September is National Mushroom Month! To celebrate, we've put together this comprehensive guide to medicinal mushrooms, from their amazing history to their incredible health benefits. Let's start with how they were discovered.
The history of medicinal mushrooms
In ancient China and Southeast Asia, people noticed that animals would eat a certain type of fungus to gain strength and increase their lifespans. They began consuming these fungi themselves for their beneficial effects on human health. Mushroom cultivation became a staple of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The history of medicinal mushrooms dates back to at least 100 AD. The medicinal use of mushrooms was first recorded in the works of Han dynasty physician Ge Hong, who wrote about shiitake and chaga mushrooms, which he used as treatments for colds and poor health. Since then, different types of medicinal mushrooms have been found all over the world and there is little doubt that these fungi have been used medicinally for centuries and maybe millennia.
Western research into the effects of medicinal mushrooms began as early as 1909, when Russian scientist Dr Elie Metchnikoff (who won the Nobel Prize for his work on cellular immunity) found that an extract from a mushroom could prolong the lifespan of mice. However, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that scientists began to pay attention to medicinal mushrooms again when around 17 of them were tested as cancer treatments. Today, there are hundreds of scientific papers and studies on the benefits of medicinal mushrooms.
Scientific research has demonstrated that they have amazing benefits for our health. They can control inflammation, fight infections, improve your immune system, help prevent cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, protect against diabetes and some cancers (especially breast), increase bone density and even improve your skin and brain health.
The overall benefits of medicinal mushrooms
The benefits of medicinal mushrooms include:
- controlling inflammation
- fighting infections
- improving your immune system
- helping prevent cardiovascular disease
- lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure
- protecting against diabetes and some cancers (especially breast)
- increasing bone density
- improving skin health (particularly acne) and brain function (such as memory).
There are many different types of medicinal mushrooms and they all have unique benefits. Reishi, for example, can improve mental health whereas chaga may help to reduce cancer risks. Maitake is a particularly interesting fungus as it has been shown that extracts from this mushroom increase immune activity in older adults.
The best medicinal mushrooms
There are over 200 species of medicinal mushrooms, which can be broken down into three categories: adaptogens, prebiotics and true medicinals or "cures". Adaptogenic mushrooms help your body to cope with physical stress. Prebiotic mushrooms promote a healthy gut environment by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria (probiotics). True medicinal mushrooms actually kill dangerous pathogens and parasites or cure diseases such as cancer. The most popular mushrooms for medicinal purposes are Reishi, Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion's Mane, Shiitake and Maitake.
Reishi mushrooms have a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it is considered to be one of the most important herbs. Modern research has uncovered its various health benefits, which include lowering stress levels, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels and boosting immunity. In Japan, reishi is called "the mushroom of immortality." It is a woody mushroom, with red or blackish caps and white spores. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times and it's a fantastic adaptogen – meaning it helps to regulate your immune system and reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that Reishi can reduce stress and exhaustion caused by fatigue, which can also help improve mental health. In traditional Chinese medicine, reishi was used as a tonic for people with a low resistance to disease and it is still very popular in Japan today where extracts are often added to food such as soups or teas.
Chaga mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. The most powerful types of chaga are called "black" or "purple," which actually refers to the cracks that appear on the surface due to their high melanin content. Chaga is a fantastic antioxidant-rich adaptogen that protects your cells from damage from toxins and pollutants, while also boosting your immune system and protecting your cells from stress. Chaga has also been shown to be anti-carcinogenic, which means it can reduce your risk of getting cancer by fighting the free radicals that cause cellular damage in your body.
Cordyceps is an adaptogenic mushroom that was used by Tibetan Buddhist high lamas to increase energy levels and mental clarity. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cordyceps has been used for centuries to treat conditions such as tuberculosis, cancer and asthma. It's also a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from environmental damage caused by pollutants and toxins.
Shiitake is an amazing medicinal mushroom! It has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine and it's a fantastic immune system booster. It contains lentinan, which is an active compound with strong anti-tumor properties. Studies have shown that lentinan can also help reduce cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar and boost your energy levels in the short term – all of which can help with weight loss.
Lion's mane is another popular medicinal mushroom that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. In China, it was called the "herb of happiness" as it was traditionally consumed by monks and others looking to increase their positive feelings. Modern research shows that lion's mane mushrooms can boost your immune system, fight cancer and reduce inflammation in the brain. It contains hericenones and erinacines, compounds that stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) – a protein which stimulates new neuron growth in your brain.
In Japan, maitake is called "dancing mushroom," which refers to the fact that it was traditionally used in religious ceremonies. Maitake mushrooms are one of the best immune system boosting foods we know of and they contain cancer-fighting compounds such as lentinan and polysaccharide K. A study published by Biotherapy (what a coincidence!) found that patients with breast cancer who took maitake supplements had improved survival rates.
With the recent influx of studies coming out about their healing properties and side effects on wellbeing and stress levels it's no wonder medicinal mushrooms are gaining popularity around the world! If you want to enjoy the benefits too, there's no better time than now, it is National Mushroom Month after all! Check out our awesome formula Medi-Shrooms. It's out proprietary blend of six amazing mushrooms has been specifically designed to help you live your best life, naturally!