We have the kingdom of fungi to thank for the creation of many important pharmaceuticals, the most famous of which is the creation of penicillin. From extracting specific chemicals to using the entirety of a mushroom’s mycelium and fruiting body, we humans have used mushrooms medicinally for thousands of years.
In this guide, we’ll discuss five of the most widely studied and used medicinal mushrooms. We’ll cover human’s historical use of these mushrooms and what current research demonstrates regarding the potential medicinal benefits and uses. Please note, when we talk about what people have historically used these mushrooms for, this is not confirmation that any targeted ailments were actually treated or cured.
The five medicinal mushrooms we’ll be covering are:
2. Turkey tail
4. Lion’s mane
5. Magic mushrooms
So, Without further ado, let’s dive in!
1. Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi mushroom, also known commonly as lingzhi in China, is a widely cultivated and wild-growing bracket fungus that people across East Asia have used medicinally for possibly 2,000 years or more. The scientific name of this famous medicinal mushroom is Ganoderma lucidum.
This mushroom, while often associated with East Asia, also grows wild in temperate and subtropical regions across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. This polypore bracket fungus is kidney-shaped, shiny, and burnt orange-red.
The medicinal history of reishi in East Asia is rooted in both spiritual and physical health. Culturally, this mushroom can symbolize longevity, divine power, well-being, and success.
Many historians believe the first reference to reishi is found in a book of medicine, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, one of the earliest known Chinese materia medica. However, it’s important to note that the description of the mushroom in the text may not actually have been referring to reishi.
Historically, people have prepared reishi in a variety of ways to try to achieve various health effects including immunomodulation, protection of the liver, antimicrobial effects, and blood glucose level modulation.
Currently, modern research demonstrates properties of reishi mushrooms that may support some of its traditional uses. Modern researchers have confirmed that reishi contains over 400 bioactive compounds, some of which may result in various actions including anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.
Reishi is widely available in tincture, tea, powder, and capsule form.
2. Turkey Tail Mushroom (Trametes versicolor)
So, the next medicinal mushroom we’ll talk about is the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) mushroom. You can find this common saprobic fungus growing on decaying hardwood across North America, Europe, and Asia. It’s one of the most common mushrooms growing in North America.
Historically, people have used turkey tail medicinally across its growing regions for a variety of intended health effects. These possible effects include alleviating joint pain, protecting the respiratory system, immunomodulating, and antimicrobial actions.
Currently, turkey tail is one of the most widely studied medicinal mushrooms in the world. Since the 1960s in Japan and China, doctors and scientists have used this humble bracket fungus as a complementary immune therapy to help fight several types of cancer, such as lung, breast, colorectal, and gastric cancers.
One study found that the use of turkey tail mushrooms in conjunction with conventional anti-cancer treatments resulted in an additional patient outliving a 5-year mortality rate out of every 11 patients treated. Another study tested turkey tail extracts against various pathogenic bacteria and found turkey tail to be particularly effective against Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. The same study also confirmed the significant anti-inflammatory properties of turkey tail extract.
People often take turkey tail in tincture or capsule forms, with immune boosting and immuno-modulation being popular reasons to consume this medicinal mushroom.
3. Chaga Mushroom (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a cold-loving parasitic mushroom that grows on birch trees in Alaska, Northern Canada, Northern Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Siberia, and Korea. This mushroom is particularly unique-looking and easy to identify. You’ll find that this parasitic mushroom will look almost like a charred tumor growing out from a birch tree. While the exterior of the mushroom is charcoal-colored, the inside is a lovely burnt orange. The shape of this mushroom is irregularly round and bumpy. It has a rather large fruiting body that grows up to 2 feet across on average, with some growing even larger.
Historically, people across its growing regions (particularly in Russia and Siberia) have used chaga to target various ailments such as tumors, gastritis, ulcers, fatigue, and tuberculosis. (Again, historical usage does not confirm treatment success or cures).
In the past roughly 10 years, interest in chaga as a medicinal mushroom has increased significantly, leading to numerous studies on potential health benefits. Several studies have focused on chaga extract activity against cancer cells. Another scientific review summarized studies that demonstrate chaga contains compounds that display antitumor, antiviral, and antioxidant effects, as well as effects useful in treating diabetes.
Today, chaga is commonly taken dried as tea. Many people consume chaga for its energizing effect and enjoy the earthy, nutty flavor of the drink. It’s often sold in powdered medicinal mushroom mixes and is also available in tincture and capsule forms.
4. Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)
The next mushroom on our list is the lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushroom, so commonly named for its lion mane-like form. This shaggy-toothed mushroom is both saprobic and parasitic as it is found growing on both living and dead hardwood trees, typically birch, beech, and oak trees. You can find this mushroom growing wild in temperate hardwood forests across North America, Europe, and Asia.
Traditionally, people have used lion’s mane to target various ailments and overall provide protection to the gut, heart, kidney, spleen, and liver. The historical use of lion’s mane for treatment of gastrointestinal diseases was especially prevalent.
Today, lion’s mane mushroom is being extensively researched for several therapeutic health benefits. Currently, research demonstrates that lion’s mane contains several active compounds with anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, neuro-regenerative, anti-microbial, and immuno-modulating effects. Much of the current research on this medicinal mushroom is focused on its potential for treating inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, and neuro-degenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. Studies have shown that lion’s mane offers significant promise in repairing central and peripheral nerve damage due to injury and neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
5. Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybe cubensis)
The last medicinal mushrooms on our list are magic mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis. While these mushrooms may be most famous for recreational use, they also have a thousands-of-years history of medicinal and ceremonial use. These unassuming little brown mushrooms are saprobic, deriving their nutrients from growing in various types of manure. Magic mushrooms grow in tropical and subtropical environments across the Americas, North Africa, South Asia, and Australia.
So, the historical use of magic mushrooms by people of North Africa dates back to 9000 BCE. In Spain, historians date the use of magic mushrooms as far back as 4000 BCE. In the Americas, researchers estimate the practice of using magic mushrooms dates back at least 3,500 years.
Today, people consume Psilocybe cubensis for recreational, ceremonial, and medicinal purposes. In recent years, the study of magic mushrooms has grown from a fringe science into serious medical investigation with studies headed by major medical and academic institutions. Most of this research revolves around the use of psilocybin for treating PTSD, mood disorders, addiction, anxiety, migraines, and depression.
On November 3rd, 2020, Oregon became the first state in the US to both decriminalize the use of psilocybin and lay out plans for future therapeutic use by licensed therapists (likely in 2023). Additionally, in 2020, a study by John Hopkins was released detailing significant improvement in major depression by patients using psilocybin, and even total remission of depression for over half the patients.
While the legal use of magic mushrooms and other mushrooms that contain psilocybin is still fairly restricted in the US, if you do live in the US and want to try psilocybin-assisted therapy you can look into participating in clinical trials or consider traveling to a reputable practitioner out of the country.
The content on this page is for informational purposes only and may contain inaccuracies. Please verify all information independently. AZ Animals says: do not any eat wild mushrooms or plants without firsthand knowledge that they are safe for consumption.
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