Mushrooms are great tasting: full of that unquantifiable ‘umami’ flavour, but did you know they are also remarkably good for our bodies? This ‘top ten’ have health benefits to virtually every body system, and can become a great staple in a plant-based diet, particularly in those dishes where the ‘meaty’ quality is missed, or to flavor drinks. Take a look at my own favorite mushrooms and learn about their benefits to your health, nutrition, immunity, brain function, and even beauty!
Incredibly rare in the wild, reishi mushrooms grow at the base of deciduous trees such as maple and are also known as the ‘mushroom of immortality’. This might explain why they have had such a firm place in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. They are known to have antioxidant properties, and have been of increasing interest in the treatment of cancer. This is probably due to their ability to enhance tumor response to chemotherapy by sharpening the body’s own immune system thanks to the beta-glucans found within them. In addition, the plant sterols found in reishi mushrooms act as steroid precursors and can help in lowering cholesterol levels in those with mild elevation according to one trial. It is most easily obtained as an ingredient to be added to teas and coffees, for its slightly nutty, woody flavor.
Found on the back of birch trees, the blackened charcoal appearance of chaga comes from the large amount of melanin, a type of pigmentation that even us as humans have in our skin. Most commonly seen in Russian forests as a parasitic tree infection, it has been historically made into a fine powder and brewed as a tea or coffee, which releases the beta-glucans renowned for their selectivity in killing cancer cells. It is also suggested that chaga mushrooms can reduce fatigue and increase cognitive performance, but they should be consumed only in small amounts as they are very high in oxalates, a contributor to kidney stones.
The lion’s mane fungus has many different names, including the very apt ‘pom-pom mushroom’. Found across North America, Europe and Northern Asia, it has been used as medicine for hundreds of years. It is known for its neuroprotective and nootropic effects – it goes much further than simply preserving brain cells, it can actually enhance their function by improving memory and functioning. This is achieved by increasing nerve growth factor levels in the brain, growing brain cell insulation, or myelination, and improving long-term electrical signals. As if this was not enough, lion’s mane has anxiolytic effects and anti-inflammatory properties. Its only apparent downside is a hypersensitivity in those with allergies or asthma, much like taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and so it’s generally advised that those affected should avoid lion’s mane. In terms of cooking inspiration, lion’s mane is particularly delicious sautéed over a medium heat, a little Himalayan salt and black pepper, and sprinkled with some fresh thyme.
Maitake, ‘the dancing mushroom’ or ‘hen-of-the-wood’, grows in clusters at the bottom of large, well-established trees such as oaks. It is native to China, Northern Japan, and North America, and has been held in high esteem for thousands of years in Japanese and Chinese herbal medicine. A 2009 trial by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center showed that the mushroom stimulated the immune system in patients receiving treatment for breast cancer, by encouraging the activity of natural killer cells. It has been reported to have an anti-diabetic effect, lowering blood sugar levels via a naturally occurring alpha-glucosidase inhibitor. In the kitchen, break them into small pieces by hand to preserve their natural texture, and add as a topping to home-made galettes or as a staple in a soba and soy broth.
One of the most famous of all the edible mushrooms, shiitake is native to Eastern Asia and actually makes up around 25% of the world’s yearly mushroom crop! They have less than one percent fat as a raw food, and are rich in those elusive B-vitamins. In Japan, they are served in miso soup, whereas Chinese chefs tend to sauté them into vegetable dishes. Moreover, they have been used over hundreds of years for their antibacterial and antiviral properties, and contain a chemical called lentinan which appears to help heal chromosomal damage caused by cancer chemotherapy. In fact, shiitake mushrooms contain all eight essential amino acids and plenty of helpful phytonutrients which improve blood flow and prevent plaque build-up in the walls of blood vessels, protecting against lifestyle-related cardiovascular disease.
One of the known psychedelic fungi, evidence of psilocybin consumption was shown in Stone Age artwork and Central and South American sculptures from the pre-Columbian era. Still awaiting FDA approval, research has demonstrated potential to treat psychiatric or behavioural disorders, including addiction management. Johns Hopkins University found a significantly improved abstinence from tobacco use in subjects treated with psilocybin over twelve months, and another pilot study showed improved quality of life in those suffering with life-limiting cancer diagnoses. Psilocybin is said to have the greatest risks from consumption in uncontrolled environments, but also holds the most promise for hard-to-treat psychiatric conditions. It’s important to remember that it remains a Schedule I drug according to the DEA.
Covering around 400 species of fungi, the cordyceps are found across Asia, abundantly so in tropical forests. Incredibly, the fungus can achieve parasitic status not just on trees, but also in small insects too, hijacking the host’s organ function and eventually entirely replacing it. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine extensively for kidney condition and impotency, as well as in lung or skin cancers. Interestingly, cordyceps has been shown to improve athletic performance, measured with VO2max, and is thought to occur via increased ATP production, delivering more oxygen to exercising muscles. They also contain those wonderful antioxidants, which may explain the anti-aging effects purported in those who take cordyceps regularly.
Identified by its namesake, the turkey tail mushroom looks just like the tail plumage of a wild turkey. Similarly to other edible fungi, it contains polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, which have been shown to improve the body’s innate immune response, particularly in the setting of cancer treatments, but also in the prevention and treatment of the common cold and influenza. Importantly in the case of turkey tail, it contains the perfect balance of probiotics that will help aid digestion and the proliferation of gut-friendly bacteria such as Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium.
With a bitter taste and better resigned to consumption in tea, the meshima mushroom grows wild on mulberry trees. It has been shown that the mushroom has anti-breast cancer activity, backed by Harvard Medical School, though more research is needed. A number of the compounds isolated from meshima mushrooms were found to stimulate humoral immune function, and dampen inflammatory responses. Most popular in Korea, meshima is dried to a powder and steeped in hot water as a health tea, as it has high levels of antioxidants – as much as vitamin C! Those with eczema may benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of a skin care preparation containing meshima, and there is potential in skin cancer and melanoma prevention.
Looking more like an underwater coral than a mushroom, the snow mushroom takes its name from its translucent, snowflake-like appearance, albeit with a gelatinous texture. It is found in abundance in the tropics surrounding the Equator, and is used in Chinese cuisine for its flavorless texture in sweetened dishes. More recently, it has been used to make dessert soups, drinks and ice creams and has even been added to skincare products after being dubbed ‘the new hyaluronic acid’ for its antioxidant and anti-aging effects.
From teas to tinctures, stews to sweets, mushrooms have been used for thousands of years as natural medicines around the world. Many of the edible fungi on the market taste great (even in simple dishes!) but have fantastic health benefits too. They can boost our immune system, soothe inflamed skin, and may help in the fight against cancer. Why not try out a couple next time you spot one in your local store or farmer’s market and see how great they make you feel?
XO – Serena