Photo by: Miram Perez
By: Melissa Cugliari
Medicinal mushrooms have been a mainstay in Herbal Medical traditions across the globe for centuries and are now gaining popularity in North America for their incredible therapeutic benefits. Research continues to emerge revealing the immune boosting, gut balancing, neuroprotective, and overall health promoting qualities of these incredible remedies. Certain medicinal mushrooms have also been shown to enhance athletic performance, balance mood, improve focus, and delay cellular aging.
Mushrooms themselves do not fall under the category of 'plant' or 'animal'; they are considered Fungi. Medicinal mushrooms have distinct benefits from the mushrooms you may commonly cook with. While button, portobello, and other culinary mushrooms have nutritional benefits, medicinal mushrooms are used as medicine and are processed or extracted in a very specific way for them to have a medicinal effect on human physiology. Mushrooms with some of the most researched medicinal benefits include Reishi, Cordyceps, Lion's Mane, Turkey Tail, Chaga, Agaricus, and Maitake.
Medicinal mushrooms are also distinct from 'psychedelic mushrooms' -- medicinal mushrooms do not have psychoactive components known as psilocybin.
Based on scientific evidence, medicinal mushrooms are considered 'immunomodulators' which means that they interact with the human immune system by up- and down-regulating certain aspects of immune function simultaneously. They upregulate the number of immune cells in the body and enhance these cells' ability to identify and fight infection. On the other hand, these mushrooms downregulate inflammation; inflammation, when left unchecked, is the root cause of many chronic diseases.
Another benefit of certain medicinal mushrooms are their ability to protect the body from stress. Reishi and Cordyceps in particular are excellent at balancing the body's stress response and therefore mitigating the negative effects of chronic stress. They also help to promote better sleep and increase energy levels. Lion's Mane is another medicinal mushroom that assists in this way, and is helpful in improving mental clarity.
It is important to note that while medicinal mushrooms are sold in a variety of forms -- powders, teas, tinctures, extracts -- quality varies dramatically. The medicinal component of these mushrooms lies in their Beta Glucan and other polysaccharide content; these are a family of molecules that are buried deep within the cell walls of Fungi. In order to extract these medicinal molecules, the Fungi must be processed in very specific ways (namely, hot water and/or alcohol extracted), otherwise the benefits will not be achieved. It is always ideal to speak to a licensed Naturopathic Doctor or Herbalist for best recommendations around brand and dosage in order to achieve the desired result.