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Q: Do mushrooms really have medicinal qualities? How do I know which mushroom I need?
Mushrooms have been used throughout human history for food, clothing, tools, and medicine. Writings about mushrooms are featured in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Traditional Chinese Herbs, dated from 1644. Fungi and humans share up to 50 percent of their DNA, whereas most plants share less than 10 percent of their DNA with humans. Fungi and humans can both be infected by common pathogens, but fungi are much more adept at manufacturing compounds to combat these pathogens than are humans.
Because of the similarities between fungi and animals, our bodies can digest, assimilate, and utilize these fungi as functional foods. Most people are familiar with the fruitbody (mushroom cap), which is the end stage of the fungal life cycle. But the mycelium (underground network) also holds crucial health-promoting compounds for repair and regeneration. The fruitbody is the reproductive stage of the fungi with seed-like spores for complete reproduction. Compounds found in the fruiting bodies are just one part of the full range of mushroom constituents. Mushrooms confer benefits to multiple systems in the human body including the cardiovascular, digestive, neurological, immune, reproductive, skin, skeletal, and muscular systems.
The claim most frequently attached to mushrooms, for good reason, is that they can support healthy human immune function in general, and many have specific anticancer potential. Lion’s mane (so named due to its shaggy appearance) excels on this front. Studies show that lion’s mane stimulates natural killer (NK) cell activity. NK cells are our primary defense against many types of viruses as well as cancerous tumors. Lion’s mane extracts also stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which promotes myelin sheath growth in nerve cells. Healthy myelin sheaths are important for efficient neuron communication.
Medicinal mushrooms are also known to help regulate blood sugar. If blood sugar is wildly vacillating, our health cannot be stable. Blood sugar stability isn’t difficult to achieve with consistent, intelligent food choices, and regular exercise, but far too many Americans don’t meet those minimum requirements, so they need a little help. Maitake, reishi, and cordyceps mushroom extracts are documented to help reduce both blood sugar and insulin levels after just one week of ingestion.
Reishi, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms have also been shown to help lower high blood pressure, particularly reishi, which is also a remedy for anxiety and insomnia. If you need a non-jangly “pick me up” on the other hand, go for turkey tail or cordyceps to combat low energy levels.
Mushroom products can be found in health food stores throughout the world. In my opinion, the best products combine extraction methods to maximize all the health-promoting constituents to the consumer. Some medicinal constituents in mushrooms are water-soluble, while others are alcohol (ethanol)-soluble. Some compounds need to be extracted in hot water (such as indigestible fiber, beta-glucans, glycoproteins, and other high-molecular weight compounds), whereas some are best extracted in cold water (the extracellular metabolites from the mycelium at the temperature range at which the fungi’s own immune systems are most active). Look for a brand that offers these multiple methods of extraction.
Mushrooms may be found as tinctures (extracted with alcohol, but also hopefully with water, both hot and cold), or dried and ground and placed into capsules.
Written by LAc for Better Nutrition and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.