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The Magic of Medicinal Mushrooms

Many of us have eaten mushrooms because we think they are tasty, but there’s a buzz about using them to heal the body. Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to treat everything from stomach ulcers to high blood pressure. In fact, there are more than 270 varieties of mushrooms known to have immunotherapeutic properties.

“Medicinal mushrooms are incredible but have been underutilized in traditional Western medicine,” says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, a Miami-based practitioner of Chinese and integrative medicine. “About 30 years ago, they started to become more popular, in some ways, as a response to the AIDS epidemic to help patients’ immune systems,” she explains. More recently, they’ve begun appearing in nonprescription supplements, powders, and even teas and coffees, like those made by companies like Four Sigmatic.

Mushrooms as Medicine

Mushrooms are little powerhouses, containing lots vitamins B and D, as well as polysaccharides, which help fight free radicals and reduce cell damage. They’re also full of fiber and support a healthy microbiome (the good bacteria that lives in our gut). They can help with weight management, cholesterol management, insulin regulation, and inflammation reduction.

Some of the most commonly available functional mushrooms include reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and chaga, which are considered adaptogens because they support the body’s overall well-being in a nonspecific way. Each has its own unique benefits. (Sorry, button mushrooms and portobellos aren’t on the list.)

Dr. Amy E. Chadwick, a licensed naturopathic doctor at Four Moons Spa in San Diego, says that incorporating mushrooms into a plant-rich diet is an “excellent way to support healthy cellular, heart, liver, digestive, and brain function.”

“Mushrooms of all kinds are a great source of protein, fiber, and nutrients, but mushrooms can also be used in higher doses to support wellness and as an adjunct in treatment of several chronic diseases,” says Chadwick.

Medicinal Mushrooms to Try

Shiitake mushrooms are a great place to start exploring the power of mushrooms, Dr. Trattner says. The easily accessible fungi lower blood cholesterol and have antiviral and anticancer effects. She says it’s important to buy fresh, not dried, shiitakes from U.S. growers. “Many mushrooms coming from other countries can be adulterated with sulfites and sulfur dioxide to preserve the color,” she warns.

Enoki is another good medicinal mushroom to cook with. It is touted as having significant anticancer and immune-enhancing effects.

Cordyceps, which Dr. Trattner eats, has been studied for its anti-tumor, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activities. “I’ve found that for common symptoms of menopause like fatigue and stress, cordyceps can be very helpful,” she says. “It has regenerative properties and can be beneficial for women in menopause who are really exhausted. Plus, it’s a good neutral, nonstimulating mushroom that can help to stabilize blood sugar and support a healthy sex drive.”

Mushrooms of all kinds are a great source of protein, fiber, and nutrients, but mushrooms can also be used in higher doses to support wellness and as an adjunct in treatment of several chronic diseases.

Keeping stress at bay is particularly important as we get older. Adaptogenic mushrooms like reishi and chaga may offer some relief.

“Chaga also supports a healthy liver and digestive system, which can have far-reaching preventive effects for many chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr. Chadwick.

Reishi, which is known as the “mushroom of immortality” can be found in teas and supplements like those from Host Defense Mushrooms, a brand recommended by both Dr. Trattner and Dr. Chadwick. Reishi has a host of benefits, including helping the body respond to stress and supporting energy and stamina. It also has significant anti-inflammatory effects and can help reduce allergies. It may even help support healthy gut bacteria.

To remedy the brain fog that sometimes accompanies fluctuations in hormones, lion’s mane could be worth trying. The experts at Four Sigmatic call this mushroom a “big ol’ hug for your brain,” because it helps with productivity and focus. Purportedly, Buddhist monks sip it before meditating to improve their concentration.

Another top medicinal mushroom is turkey tail, which can aid digestion, help heal infections, help the body fight colds and flu, and is being used in cancer treatments.

Are Mushrooms Safe?

“As long as you’re not eating them off someone’s lawn, foraging for them in the woods (unless you really know what you are doing), or eating ones sprayed with pesticides, you should be OK unless you have a glutamine allergy,” says Dr. Trattner.

Even so, if you want to explore the full power of medicinal mushrooms, Dr. Trattner advises seeing a naturopath, herbalist, or board-certified Chinese medicine professional who can prescribe medicinal mushrooms that address specific concerns.

If you’re looking for a tasty way to cook with medicinal mushrooms, try this pizza recipe from certified holistic nutrition coach Magdalena Wszelaki.

Photo: Andrew Ridley

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