Fantastic Fungi

The 10 Most Beneficial Mushrooms for Health and Healing 

Mushrooms are finally finding their "place in the sun" as true miracles of nature, with benefits ranging from disease prevention, to environmental cleansing. Mycologist Paul Stamets describes mycelium, the web of fibrous tissue from which mushrooms emerge, as "the neurological framework or nature" that has the "the long-term health of the host environment in mind." Though his claims may seem high flung, there is ample scientific research suggesting that Mushrooms are indeed extremely versatile organic agents of change. It was only about 86 years ago that Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin from the Penicillium fungi. Since then, the mushroom's potential has been largely untapped in the Western world. While the environmental benefits of mushrooms are many, we'd like to re-illuminate the extraordinary health benefits of 'shrooms (, not that kind). We've narrowed it down to the 10 particularly friendly fungi.

1. Reishi

To start off, let's take a look at reishi mushrooms, also known as lingzhi mushrooms. One of the oldest mushrooms known to have been used medicinally, the ancient Chinese considered reishi mushrooms to be the elixir of immortality. Modern studies show that they have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties when ingested. They also produce interleukins and interferons in the body, which result in anti-viral and anti-carcinogenic effects. More benefits were discovered by a meta-analysis which showed that chemotherapy patients actually faired better when reishi was added to their treatment regimen. Due to the mushroom's bitter taste, reishi is traditionally prepared as a decoction or tea. 

Please note that mushrooms are especially absorbent and will seep up any pesticides used in their growth. That's why it is imperative that we all consume organic mushrooms!

2. Shiitake

An anti-carcinogenic compound called AHCC is what makes shiitake mushrooms especially heroic. Research has shown that AHCC is the second most popular alternative medicine among cancer patients. In addition, studies show that the AHCC inherent in shiitake mushrooms may increase the body's resistance to pathogens such as influenza or the West Nile virus, while also enhancing immune function and protecting against bacterial infection. Is there anything you can't do, Mr. Shiitake?! These 'shrooms can easily be bought fresh or taken as a supplement. However, because of their distinctly delicious flavor, we recommend adding them to your favorite recipe and cooking them up!

3. Turkey Tail

The common turkey tail mushroom is high in PSKs (polysaccharides), which have been found to display anticancer activity in the human body, especially for gastric, esophageal, colorectal, breast and lung cancers. The National Cancer Institute has solidified these claims by stating that PSKs have been "contemplated for use against... mammary cancer, gastrointestinal cancers, such as those of the esophagus, stomach... colon; lung... brain tumors." Turkey tail mushrooms can be found in a variety of different colors and sizes. Because they are supposedly quite unpalatable, our advice is to mask the taste by mixing them with strong-flavored foods or to take them in pill form.

4. Oyster

The pearl oyster mushroom may be common, but it is anything but ordinary! Not only is it used in Mycoremediational measures to degrade environmental pollutants, but studies show it also reduces cholesterol in the human body, thanks to the statins (such as lovastatin) that it contains. Frequently used in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cooking, oyster mushrooms have a mild taste with a pleasant aroma, similar to that of anise.

5. Maitake

In Japanese, maitaki means "dancing mushroom," and it's many health benefits may make you want to dance! Native to northern Japan, this popular 'shroom has been used in eastern medicine to balance altered body systems and enhance immunity. Research has shown that maitake regulates blood pressure, glucose, insulin, triglycerides, and phospholipids, and may also help those trying to lose weight! As if that weren't enough, this mushroom is rich in minerals, vitamins, fiber, and amino acids.

6. Lion's Mane

Besides it's lush, enticing appearance, lion's main has much to brag about.A study on rats in 2005 showed that certain compounds in the mushroom (threitol, D-arabinitol, and palmitic acid) have potential antioxidant effects and may aid in lipid and blood sugar regulation. Though they are wonderfully delicious and have a delightful texture, they have been ingested in pill form to treat gastric ulcers and esophageal carcinoma. Preliminary research has proven that lion's main has nerve stimulation and regeneration properties. It's thanks to these properties that the mushrooms is thought to help prevent dementia.

7. Chaga

Although it looks like some burnt, charcoal-like substance, the chaga mushroom is a fungus with a rich history of medicinal use, particularly in Russian and Eastern European folk medicine. From the 16th century to today, chaga has been administered as a hot-water extraction in certain teas and coffees. Lab studies on extract of chaga have shown potential benefits in cancer treatment and immunotherapy, while also showing strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In Japan, China and South Korea, chaga extracts are being sold and exported as anticancer medicinal supplements.

8. Agarikon

This bizarre looking thing is a a wood-decay fungus, and has been used mainly in ancient ad indigenous medicines. In 65 AD, ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote how the mushroom was successful in treating consumption, or tuberculosis. Other societies have used agarikon to treat smallpox. The mushroom, now less common, is found in many old burial sites and was once thought to be the "bread of ghosts" by indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest of North America. These tribes used Agarikon as a medicine and as a symbolic grave-marker for shamanic burials. This fungus is now hard to find and difficult to maintain, but if you do find it, make sure you imbibe it with a chaser to mask the bitter taste!

9. Cordyceps

Cordyceps is a genus of fungi that includes about 400 species. The first recorded instance of its medicinal use dates back to 15th century Tibet, where it was also used as an aphrodisiac. Although little textual proof exists, there are claims that it was also recognized as an aphrodisiac in ancient China, where it was reportedly used for thousands of years. In animal studies, cordyceps showed strong anticancer activity, as well as the ability to protect bone marrow and the immune system. Another experiment found that a chemical compound isolated from cordyceps may protect the liver from damage, while further research has suggested potential anti-depressant and hypoglycemic effects.

10. Enokitake

Enokitake is a favorite mushroom of eastern cuisine and medicine. It contains many antioxidants and has been applied in the development of vaccines and cancer immunotherapy. Recent research at the National University of Singapore states that the stalk of enokitake contains a large quantity of a particular protein named "Five"/"FIP-fve," which helps regulate the immune system. The mushroom is widely available for purchase, either canned or fresh, though expert chefs recommend that you buy fresh specimens with firm, white, shiny caps. Enjoy!

What other benefits have you discovered? Tell us in the comments below?