I’ve been doing mushrooms for years. Really. And it’s completely changed my health. My mushroom of choice is the reishi mushroom, which has been a part of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. Reishi is by no means the only forest fungi, though, with potential for improving human health. Many mushrooms, molds and lichens are loaded with lots of immune-enhancing, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, making them some of the most potent forms of natural medicine on earth.
How many species of mushrooms are there? While no one really knows how many of the fleshy fungi actually exist in nature, it is estimated that there are around 140,000, only a fraction of which have been identified. Their medicinal potential is largely unexplored.
Mushrooms hold much promise for humans because we share risks of infection from many of the same pathogens. These include staphylococcus, streptococcus, E.coli and fungi Candida, to name just a few. Like us, mushrooms are under constant attack from outside microbial forces. To survive in their natural environments, they have evolved strong antibacterial and anti-fungal weapons. These weapons, known as antibiotics, are helping to protect us, too.
The most famous example of a fungal weapon that has proved effective on humans is penicillin, a blue mold that was discovered by accident by a lab technician. Returning from a two-week vacation, he noticed a “fluffy white mass” had started to grow on a staphylococcus culture plate that had been accidentally contaminated. When the mold was examined, the fungus was found to be killing the bacteria. The stunning discovery led to the world’s first naturally-grown antibiotic.
According to herbalist Robert Rogers, author of The Fungal Pharmacy, there are more than 300 species of medicinal mushrooms and lichens found in North America with the capacity to heal the human body. The fungi’s many medicinal possibilities include antioxidant, blood pressure lowering, cholesterol reducing, liver protection, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and immune modulating properties.
My fungus of choice, the reishi mushroom,Ganoderma lucidum, (known as Ling Zhi in Chinese ) is a large- sized mushroom that grows on decaying tree stumps across East Asia and North America. In traditional Chinese medicine, the reishi is revered to the point of being sacred and is referred to as the “Mushroom of Immortality. For over 2,000 years, reishi has been thought to provide miraculous health benefits for the human body, including the capacity to boost immunities, improve liver function and lower blood pressure.
Limited data from clinical studies seems to support this point of view. According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website, reishi has antioxidant properties and may enhance immune response. It also contains complex sugars known as beta-glucans that may stop the growth and prevent the spread of cancer cells.
Other data points to reishi’s ability to strengthen the body’s immune response, in particular when it comes to allergies. Resihi contains substances called triterpenes that may have anti-allergy/anti-histamine effects. I can attest to the latter. After only a year of drinking an elixir made from reishi (see below to see how it’s made), I was able to abandon all my prescription allergy drugs and today am allergy-free.
Other disease-fighting fungi
Many other mushrooms commonly found in supermarkets have also shown promise in protecting and repairing the human body. The white button mushroom, a favorite salad ingredient, contains specials carbohydrates that stimulate metabolism and maintain blood sugar levels. It is also high in selenium, which can aid in weight loss.
Mushrooms produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight and are the only vegetable that naturally contains the vitamin. Studies show that consuming dried white button mushroom extract is as effective as taking supplemental vitamin D2 or D3 for increasing vitamin D levels.
Another popular mushroom, the shiitake, contains a type of sugar molecule called lentinan which, when combined with chemotherapy, has shown some promise in extending the survival of patients with some cancers. Lentinan strengthens parts of the immune system, is an excellent source of vitamin D and has been shown to kill viruses and microbes in laboratory studies.
Even the long stemmed enoki mushroom, commonly found floating in Asian soups, has powerful immunity boosting properties. The tiny-capped mushroom contains beta-glucans, which have shown promise in slowing the growth of and destroying tumors.
Whatever your mushroom of choice, it’s important to remember that mushrooms are like sponges: they soak up the good and the bad of their environment. If ingested, they’ll then transfer these properties to you. Don’t go foraging in the forest unless you know what you’re doing.
Reishi elixir: To make the medicine, the mushroom is usually dried, powdered then brewed into a tea. The dark brown elixir has the look of common tea, but tastes slightly bitter and earthy. The drink gives off the unmistakable aroma of the forest and takes some getting used to.