Alessandra Felice reveals the therapeutic qualities found in the not-so humble mushroom.
Mushrooms are the perfect ingredient to add flavour and texture to many dishes from pastas to veggie burgers and soups. They are also extremely nutrient dense, a good source of fibre, protein, B vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals like selenium, calcium, potassium, copper, iron and phosphorus.
Depending on where they’re grown, they’re also a non-fortified source of vitamin D, as well as containing high amounts of polyphenols.
Mushrooms have numerous specific antioxidants such as ergothioneine, a sulphur containing compound that can help protect cells and DNA from oxidative processes damage. But what mushrooms may be best known for is as a source of beta-glucans, a type of fibre in their cell walls.
Beta-glucans seem to improve insulin resistance, blood cholesterol levels stabilisation and to stimulate the release of certain immune system cells to fight infections and unwanted invaders.
In Eastern medicine and Asia, mushrooms have long been used as a tool to protect and support health and are used therapeutically, as they are thought of as ‘medicine’ in line with the Hippocrates’ concept of “let food be thy medicine”.
Mushrooms are reported to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective and hepato-protective properties. Mushrooms seem to be able to modulate the immune system affecting lymphocytes, macrophages, T cells, dendritic and natural killer cells action.
There has been research showing that certain species can slow the growth of malignant cells and increase malignant-cell phagocytosis, meaning helping in their elimination.
In Japan and other Asian countries, they have been used as an adjunct therapy alongside chemotherapy treatments to support chemotherapeutic efficacy and protect against bone marrow suppression.
More studies need to be done around the dosage, concentration, absorption, and extraction methods that play a role in the pharmacological effects, but it’s an important research field.
Here are some of the mushroom varieties used for their medicinal properties in Eastern medicine:
Mostly used as a tea or powder, reishi seems to have a calming effect on the nervous system, helping to regulate sleep cycles and promote restful sleep. This is why it’s often suggested as a drink in the evening or in times of elevated stress.
It also presents antiviral and antibacterial functions, protecting against pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and parasites.
Also, its compounds seem to reduce dermal oxidation, preventing damage to the skin’s forming proteins and protecting cell DNA and mitochondria from oxidative processes in the body.
Just like reishi, this mushroom is often brewed as a tea or ground into powder.
Chaga’s polysaccharides, specifically its beta-glucans, have the ability to stimulate the production of lymphocytes (white blood cells that regulate the immune response to infectious microorganisms and other foreign substances).
Plus, it’s a concentrated source of antioxidant compounds, much like the more well known berries or vegetables, and its immuno-modulating properties have been used to benefit various conditions from immune to gastrointestinal issues.
3. Lion’s Mane
Lion’s mane looks like a cluster of cascading white strands and it’s often used in cooking for this beautiful shape, but its properties go way beyond being an excellent recipe ingredient.
Like other mushrooms, it presents anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and immuno-modulating properties, but it’s also unique because of the neuro-protective benefits it can exhibit.
Lion’s mane seems to stimulate the synthesis of nerve growth factors (proteins that protect existing neurons and stimulate new neuron growth), resulting in improved cognitive function and slowing down age-related cognitive degeneration.
It has the potential to help those suffering from neurological disorders, mitigating the symptoms of dementia and early stages of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
If you are having as a tea or powder, take it in the morning to support concentration and attention when studying or working.
These type of mushrooms are usually used in Chinese medicine to decrease fatigue and increase oxygen delivery to cells.
Cordyceps seem to increase the delivery of oxygen to the body on a cellular level and contribute to the production of ATP, the body’s main energy supply source required for all cellular processes.
This is why they are thought to be helpful to increase energy. And because they support oxygen delivery and energy production, cordyceps are often used to improve athletic performance, increasing maximum oxygen uptake, resistance to muscle fatigue and improving cardiovascular response.
5. Turkey Tail
Like other mushrooms, turkey tail contains polysaccharides and triterpenes that are thought to exhibit immuno-modulating effects.
Two compounds in particular, PSK and PSP, seem to have the ability to regenerate white blood cells and stimulate the production and activity of T-cells, macrophages and natural killer cells, which defend the body from abnormal cells formation, pathogens and infections.
Perfect to make stocks and brewed as a tea, but also to use in soups, stews and risottos.
This mushroom, which grows in beautiful clusters, can be found either fresh or dried in Japanese and specialised markets or as an extract and supplement. It contains compounds that seem to have antiviral properties as well as being able to help control and stabilise blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
The beta-glucans in maitake mushrooms have a specific structure that is thought to have a beneficial effect on the functioning of our immune system.
The receptors for these polysaccharide molecules are found in macrophages (immune cells that can engulf foreign particles such as pathogens) and can be activated when consuming.
One of the varieties readily available now, both fresh and dried. Shiitake are flavourful and have a meaty texture that makes them perfect for different recipes from vegetables stews to veggie burgers, risotto or pasta dishes and even used to make vegan ‘bacon’.
One of shiitake’s beta-glucan, lentinan, may enhance the effects of some chemotherapy drugs and increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy.
Although more research needs to be done, shiitake seem to have antibiotic and antiviral properties that may be useful in conditions from allergies to respiratory and viral infections, but also cardiovascular disease and diabetes management.
Where to find mushrooms
As mentioned previously, you can find all these mushrooms fresh and most often dried that can be simply rehydrated by soaking in water. One of the best ways to use them is making broths and soups with other vegetables, so you can still get all the nutrients released in the cooking process.
You’ll also be able to find dried mushrooms to brew as a tea, especially with reishi and chaga, or as a powder that can be added to hot water in a similar way to a barley and dandelion ‘coffee’ or mixed into warm plant milk to make a mushroom latte.
The powders often have a roasted flavour similar to coffee and many companies now sell blends with other spices and herbs that create a lovely flavour.
Mushroom supplements: What you need to look for
When recommended as supplements, it’s usually in a capsule or tincture form. It’s important to make sure that the mushrooms have been subjected to an extraction process that makes absorption available, otherwise they are basically indigestible because of compounds they contain and people won’t experience therapeutic effects.
Also, the term ‘extract’ refers to the final by-product of the transformation process, which allows us to obtain high concentrations of active principles and bioactives from the powder resulting from the milling.
Terms like “10:1 extract” refer to a large quantity being dried and concentrated to a smaller size. It doesn’t refer to potency if there’s no indication of the actual bioactives inside.
Look for companies that state a standardised and controlled production, high bioavailability and concentration of unchanged active ingredients and that come from a soil that is free from pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals, as mushrooms absorb anything around them.
It’s important to mention that supplemental forms of mushrooms should be taken only if recommended by a professional. As beta-glucans and other compounds that they contain have an immune-stimulating effect, people dealing with autoimmune conditions need to be mindful of dosage and usage.