Ancient Superfoods for Winter Health : Medicinal Mushrooms

Some of the most potent immune supporting compounds come from mushrooms. In fact these Ancient superfoods are being widely studied for their amazing array of health benefits. When many of us think of mushrooms, we may think of culinary delights such as Portobello or exotic Shiitake but in fact there are numerous medicinal mushroom species available with the potential to dramatically improve your health

Many of these ancient superfoods have been used for centuries. In Asia, mushrooms such as Reishi and Turkey Tail have been recorded for thousands of years for their ‘system-improving’ benefits. In essence, we are rediscovering what our ancestors long ago knew: mushrooms are rich reservoirs of power medicines.

Mushrooms contain some of the most powerful natural medicines in nature, especially for boosting your immune system during the cold and flu season. Like miniature pharmaceutical powerhouses’, scientists have identified an array of constituents in medicinal mushrooms with specific healing properties to improve our health.

Nutritional Benefits

Mushrooms are not only packed with vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin D (provitamin D2), they contain a unique number of immune supporting compounds. These include polysaccharides (including beta glucans), glycoproteins, ergosterols and triterpenoids. It is the combination of these compounds working in synergy that makes mushrooms so medicinally beneficial.

The Numerous Health Benefits

Here are just some of the great benefits from including them in your diet.

Immune support. Medicinal mushrooms are known to support and strengthen the immune system protecting against coughs, colds and respiratory infections. They have potent antiviral (including HIV), antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Many species are attracting attention due to their cancer fighting properties, ability to destroy cancer cells and protect the body during cancer treatment such as chemotherapy.

Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Medicinal mushrooms have the ability to protect the body from harmful free radical damage associated with ageing and chronic disease. They may also protect from cardiovascular disease by lowering raised cholesterol, blood pressure and supporting healthy blood sugar levels.

Liver support. Many species are known to protect the liver from damage, including protection from effects of excessive alcohol.

Weight management: Recent studies suggest certain mushrooms can help tackle obesity. In animal studies Reishi mushrooms were found to reduce obesity by modulating gut bacteria and improving digestion.

The list of health benefits is growing and it appears that each species contains unique blend of active compounds. This is why I often use various mushroom mixtures available as powders and tinctures which utilize a combination of several mushroom species.

These are some of my favourites 

Shiitake is a popular culinary mushroom readily available in the supermarkets and used in dishes around the world. Rich in a number of health-promoting agents, including the polysaccharide lentinan known for its anti-viral and anti-microbial effects. In one study, adding one or two servings of dried shiitake mushrooms was found to have a beneficial, modulating effect on the immune system. They also contain eritadenine, which has cholesterol-lowering properties.

Reishi is known as Lingzhi in China, or “spirit plant.” It’s also been called “Mushroom of Immortality and for good reason. Reishi contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds which help protect our cells against damage from oxidative stress, thought to be the primary cause of ageing. Reishi has been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years and is known for a range of health benefits. Due to its strong anti-inflammatory action it may also help relieve conditions such as arthritis and dementia. It also has strong immune supporting benefits too. This includes antibacterial, antiviral (Herpes, Epstein-Barr) and antifungal (including Candida) action.  Studies including one published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms highlighted its cardiovascular-protecting properties lowering raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Cordyceps, also called caterpillar fungus or Tochukasu, Cordyceps is a favourite among athletes. Various research studies have demonstrated its ability to boost energy production, strength and endurance including a study published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine in 2010.  Known for its ability to nourish the adrenal system it’s the ideal tonic to tackle stress over the festive season. Cordyceps has a long history in both traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine as an aphrodisiac and to support sexual function and stamina.

Maitake. Also known as the ‘dancing mushroom’, it mainly grows in autumn on oak, chestnut, and beech stumps in Japan and North America. With specific polysaccharides, known as beta-D-glucans, Maitake is known for its powerful immune supporting properties. An extract of these helpful glucans known as the maitake D-fraction has been found to fight certain cancers, reduce cholesterol, control blood glucose and help reduce weight gain too.

Chaga. The name chaga derives from the Komi-Permyak language of Russia’s Kama River Basin, where the fungus has played a role in traditional medicine for centuries.  It resembles a large piece of burnt charcoal, hence it is sometimes referred to as tinder mushroom. In Siberian folklore, chaga is considered the “King of the Mushrooms.”  Like all medicinal mushrooms, Chaga contains complex polysaccharides known for their potent immune supporting properties. However, Chaga also has an extremely high ORAC value which is a measure of its antioxidant properties. This may be why it is regarding as an anti-aging tonic. It’s delicious blended with chocolate – try it in one my smoothie recipes. One of the most surprising benefits of chaga is in regards to psoriasis. In one Russian study, psoriasis patients who took chaga recovered from their condition.

Lion’s Mane. Lion’s mane mushroom, has drawn the attention of researchers for its notable nerve-regenerative properties. Resembling white pom poms the Latin name for lion’s mane is Hericium erinaceus; meaning ‘hedgehog’. Lion’s mane mushrooms are now becoming available in gourmet food chains. This nutritious mushroom is roughly 20 percent protein, and resembles the taste of lobster or shrimp. About a dozen studies have been published on the neuroregenerative properties of lion’s mane mushrooms since 1991, when Nerve Growth Factors (NGFs) were discovered.  These are molecules that appear to stimulate the differentiation and re-myelination of neurons. In 2009, researchers in Japan published a small clinical study. Giving lion’s mane to 30 Japanese patients with mild cognitive impairment resulted in significant benefits for as long as they consumed the mushrooms. It appears to reduce beta amyloid plaques which are associated with Alzheimer’s.  The influence of lion’s mane on neurological functions may also have other added benefits with one study showing its ability to reduce depression and anxiety in just 4 weeks.

How to make the most of them

It is unlikely you will stumble across these mushrooms in your supermarket with the exception of Shiitake of course. I like to buy mushroom powders which can then be added to recipes and drinks. Two great brands are Indigo Herbs and Hifas Da Terra