Mushrooms have been a part of healing traditions for centuries in Asia, used for everything from fortifying immunity to treating cancer. “Western medicine is just catching up to the health benefits of mushrooms,” says functional-medicine physician and herbalist Aviva Romm, MD. Below are some popular medicinal mushrooms and what they offer.
Found growing on tree trunks and dead logs, it is used in Chinese medicine to treat lung diseases and in Japan for fortifying the immune system to fight cancer.
One compound, polysaccharide K, boosts the body’s level of natural killer cells and is approved to treat cancer in Japan. “I turn to turkey tail mushrooms for pure immune support,” says Romm.
A tonic for the brain and nerves, lion’s mane stimulates the synthesis of nerve growth. Mycologist Paul Stamets recommends it for nervous-system diseases, nerve injuries, and neuropathy.
Research suggests lion’s mane may also protect the brain against amyloid-beta buildup, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
Rich in antioxidants and prebiotic compounds, reishi is believed to fuel longevity, fight aging, and bolster energy. “It’s the mushroom to use when you’re stressed out, rundown, and getting sick frequently,” says Romm.
Reishi is often given to people undergoing cancer treatment: Chemotherapy and radiation can deplete the immune system; reishi buttresses it.
Technically not a mushroom, cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that embeds in an insect larva and consumes the insect as it grows, becoming 90 percent fungus and 10 percent caterpillar.
It was traditionally used to treat male-reproductive-system issues, including sexual performance and fertility. It also brims with antitumor and immune-enhancing properties.
Sometimes called conk or cinder conk, chaga is a black, charcoal-like polypore that grows on tree trunks infected with the fungus Inonotus obliquus. It has been used for centuries in China and Japan to slow the advance of cancer as well as to treat stomach ulcers and combat oxidative stress.
Studies suggest chaga may be especially valuable in treating colon cancer.
This article originally appeared as “A Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms” in the May 2021 issue of Experience Life.