Medicinal Mushrooms: which ones you need.

Medicinal Mushrooms: which ones you need.

They’re cropping up they’re everywhere, from coffee to chocolate, with many claims about their magical properties. But there’s nothing mystical about these mushrooms: they’re backed by dozens of studies that support their ability to improve immune function, reduce inflammation, protect against cancer, and more.

While medicinal mushrooms share similar compounds, each variety has its own subtle differences and unique benefits. New to ‘shrooms? Here’s a starter guide to the six most popular—and best-researched—options.

1. Shiitakes. These savory ‘shrooms have been used for thousands of years in Asian culture in both culinary and medicinal applications, to protect against pathogens and promote wellness and vitality. And they’re a great way to start your mushroom journey: shiitakes are familiar, versatile and delicious.

What they do. Lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, protect against atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) and improve cardiovascular health. Shiitakes also reduce inflammation, improve immune response, inhibit bacterial and viral infections, and may protect against cancer.

What to look for. You’ll find fresh shiitakes in most grocery stores, or look for dried shiitakes in larger grocery stores or Asian markets. Shiitakes are also available in powdered form, or as supplements or tinctures

How to use them. Shiitakes have a mild, meaty taste that’s perfect for any mushroom recipes. To use fresh shiitakes, remove the woody stems, chops the caps and add to sauteed greens, lentil soup or roasted root vegetables. Soak dried shiitakes in warm water till softened, then drain and use as you would fresh shiitakes

2. Reishi mushrooms. These thick, beefy mushrooms are characterized by their kidney-shaped cap and a glossy reddish-orange color. Also known as Ganoderma lucidum, lingzhi or the “mushroom of immortality” they’ve been used in traditional Asian medicine and cuisine for more than 2000 years to treat liver disease, high blood pressure, insomnia and more.

What they do. Improve immune function, protect against viral infections, inhibit cancer cell growth and tumor progression, and protect against a variety of cancers, including breast, prostate and colorectal. Reishi mushrooms may also ease anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve sleep and promote cognitive health.

What to look for. Whole reishi mushrooms are hard to find, and their tough, woody texture make them difficult to cook with. Look for them in Asian markets, or buy them in powdered form or in capsules or tinctures.

How to use them. Reishi mushrooms are bitter, so they’re best used with strong, pungent herbs and spices that mask their flavor. Simmer dried reishi mushroom slices with garlic, ginger and onions, then strain for a healing broth or soup base. Or stir a spoonful of powdered reishi into a garlicky mushroom-tomato sauce.

3. Chaga. Not technically a mushroom, chaga comes from a fungus that grows in cold climates, primarily on birch trees; it looks like a chunk of charred wood, but has a soft, brilliant orange interior. It’s a staple in Russian, Asian and Scandinavian folk medicine, usually consumed as a tea to improve immunity and boost resistance.

What it does. High in antioxidants, protects against inflammation by inhibiting inflammatory compounds. Chaga also fights viral and bacterial infections, improves immune response and may protect against cancer.

What to look for. You’ll find chaga in powdered form, or in capsules or tinctures. It’s also sold in dried chunks or powdered as an ingredient in mushroom-based coffee substitutes.

How to use it. Chaga has an earthy, slightly bitter flavor that’s perfect as a coffee alternative; simmer dried chunks of chaga in water, then strain. Or heat coconut milk, then whisk in chaga powder, cocoa powder and honey or agave to make a healing mocha.

4. Lion’s mane. This large, white fungus has long, shaggy spines that resemble a lion’s mane—hence the name. Also known as Hericium erinaceus or hedgehog mushroom, it grows on hardwood trees in North America, Asia and Europe, and was traditionally used to support brain health.

What it does. Supports cognitive health and memory and protects against cognitive decline by promoting production of nerve growth factor, critical in the development and survival of neurons, and regulating cells in the nervous system. Lion’s mane may also ease anxiety, reduce depression and improve sleep.

What to look for. You can find whole, fresh lion’s mane mushrooms at specialty stores, farmer’s markets and some large grocery stores. Or look for it in powders, capsules, tinctures or mushroom-based coffee substitutes.

How to use it. Lion’s mane mushrooms have a firm texture and mild flavor that’s reminiscent of lobster; cut them into steaks and saute in butter or olive oil with garlic and black pepper.

5. Cordyceps. Not technically a mushroom, cordyceps is a fungus that grows on caterpillars in the mountainous regions of China. Modern versions are grown on grains, usually rice, so they’re vegan. It’s been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years to treat fatigue, improve sex drive and boost energy.

What it does. Improves stamina and physical performance, and speeds up muscle recovery after workouts. It appears to work by enhancing cellular energy, increasing insulin sensitivity and improving blood flow. Cordyceps also has immune-boosting and cancer-preventive properties.

What to look for. Whole, dried cordyceps is very hard to find, but some specialty shops and Asian markets carry it; in general, you’ll find it in powders, capsules or tinctures, or as an ingredient in mushroom-based coffee alternatives.

How to use it. Cordyceps have a mild, earthy flavor that incorporates easily into many recipes. Use cordyceps powder in DIY energy bars: combine dates, almonds, pumpkin seeds, cacao nibs and cordyceps powder in a food processor, grind into a paste, and form into bars or balls.

6. Turkey Tail. This fan-shaped fungus with alternating concentric circles in red, orange and brown hues, resembles a turkey’s tail—hence the name. Also known as Coriolus versicolor or Trametes versicolor, it’s traditionally used in China and Japan to support immune function and promote overall health.

What it does. Protects against cancer by stimulating the immune system, inhibiting proliferation of cancer cells and reducing tumor activity; it may also reduce the harmful side effects of chemotherapy. Turkey tail also has  anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity, and can protect against HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection.

What to look for. You can buy whole, dried turkey tail mushrooms online or in some Asian markets or specialty stores. Or look for them in capsules, tinctures or powdered form.

How to use it. Turkey tail mushrooms have a savory, mushroom flavor with a very chewy texture that’s best in soups or broths. Soak dried turkey tail mushrooms in warm water till softened, then drain and simmer with shiitakes, portobellos and other mushrooms for a flavorful broth. Or add a spoonful of powder to a smoothie with bananas, almond butter, coconut milk and vanilla extract.

Interested in references? Ask me.