia. They cut or grind dried Chaga and steep it in hot water, releasing its bioactive compounds into a mild tea.
It can also be mixed into other kinds of beverages, as well as soups and stews.
Chaga grows on hardwood trees, primarily birch, in the cold boreal forests of northern Europe, Russia, Asia, Canada, and the northeastern United States.
It usually grows as a conical or oblong black protrusion from the bark and is harvested in the late fall or winter.
Proper harvesting is essential for maintaining sustainable sources of wild Chaga. To learn more about harvesting chaga responsibly, please read our Harvest Guide
Health Benefits of Chaga
Chaga promotes good health in many ways, and a lot of that stems from how it boosts and regulates the immune system.
Chaga contains compounds that increase the body's production of antibodies that fight pathogens and directly interferes with bacteria's ability to communicate and organize.
Chaga also stimulates the natural processes that monitor and destroy abnormal cells. Among the bacteria Chaga helps fight are the strains responsible for the majority of ulcers.
Chaga is an antioxidant all-star. Check out our ingredients page for the specific antioxidants Chaga contains. These molecules protect cells all over the body from free radicals that cause anything from age spots to cancer. Antioxidants intercept free radicals, giving them a target besides a cell's DNA.
Chaga's antioxidants also lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn reduces blood pressure and helps stave off cardiovascular disease.
Just as importantly, Chaga helps regulate the immune system's behavior. An overactive immune system response, causing inflammation, is behind so many chronic issues: rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's Disease, allergies, psoriasis, and dozens more. Several ingredients of Chaga act as anti-inflammatory agents, including betulinic acid, ergosterol peroxide, and inotodial.
For more information on these topics, visit our health benefits page.
Recipe: Chaga Chai Latte
Note that Chaga chunks can be used, but they need to steep for significantly longer to make the base tea.
1. First, make the tea. Bring the water to a low boil in the pan, and add in the Chaga. Back off the heat and let simmer while it steeps for at least 5 minutes.
2. Add in the spices and stir, still at a simmer.
3. Pour in the milk and bring the heat back up to a low boil.
4. Strain the mixture into your mug and add syrup or honey to taste. Enjoy!
Cordyceps is the genus name for over 300 distinct species, but here we'll be talking about the species Ophiocordyceps sinensis, which is the most common mushroom people mean when referring to Cordyceps and is the species most studied for its health benefits.
O. sinensis is relatively rare in the wild, being found in the shrublands above 10,000 feet (about 3050 meters) on the Tibetan Plateau. Legend says that it was discovered some 1,500 years ago by herders when their yaks grazed on the mushrooms and became inexplicably energized and playful.
Also known as the "zombie mushroom," O. sinensis spores infect caterpillars, growing inside of them. Eventually, the host is killed, and colorful stem-like structures sprout from the caterpillars' heads.
Other members of the Cordyceps family do the same thing to other insect species. While this sounds off-putting to many people, the good news is that Cordyceps are commercially available that are cultivated without any insect involvement.
Cordyceps have a mild flavor and as a result can be included in a variety of dishes. Traditionally they are featured in chicken and pork soups.
Health Benefits of Cordyceps
Cordyceps are like a deejay pumping up the energy of a party. One of their most famous attributes, known in Asia for at least six hundred years, is the stimulation of libido. Studies have shown Cordyceps slightly increase testosterone and estrogen.
Cordyceps is recognized by athletes for boosting metabolism and stamina, and speeding recovery by increasing ATP, the carrier of chemical energy in cells, and improves how the body uses oxygen.
Additionally, Cordyceps have been shown to improve lung function, lessening symptoms of respiratory ailments.
O. sinensis promotes an overall strong immune system. Like Chaga, they are an excellent source of antioxidants.
Cordyceps also stimulates apoptosis, which is a process that gets rid of old and defective cells including cancerous cells in tumors that are usually not subject to programmed cell death. In this way, Cordyceps has demonstrated an ability to shrink tumors and slow the advance of cancer.
A very promising branch of Cordyceps research may lead to advances in preventing and treating diabetes. Cordyceps extract has been shown to decrease insulin resistance and lower fasting blood glucose levels.
Recipe: Cordyceps Fig Soup
1. Put all the dry ingredients in a pot, then pour in the stock.
2. Bring the mixture to a boil, letting it cook on high heat for 10 minutes.
3. Reduce to medium heat and cook for 40 minutes.
4. Add salt and/or other seasonings to taste. Enjoy!
As visually striking as it is rare in the wild, Lion's Mane grows on broad-leaf trees in temperate areas of North America, Europe, and Asia.
The name comes from its waterfall-like flowing tendrils, which has led to other nicknames like Bearded Tooth and the Pom Pom Mushroom.
Traditionally it was reserved for use by the nobility, but with today's cultivation techniques its benefits are available to all.
Health Benefits of Lion's Mane
Like other medicinal mushrooms, Lion's Mane are excellent for the immune system, containing polysaccharides and antioxidants.
What truly makes Lion's Mane truly sought after, however, is the exciting research into its positive effects on the brain and overall nervous system.
Lion's Mane has been shown to improve both cognition and concentration, and to reduce depression and anxiety.
Lion's Mane also has compounds which stimulate the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF could be a valuable tool to treat people with nerve damage, but NGF itself can't pass through the blood-brain barrier, meaning that injecting it into patients doesn't help. Lion's Mane works differently, indirectly causing an increase in NGF. It is the only mushroom that has shown this trait.
Additionally, Lion's Mane protects the network of "wires" that nerves use to send signals by promoting the growth of the insulation around them (called myelin).
Some devastating neurological diseases, including Alzheimer's and Multiple Sclerosis, involve damaged nerve function because of myelin degradation. Lion's Mane, then, may in the future be part of treating or even curing these conditions.
Lion's Mane is extremely versatile in the kitchen. However, the compounds responsible for these nervous system benefits need to be extracted in a specific way, using alcohol as a solvent.
Like other mushrooms, other health benefits can be released with heat and water, but to get the most out of Lion's Mane, you'll want to supplement your intake with one of the commercially available "dual-extract" Lion's Mane products.
Recipe: Pan-Fried Lion's Mane
For this recipe, you'll want a clump of Lion's Mane about the size of a medium head of cauliflower.
If you have a smoker, the Randwiches site recommends smoking the Lion's Mane with maplewood for half an hour to give the steaks even more flavor, but this is totally optional.
1. Clean the Lion's Mane and slice it into 1/2-inch (about 1.5 centimeters) steaks.
2. Put the steaks in a pan and cook on medium heat for 5-7 minutes on each side.
3. When they start to brown and lose water, add the butter and lower the heat a little.
4. Cook each side until they're golden brown.
5. Add salt and/or other seasonings to taste. Enjoy!
Also known by its Chinese name, Lingzhi, the Reishi mushroom has one of the longest track records regarding traditional usage as well as promising scientific research. Because of this, it is often people's introduction to the world of medicinal mushrooms.
The Reishi has been used for more than two thousand years in Asia, where its effects were so pronounced it was thought by some to grant immortality.
Reishi mushrooms are found in many areas, growing on hardwood trees in warm parts of Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. They often have vibrant red caps, but this can vary by locale.
Health Benefits of Reishi
The Reishi's effects are mostly focused on two areas of the body: the immune system and way our glands influence how we feel.
Reishi mushrooms, like others we've discussed, contain several polysaccharides. These cause stimulation of parts of the immune system, which leads to numerous health benefits. It helps the body fight viruses and bacteria by stimulating the production of T-cells. It also alters the makeup of bacteria in the gut, which may aid in weight loss. However, its most impressive role is as a cancer-fighter.
Studies have shown that the Reishi's polysaccharides cause a significant increase in "natural killer" cells, which destroy cancer cells, shrink tumors, and slow the spread of existing cancers. The Reishi also imparts antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that can in time lead to cancer.
Importantly, the Reishi also helps keep the immune system in check. Basically, when you need it more active, Reishi promotes that activity. But when inflammatory markers are already too high in the system, the body is encouraged to suppress their production.
These effects have made Reishi a favorite since ancient times for treating inflammatory conditions from asthma to allergies.
The Reishi also contains compounds called triterpenes. These are released by alcohol extraction and act through our hormones to reduce stress, decrease depression symptoms, improve the sense of well-being, and increase both the quantity and quality of sleep.
Recipe: Reishi Chocolate Truffles
1. If necessary, melt your coconut oil.
2. Pour the coconut oil into a mixing bowl and stir in the other ingredients.
3. Put the mixture into the refrigerator until it's solid enough to roll in your hands. It shouldn't take more than a half hour.
4. Scoop a teaspoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball with your fingers, repeat until it's all used.
5. Sprinkle turmeric onto a clean, flat surface, then roll the truffles to get them coated.
6. Chill them in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving. Enjoy! Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where they'll last about five days.
Though this mushroom is also known as Hen of the Woods and Sheep's Head, these lack the real charm of Maitake, which is Japanese for "dancing mushroom."
It allegedly got this name in ancient times when a group of hungry nuns happened upon some Maitakes and they celebrated with a joyous dance.
The Maitake has been part of traditional medicine for centuries in Japan and China. It grows in northeastern Japan and parts of the United States, usually in clusters around oak trees.
Maitakes have a delicate taste and texture, making them easy to add to dishes or enjoy by themselves.
Health Benefits of Maitake
The Maitake has some of the anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties of other medicinal mushrooms.
Like Cordyceps, the Maitake has been shown to have anti-diabetic properties, decreasing insulin resistance and resting glucose serum levels.
What distinguishes the Maitake, though, is the numerous ways it has been found to fight cancer.
Like other mushrooms on our list, Maitakes contain antioxidants, but that's only the beginning. They also contain a compound called D-Fraction.
Researchers who gave cancer patients D-Fraction supplements found that it suppressed both tumor growth and spread. Another study found that D-Fraction combined with traditional Interferon improved the treatment's effectiveness by at least 25%. Another compound, Z-Fraction, showed similar promising results.
The effect of Maitakes on tumors stems from their stimulation of the body's production of "natural killer" cells, T-cells, and particular white blood cells called macrophages that envelop and destroy cancer cells.
Recipe: Maitake "Bacon"
1. Set oven to preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 Celsius).
2. In a bowl, mix together the olive and sesame oils, adding in the salt and liquid smoke.
3. Cut the base of the Maitakes away from the petals, and put the petals in the other bowl. The bases can be saved for other recipes or making soup stock.
4. Pour the mixed liquid over the Maitake petals and toss to coat them.
5. Spread the coated petals in a single layer on the baking sheet.
6. Bake for 20 minutes before carefully removing, stirring, and baking for another 10 minutes.
7. Remove from the oven and let sit on paper towels. Sprinkle with smoked paprika.
8. Serve once they become crisp and cool enough to eat. Enjoy!
Turkey Tail mushrooms may not have as stately a name as the others we've discussed, but don't be fooled--this natural wonder is a powerhouse that has stunned scientists with its ability to help cancer patients.
Turkey Tail mushrooms are shaped like shells or, as you might have guessed, turkey tails. They have caps with rings of various colors, much like the rippled look of a geode. Turkey Tails are found across most of North America, growing on downed logs or stumps of hardwood trees. They can be harvested year-round. Mushroom pickers should be careful not to confuse them with several similar species. Here is an article about telling them apart.
Turkey Tails are primarily consumed by grinding them into beverages like smoothies or steeping them in other liquids. You can even make beer from them!
Health Benefits of Turkey Tail
Like Maitake mushrooms, Turkey Tails have been found to stimulate mechanisms in the body that fight tumor growth and metastasis, including the production of T-cells and "natural killer" cells.
The most interesting compound in Turkey Tail is called polysaccharide-K, or PSK for short. In the 1970s, Japanese researchers isolated PSK and by the end of that decade it was a prescription drug used as adjuvant therapy for cancer, complimenting traditional cancer treatment.
Additionally, a large National Institutes of Health study looked at women with breast cancer who took Turkey Tail supplements while undergoing radiation therapy. While the radiation is meant to kill cancer cells, it also suppresses the immune system. However the patients taking Turkey Tail had significantly better rebound of their immune systems, which helped keep them from getting sick from opportunistic infections, but also gave their bodies back the tools to continue fighting any remaining cancer.
Recipe: Orange Spiced Turkey Tail Tea
1. Bring the water to a low boil in the saucepan.
2. Add the black tea and allow to steep for a minute, then lower the heat to medium.
3. Add in the Turkey Tail and other ingredients.
4. Stir the mixture and allow it to simmer for 5 minutes.
5. Pour the liquid through a sieve or screen into a mug. Enjoy!
We end this list with an immensely popular mushroom that baseball fans might call a "utility player"--it boasts numerous and varied health benefits and is a culinary delight for foodies.
While the Shiitake is native to eastern Asia, it's widely available because of easy cultivation. They can be grown at home with a log, the sun, and some starter fungus called spawn.
In the wild, they grow on fallen, dead deciduous trees like beech and maple. Shiitakes look like the quintessential mushroom with a stem and umbrella-like brown cap.
The Shiitake has been known in China for at least 800 years and has made its way into countless Asian dishes.
It can be sauteed, steamed, made into stock, stuffed and baked, and prepared in myriad other ways. Some recipes besides the one below can be found here.
Health Benefits of Shiitake
Like some other mushrooms on our list, Shiitakes stimulate the immune system, improving the body's ability to fight viral and bacterial infection, including the microbes that lead to dental cavities.
Shiitakes are also heart-friendly. They lower cholesterol by inhibiting absorption. The Shiitake also decreases the tendency of platelets to stick together. Platelet adhesion and aggregation are natural processes but can aggravate conditions like atherosclerosis and lead to clots forming in blood vessels. Both of the above mechanisms work to lower blood pressure naturally.
Like Turkey Tail, the Shiitake contains a polysaccharide that is showing promising results in cancer research. It is called Lentinan, and it suppresses the growth of tumors and may prevent cancer formation. Additionally, it induces apoptosis in cancer cells, which is to say it makes them destroy themselves.
Shiitakes have also been shown to reduce the side effects of traditional cancer treatment by chemotherapy.
Recipe: Shiitake Stir Fry
1.Put the wok on high heat and add the olive oil.
2. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and fry them for a minute.
3. Add in the garlic and fry for 30 seconds.
4. Add in the peppers and mushrooms, fry for about 2 minutes.
5. Pour in the soy sauce and rice wine and fry for another 2 minutes.
6. Remove wok from the heat, add in sesame oil and stir thoroughly. Enjoy!
We hope you've enjoyed our medicinal mushrooms list, and that it has inspired you to add these superfoods to your diet.