Medicinal mushrooms are continually grabbing the spotlight for their incredible health benefits, ranging from cancer prevention and treatment, to being anti-viral, to curing asthma and even prolonging life.
Type in any of the medicinal mushrooms listed below into a PubMed database and you’ll see countless scientific studies validating their use as medicine. But while science is looking in test tubes to substantiate the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms, people around the world have been using these fungi to improve their health for thousands of years.
But what are these strange creatures anyway? Placed in their own kingdom (fungi), mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium. Mycelium is an organism present in most healthy soils. It forms a dense web underneath the soils where it conducts a multidirectional transfer of nutrients between plants and itself. In one cubic inch of soil there can be 8 miles of mycelium (Stamets). The fascinating study of mycelium and its ability to break down and transform materials, even toxic materials, goes beyond the scope of this article, but one I highly suggest looking into.
Mycoremediation, which could help reduce toxic materials presently related to disposal facilities, help decontaminate and minimize road and farm runoff, creates buffer zones, reduces agricultural waste, reduces pollution in watersheds, reduces the risk of forest fire, and cleans up contaminated pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli.
In the early years of HerbMentor.com John and I always said we would never feature medicinal mushrooms on the site. While mushrooms are certainly a valid medicine we felt that a person really needed to learn how to identify mushrooms from an expert in person. And although we still feel that way, we decided to feature medicinal mushrooms that can be found in commerce. As a result, this article is not about identifying mushrooms in the wild. It is about using medicinal mushrooms bought from herbal apothecaries or even your grocery store. Just recently, my father-in-law was hospitalized and came close to dying from eating a misidentified mushroom. It’s not something to fool around with!
When purchasing mushrooms always buy organic. Conventional mushrooms, especially those sold in grocery stores are routinely sprayed with a myriad of pesticides.
People have used mushrooms medicinally and as food for thousands of years. The oldest written reference to people using mushrooms medicinally is from an Ayurvedic source from 5000 BP.
The Chinese have one of the most sophisticated uses of medicinal mushrooms and have a written history of using them that dates back several thousand years as well. Many medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps and reishi were so highly prized (and so very rare) that only the emperor was allowed to consume them. Now these mushrooms are cultivated and are often times affordable.
The Greeks and Romans ate mushrooms frequently. The Greeks said mushrooms were the “food of the gods.”
General characteristics of medicinal mushrooms
We believe there is over 1.4 million species of mushrooms on earth, but only 10% have been scientifically named and catalogued.
All medicinal mushrooms contain beta-D-glucan, which are a type of polysaccharide. These chemical constituents are commonly found in some plant cellulose (Astragalus, Echinacea, etc) and fungi. They have been studied extensively for their ability to modulate the immune system. Much of the modern scientific research done on mushrooms is related to cancer prevention and treatment, HIV and AIDS, and other immune function disorders.
There are lots of different ways to prepare medicinal mushrooms. They can be cooked into food, made into a tea or decoction or syrup, or powdered and taken as capsules. Another method is to decoct the mushrooms and then add 20% alcohol to the water extraction to preserve it.
Christopher Hobbs recommends first extracting the mushrooms in 50% alcohol (using normal tincture methods), then straining that mixture and placing the marc (mushrooms) into a pan to simmer with 5 parts water to the mushroom volume. This is simmered for an hour and then strained. The water is then simmered again until it is reduced to 1/5 of its original volume. This is then added to the original extract in a quantity that leaves 20% alcohol in the final product.
In this next section we’ll look more closely at some common medicinal mushrooms that are readily available in commerce.
Common button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus)
That’s right, the lowly common mushrooms readily found in your grocery store are medicinal mushrooms! The use of these dates back at least to 1700 BP where it was described in a Byzantine treatise.
This is the most commonly consumed and cultivated mushroom worldwide. It is native to grasslands in Europe and North America.
There are over 300 different species of Agaricus and some are edible while some are poisonous. Portabellas, another common edible mushroom found in the grocery store, are also a part of this genus.
Another species, A. campestris, was used by Nicholas Culpeper, an infamous herbalist who lived from 1616 – 1654. He says “Roasted and applied in a poultice, or boiled with white lily roots and linseed in milk, they ripen boils and abscesses better than any preparation that can be made.”
In China, mushrooms in this genus have been used for hypertension as well as in formulas for low back pain and tendon pain.
Like other medicinal mushrooms they have been studied extensively as a tool against various cancers and have shown promising results.
Since they are found so readily in stores, these make an easy addition to the diet. Just remember to buy them organically and to cook them.
Shitake mushrooms originate in Japan, China and other Asian countries with temperate climates where they have been enjoyed as food and medicine for thousands of years.
They are now the second most cultivated mushroom in the world and can often be found in grocery stores. Growing your own is easy (look for shitake mushroom kits online) and results in the best shitakes I’ve ever eaten. In our household we eat shitake mushrooms a couple times a week. They are wonderful in soups or simply sauteed with garlic and butter.
Shitake mushrooms grown in nutrient-dense soils produce nutrient-dense fruits. They can be especially high in potassium, calcium, phosphorous, proteins and magnesium.
These mushrooms have been studied extensively for their immunomodulating effects. Most studies, however, have been conducted using concentrated isolated chemical constituents of shitakes and not the whole mushroom. So while we know that these concentrated constituents have produced remarkable clinical results, we don’t always know that those same results can be achieved by simply eating the mushrooms or as a whole extract (as a tea or decoction).
We do know that shitake mushrooms are beneficial against cancer, not because they attack the cancer cells but because they enhance a person’s immune system. This is the reason they can also be helpful for someone experiencing frequent colds and flus and seasonal allergies. Shitake has also been shown to inhibit both herpes simplex 1 and 2.
Shitakes have been shown to promote cardiovascular health as well by optimizing lipid levels.
Shitake mushrooms are classified as a sweet taste with mild actions. They are considered building and strengthening in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Like all mushrooms, shitake mushrooms should be fully cooked before consuming, as a small number of people can develop an itchy rash from consuming them raw. Christopher Hobbs says common dosages of the whole fruiting body are 6-16 grams of dried mushrooms or 90 grams of fresh mushrooms.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi has long been heralded as the elixir of life. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers it to be in the highest class of tonics to promote longevity. This is the first medicinal substance to be written about by the Chinese and several entire books have been written about this single mushroom!
This mushroom is well proven to prevent and combat cancer and other immune system disorders. It has beneficial effects on the liver, helping both to regenerate and protect it. It’s also been shown to reduce fatty deposits on the liver. It has multiple benefits for the heart, helping to normalize cholesterol levels and regulate blood pressure.
In his book Medicinal Mushrooms, Christopher Hobbs outlines pharmacological effects of whole reishi extracts. These effects include: analgesic, anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxident, antitumor, antiviral, hypotensive, cardiotonic, relaxing nervine, expectorant and antitussive, anti-HIV, adaptogen, hepatoprotective and immunomodulating.
The studies done on reishi’s immunomodulating effects and its benefits against a variety of cancers, auto-immunity diseases and viral infections is absolutely dizzying! Lesley Tierra specifically recommends it combined with astragalus for people who have extreme food sensitivities.
Reishi can also oxygenate the blood, making it a useful ally against altitude sickness.
In my experience, it [reishi] is especially suitable as a calming herb for people with anxiety, sleeplessness, or nervousness accompanied by adrenal weakness or general neurasthenia or deficiency syndromes. In this regard, it is to be much preferred to traditional western sedative herbs such as valerian, which could be too warm and actually stimulating for some individuals.
This polypore mushroom is too hard to eat and is commonly taken as a decoction or used as a powdered herb. The typical dose is 3-15 grams. Lesley Tierra recommends breaking the mushroom into smaller pieces and then decocting 1 oz of reishi to one quart of water for 60 minutes. One cup can be drunk 2-3 times a day.
Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis)
Cordyceps are some of my favorite medicinal mushrooms, but admittedly probably the most freaky. This fungus invades a species of caterpillar that it eventually kills as the fruiting body erupts from the animal’s head. I told you it was freaky!
This mushroom is so highly sought after that the price of it per pound can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily it is being cultivated in the Pacific Northwest and can be purchased at a much more reasonable price.
Traditionally, in China, cordyceps was consumed by first cooking it in a duck. Eating this meal is considered to be as potent as having a large amount of ginseng.
Cordyceps has been shown to be especially useful against lung cancers (in TCM it is said to enter through the Lung meridian). It is also used to increase libido, optimize cholesterol levels, address liver disease and to relax bronchial tissues, which is helpful for those with certain types of asthma.
Olympic athletes use cordyceps to increase their stamina. One week after I started taking cordyceps I was running up a steep hill that I had only been able to walk up previously. It’s currently being studied for a wide range of lung diseases.
Cordyceps can be taken as a tea, in capsules or cooked into duck. The typical dose is 5-12 grams.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga is a parasite that grows on birch trees. Technically not a mushroom, just a mass of mycelium, it has been used in folk medicine for centuries, most notably in Russia. Science is now validating its use, showing immunostimulating properties and that it protects against oxidative stress. It is most famous for its use against a wide range of cancers, notably cancer of the breast, lip, skin and colon.
Chaga can be used as a decoction or as an alcohol extract. The decocted root is tasty and is sometimes called a “coffee substitute”.
Chaga (Inonotus oblquus) grows slowly on beech and birch trees over many years. Chaga is a non-sporulating (non-fertile) hardened structure with a dark, cracked over-crust. Some mycologists call Chaga an above-ground sclerotium. Chaga grows on living trees, taking many years for a soft-ball size structure to form. Once the tree dies, a resupinate crust forms on the ground near the tree. This is the spore-reproducing structure. What scientists do not know is whether or not the removal of Chaga will harm the formation of the spore producing crust. We do know that wild harvesting of Chaga is radically reducing this species populations. And since we can grow mycelium -sustainably- while retaining its beneficial properties, please refrain from harvesting wild chaga for commercial purposes. Thank you.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Maitake is another medicinal mushroom masquerading as a gourmet food. It has been studied extensively for breast cancer and has been shown to reduce tumor size and aggressiveness. Like shitake mushrooms, maitakes can easily be incorporated into your food frequently.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Turkey tails are frequently found growing on trees throughout the world. Although less studied than other medicinal mushrooms this one is well-worth looking into and not just for its health benefits. Paul Stamets (author of Mycelium Running and all-around mushroom extraordinaire) reports that it has bioremediation benefits and can help clean up toxic environments. The Chinese and Japanese have been using it as immune support therapy for cancer and Stamets claims to have cured his own mother of breast cancer using this mushroom.
Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
This common edible mushroom has natural statins that help to regulate blood cholesterol. It is commonly found in the wild in temperate climates and in our grocery stores.
Medicinal mushrooms are continually proving themselves effective for combatting serious diseases like cancer. Even better, they can be consumed regularly to prevent chronic diseases from ever occurring.
Plant Uses: Stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, viral infections, fungal infections, depression, colds and flus, herpes virus, radiation exposure, high blood sugar, allergic rhinitis, ulcers, pain
Plant Preparations: Tea, decoction, tincture, fresh juice, poultice, powder, infused into ghee or honey
Holy basil is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life.
David Winston and Steve Maimes
from the book Adaptogens
Holy basil, sometimes referred to as tulsi, is a sacred plant in the Hindu religion and grows abundantly in India, western Asia, Malaysia, Central and South America, and even Puerto Rico. Its species name, sanctum, refers to this sacredness. In sanskrit, tulsi means “beyond compare”. It is also referred to as an elixir of life, queen of herbs and mother nature of medicine.
My friend from New Delhi tells me that he was taught to give reverence to this plant every morning before his feet even touch the earth. Many Hindu families grow their own tulsi plant in their home, for spiritual as well as medicinal purposes.
An altar with tulsi for daily worship in a courtyard in India
This plant is sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu. Vishnu’s wife, Tulasi, took the form of this herb when she came to earth. Besides being used in morning prayers, the wood of tulsi is used as beads in meditation, similar to how the Catholics use rosaries.
I know some of you are wondering if our common culinary plant, basil, is the same as tulsi or holy basil and the answer is no. Our culinary plant, Ocimum basilicum, is a different species although they do have some overlapping properties and uses. There are over 60 different species in the Ocimum genus.
There are at least three different types of holy basil, and while they can be used somewhat interchangeably, they also have their slight differences.
Rama Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has green leaves and is the most commonly cultivated holy basil and the easiest to find in commerce.
Krishna Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has leaves that are more purple in color.
Vana Tulsi (Ocimum gratissimum) is a perennial basil that is hard to find in commerce. In India it grows in the wild.
I cultivate both Ocimum sanctum (annual) and Ocimum gratissimum (perennial). To me, O. gratissimum is more bitter, colder. O. sanctum is more warming, more adaptogenic. I am thinking of using O. gratissimum for a messed up enteric influencing central nervous system, due to its more bitter nature. But that is just a gut feeling.
For over three thousand years Holy Basil has been revered as one of India’s most sacred and powerful plants.
Really think about that.
Ayurveda, one of the oldest and most sophisticated systems of medicine in the world reveres this plant. That is saying a lot! As you might imagine, a plant that holds such high esteem throughout an entire culture must be an amazing plant. And it is! This is yet another herb with powerful properties that will leave you asking, “What can’t it do?”
Adaptogen Tulsi’s main claim to fame in the western world is its use as an adaptogen. (See this herbal glossary episode to learn more about adaptogens.) In Ayurveda they refer to it as a rasayana. This term is similar to the Chinese term tonics. It basically means that this is a transformative herb and, when taken daily, it moves a person towards health. These are generally building and nourishing herbs.
I often hear people say that they don’t want to be taking herbs for the rest of their life, the idea being that if they were healthy, they wouldn’t need to take herbs. In this sense, people are equating herbs with pharmaceutical drugs. However, in other systems of healing like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, specific herbs are taken for a lifetime to ensure vibrant health and longevity. Holy basil is one of these herbs.
It brings me back into my body, from the overactive Vata part of me. When there is a whirlwind of ideas and planning of future projects, when I am gardening but not even there, lost in my head, it brings me back into my body. Mind clarity, yes, but a clarity of the present moment, and a sharpening of all the senses. I see and hear more sharply, I feel the sun on my skin, the weight of my body. I am more in tune with intuition. Things slow down a bit. What Matt Wood uses wood betony for, I would use holy basil for (reconnecting with your enteric nervous system).
Holy basil not only helps the body adapt to stress, it can also promote energy and endurance. One way it does this is by increasing the body’s ability to efficiently use oxygen.
Holy basil is a relaxing nervine that can help calm the mind and recover from our hustle and bustle culture. It has also been shown to positively effect people who are diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
David Winston refers to holy basil as a cerebral stimulant and uses it for people with mental fog.
It can be combined with other cerebral stimulants such as rosemary, bacopa, and ginkgo to help people with menopausal cloudy thinking, poor memory, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and to speed up recovery from head trauma.
David Winston and Steven Maimes
from the book Adaptogens
Aromatic digestive Like our common culinary basil, holy basil has many positive effects on the digestive system. As a slightly warming and aromatic herb it is used to promote stagnant digestion and it is often paired with dried ginger for this purpose. Stagnant digestion is when you eat a meal and feel like it is stuck. One might also experience bloating, gas, decreased appetite and nausea. Tulsi is also helpful for heartburn and can help to heal ulcers.
The fresh juice sweetened with honey is used for intestinal parasites. And it is considered to be an hepatoprotective herb, or an herb that protects the liver from harm.
Blood glucose regulating Holy basil has been shown to help regulate blood sugar in diabetics and specifically can lower fasting blood glucose significantly. One reasoning for this ability may be its high antioxidant levels. Someone who is taking insulin to control their diabetes might need to approach this herb with caution and adjust their insulin levels accordingly.
Cardiovascular tonic Tulsi has many beneficial actions on the heart. It is slightly blood thinning and promotes good circulation. It can lower stress-related high blood pressure and taken daily it can help optimize cholesterol levels. Stress can play an ugly role in overall cardiovascular health and the adaptogenic properties of tulsi can help mediate stress-related damage.
In Ayurveda, a formula that is balancing to all who take it (tridoshic) is made up of tulsi, arjuna and hawthorne.
For musculoskeletal pain In scientific studies, holy basil has been shown to be a COX 2 inhibitor (many modern pain medications are COX 2 inhibitors), making it useful against arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Tulsi is high in eugenol, a constituent also found in cloves, which is helpful to decrease pain.
Immunomodulator Holy basil helps to strengthen and modulate the immune system. It can be taken to both prevent and address current upper respiratory viruses like the cold or flu. This expectorant herb also has an affinity for the lungs and can be used for bronchitis as well as pulmonary weakness. Taken over time it can have a beneficial effect on asthma and has also been shown helpful in alleviating allergic rhinitis symptoms like seasonal hay fever.
Add some ginger and honey to tulsi tea to help soothe an irritated sore throat.
As an anti-microbial herb it can be used topically or internally to treat bacterial, viral and fungal infections. It is frequently used for herpes sore outbreaks (viral infection) and can also be applied externally to ringworm infections and eczema. (Taken internally its effects on the liver and digestion also help with eczema.)
Tulsi has the ability to reduce cancerous tumors and can also protect healthy cells from radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Botanically speaking For this botanical section let’s concentrate on Ocimum sanctum, Rama Tulsi. This is the easiest herb to find in commerce and if you can grow basil, then you can grow this one.
As a member of the mint family it has the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves.
Photo by Forest and Kim Starr
The flowers have the familiar lipped shape of the mint family.
It likes to grow in full sun with moderate water and fertile well-draining soils.
As the plant forms flowers, gently pluck these off to avoid the plant going to seed too early in the season. Also, by occasionally plucking off these flowers you will encourage the plant to branch and continue growing. If you are wanting to collect the seeds for next year’s crop you can grow a special plant just for seed production, or stop plucking the flowers early enough in the season that the seeds will develop.
Normally, it’s an annual plant that needs about 80 days until maturity. In some tropical climates it may grow for five years.
Preparing holy basil as medicine The most common way to prepare holy basil is as a tea. Because of its high volatile oil content it is steeped for 5-10 minutes covered. You can start with 1 tsp of the leaf and increase as desired. I’ve seen recommendations of up to 4 ounces per day so this will be difficult to take too much of.
In Ayurveda the fresh juice is often used for remedies and my friend and herbalist Christophe (who adores holy basil) says that he strongly prefers fresh leaves for tea or as a fresh tincture.
As a fresh herb tincture one could start with 40 – 60 drops of a 1:2 tincture, 2 – 3 times a day.
Special Considerations Tulsi might have an anti-fertility effect on both men and women and thus should not be taken by couples wishing to conceive or by pregnant women. It is slightly blood thinning and should not be taken by those who are currently taking warfarin. Those who are taking insulin to control their diabetes may need to adjust their insulin levels while taking tulsi.
Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes
Holy Basil Monograph by Steven Maims
Personal correspondence with herbalist and holy basil aficionado Christophe Bernard
Tulasi Devi: Goddess of Devotion by Sarvaga and Gunavati