Edible mushrooms have become a hot topic, with claims that they can do everything from boosting our defense against viruses and other pathogens to protecingt us against cancer to supporting healthy brain function to improving our response to stress.
But do mushrooms live up to the hype? Read on to find out.
Edible mushrooms: an ancient remedy rediscovered by modern science
Edible mushrooms have a long history of use in traditional medicine. In China, they’ve been used for thousands of years (estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 years).
The Shennong Bencao Jing, the oldest known list of edible substances (dating to the 29th century BCE), lists several species of mushrooms, including Ganoderma lucidum—aka Lingzhi in Chinese and Reishi in Japanese. Several centuries later, in the 6th century AD, another medical text called Bencao Jing Jingzhu lists even more species of edible mushrooms.
The use of edible mushrooms wasn’t limited to China. One of the oldest human mummies ever found (“Ötzi’ the Iceman”, discovered 4,000 years ago in an area between Austria and Italy) was found with Piptoporus betulinus in his medicine kit. This mushroom is still used today as a natural antibiotic and antiparasitic.
Hieroglyphics in Egypt describe mushrooms as plants of immortality and “sons of Gods” sent to the earth on lightning bolts. In Egyptian culture, mushrooms were so revered that they were only eaten by pharaohs, nobles, and priests in holy rituals.
Some sources suggest that Vikings may have consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms before battle, which casts new light on their famed “Berserker” method of battle!
Today, interest in edible mushrooms is at an all-time high. They’ve become the focus of both popular interest and scientific research. There are now over 400 studies published on Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) alone—which is likely more than the combined scientific research that had been published on all mushrooms just 30 years ago.
Why is this? What makes mushrooms so special? I’ll spend the rest of this article answering that question, but in short:
- Mushrooms are a rich source of vitamins and minerals. In fact, some mushrooms have as high as 12 percent total mineral content! They are particularly rich in zinc, copper, iron, phosphorus, and potassium.
- Mushrooms are one of the highest dietary sources of beta-glucans, a special type of soluble fiber that is being intensively studied for its benefits on the immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and neurological systems.
- Mushrooms have shown exciting potential for supporting our brain health as we age, and may play a role in protecting against neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are increasing in prevalence each year.
- Mushrooms can increase our resistance to viral (and bacterial and fungal) infections, which is obviously highly relevant in the post-Covid era we live in.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the incredible potential of edible mushrooms.
Beta-glucans: Not just your ordinary soluble fiber!
Beta-glucans are a type of soluble fiber. Unlike insoluble fiber, soluble fiber dissolves easily in water and forms a mucilaginous (i.e. gel-like substance) in the gut. Soluble fiber can help promote bowel regularity and healthy lipid and blood sugar levels.
But beta-glucans aren’t just an ordinary type of soluble fiber. They have a wide range of functions and benefits because of their unique chemical structure. Beta-glucans are often referred to as “biological response modifiers” because they activate and regulate the immune system.
The capacity of beta-glucan to do this explains their diverse effects. They can increase our resistance to viral, bacterial, and fungal infections; inhibit tumor growth and reduce the replication of cancer cells; modulate and regulate the immune system; and even improve our sleep and our response to stress, thanks to the connection between the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. (1, 2, 3)
Beta-glucans also feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut and improve the composition of our microbiome. This is important for our gut health, of course. But we now know that there’s a direct connection between the gut and virtually every other organ system in the body.
For example, research has shown that disrupted gut flora is linked to everything from brain fog to poor memory to dementia and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease, and improving gut health with compounds like beta-glucans can protect against and even reverse cognitive dysfunction.
A study published in 2020 in the journal Microbiome found that supplementation with beta-glucans improved several measures of cognition and brain function with major benefits for the gut microbiota-brain axis.
Turkey Tail and Reishi have the highest concentration of beta-glucans of all edible mushrooms.
Other healing compounds in mushrooms
Beta-glucans aren’t the only healing substances in mushrooms; they also contain terpenes and phenolic compounds. You might be familiar with these compounds from other plants. For example, the terpenes in cannabis have received a lot of attention over the past few years, and the essential oils in plants like lavender and mint are mostly made up of terpenes.
Over 300 terpenes have been identified in Reishi-like mushrooms alone, and many of them are still being identified and studied for their beneficial effects. The terpenes in Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) are believed to be responsible for this mushroom’s incredible nerve-regenerating effects.
Research on the terpenes in mushrooms is still ongoing, but studies have already shown tremendous potential benefits, including anticancer, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and liver-protective effects. (4)
The top 8 edible mushrooms
Now that you have a better understanding of the general benefits of mushrooms let’s look more closely at eight of the most potent species of edible mushrooms.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi is the top-selling edible mushroom—and for good reason. It has several immune-supportive and anti-microbial properties; it supports normal glucose metabolism and liver health; it reduces inflammation and protects against oxidative damage; it inhibits tumor growth; improves cognitive function; it relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and it benefits the lungs and respiratory tract. (5, 6)
The triterpenes and polysaccharides in Reishi mushrooms have been shown to protect against the destructive proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease and reduce the inflammation in brain cells that drives Parkinson’s disease. (7, 8)
As noted above, Reishi has one of the highest concentrations of beta-glucans of all edible mushrooms. This explains, at least in part, why it is the subject of many clinical studies investigating its ability to activate the immune response against cancer cells in the body.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga has a long history of use in traditional and folk medicine, especially by the Khanty people of Siberia. It contains over 200 biologically active molecules, including betulinic acid, which has anti-cancer, antiviral, antibacterial, and antiparasitic effects. What makes betulinic acid especially useful in cancer applications is that, while it is toxic to cancer cells, it does not appear to harm normal, healthy cells. (7) Studies also show that Chaga may help promote healthy metabolic function. It regulates blood sugar and insulin levels, and it helps prevent oxidative stress. (8)
Like Reishi and Lion’s Mane, Chaga also has powerful brain-supporting effects: it protects against age-related memory loss and blocks the damaging effects of free radicals in the brain. (9)
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lion’s Mane is not only one of the most therapeutic mushrooms, it’s also beautiful (with a coral-like, or “shaggy mane” like appearance) and delicious to eat. It is perhaps best known for its ability to support the nervous system and the brain: it helps to repair nerves, reduces inflammation in brain cells, inhibits structural deterioration in the brain, and improves memory and cognitive function. It has also shown promise for its ability to support a healthy mood and reduce the symptoms of depression. (9, 10, 11)
Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)
Wild cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) certainly wins the award for the creepiest edible mushroom: it’s a club-shaped fungus that grows out of the head of a ghost moth caterpillar that has been completely digested by the fungal mycelium. But because wild Cordyceps is in such short supply, Cordyceps militaris is used as a more affordable and sustainable alternative.
Cordyceps has been revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over a thousand years. It is most widely known as a tonic for sexual potency, energy, vitality, and athletic performance. Today, studies suggest that cordyceps indeed improves exercise performance and reduce fatigue. It also balances and regulates immune function and supports sexual health and reproduction. And cordyceps protects against memory loss, prevents brain cell damage, and reduces inflammation in the brain. It also stimulates the production of brain cells. (12, 13, 14)
Turkey Tail (Tramates versicolor)
Turkey Tail is the most-researched edible mushroom, with over 400 published studies documenting its effects. It contains a very high concentration of beta-glucans (more than 50 percent), which contributes significantly to its beneficial properties.
Turkey Tail has been intensively for its immune-stimulating and anti-cancer properties. It has been used in more than 40 clinical trials with almost 20,000 patients with stomach, colorectal, esophageal, and breast cancers. These trials suggest that Turkey Tail may help improve survival rates, reduce symptoms of nausea, fatigue, and low appetite, reduce the chances of cancer reoccurrence, and protect healthy cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy. Turkey Tail also helps to prevent viral infections and reduces inflammation. (15, 16, 17, 18, 19)
Shitake (Lentinula edodes)
Shitake is a mushroom that most people are familiar with; it’s the second-most widely cultivated mushroom in the world, and you can buy it at most grocery stores. While it’s perhaps best known for its culinary uses, it has many health benefits as well. It supports both cardiovascular and metabolic health (by lowering cholesterol and regulating blood sugar); it helps to prevent viral and bacterial infections; and, it is being used by some oncologists during cancer treatment programs to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and possibly extend survival times. (20, 21, 22, 23, 24)
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Maitake is another delicious culinary mushroom that is also revered in Japan and other Asian countries for its health benefits. It is best known for its ability to regulate blood sugar, modulate the immune system, and reduce tumor growth. It is also a rich source of some essential nutrients, including protein, vitamin D, and B-vitamins, as well as beta-glucans (26 percent). (25)
Agaricus (Agaricus subrufescens)
This mushroom comes from the same genus as button, portobello, and crimini mushrooms. However, it has more potent health effects than those commonly eaten varieties. Studies have shown that it can help to improve insulin sensitivity in people with blood sugar abnormalities, it reduces inflammation (especially in the liver), and it may be helpful in supporting cancer treatment. (26, 27, 28)
How to get the benefits of edible mushrooms
There are three main ways to ingest edible mushrooms and benefit from their healing properties.
Some of the mushrooms that I mentioned above, like Lion’s Mane, Shitake, and Maitake, are not only revered for their edible value—they’re also delicious! With a little bit of education and practice, you can start incorporating them into your diet on a regular basis.
It’s important to note that you must eat mushrooms cooked in order to access the active compounds in their cell walls, like beta-glucans. The beta-glucans in mushrooms are tightly bound to another compound called chitin (a tough protein/sugar polymer that comprises the outer shell of crustaceans like lobster), and only about 20 percent of beta-glucans are soluble without significant heating. So, if you want to get the edible benefits of mushrooms, don’t eat them raw! Sautee them, add them to soups or stews, or bake them with other ingredients.
I recommend that everyone incorporate at least some mushrooms into their diet. However, some of the most potent edible mushrooms are difficult to find in the store or don’t taste good, so I also suggest following one of the approaches below in order to get the full benefits that edible mushrooms have to offer.
Make your own mushroom medicine
Some of the edible mushrooms, like Chaga and Reishi, are bitter or chewy (or both!) when consumed fresh and are more difficult to cook with. In these cases, it may be best to make your own medicine by converting the mushrooms into a decoction (i.e. tea), a powdered extract, or a tincture. And, if you’re adventurous, you can learn how to gather your own mushrooms and dehydrate and store them for edible use!
If you choose to make your own medicine, my favorite resource for learning how to do that is a book called Christopher Hobbs’s Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide: Boost Immunity, Improve Memory, Fight Cancer, Stop Infection, and Expand Your Consciousness. It has an entire chapter called “Making Mushroom Medicine” that explains how to store and prepare edible mushrooms in numerous ways.
(Make sure to check out my interview with Dr. Christopher Hobbs on my podcast, Revolution Health Radio, if you’re interested in a deep dive into all things edible mushroom!)
Take a mushroom supplement
If you want to get the full benefits of edible mushrooms but don’t have the time or interest to make your own medicine, taking a mushroom supplement is the best option.
Here are some tips on what to look for in a mushroom supplement:
- It should contain a blend of the best-researched and most potent edible mushrooms (see the list of the top 8 that I recommend earlier in the article).
- It should contain a clinically-relevant dose of each mushroom (>200 mg of each and >1,600 mg of total mushrooms per serving)
- It should be a full-spectrum concentrate (rather than a simple extract), utilizing the whole mushroom parts: fruiting bodies, mycelium, primordia, and the extracellular compounds they naturally produce (enzymes, acids, and anti-microbials).
- They should be grown on sorghum rather than common material, such as sawdust, straw, or compost. 95% of sorghum is digested, leaving only a small amount (5%) of starch (alpha-glucan). Many mushroom products contain as much as 50% alpha-glucan, which is not edible and may interfere with the benefits of the mushrooms.
Unfortunately, due to the rising popularity of mushroom supplements, the quality of many products on the market is poor. Using the criteria above will help you to find a high-quality product and ensure that you get the incredible benefits that edible mushrooms have to offer.
I hope this article was helpful to you and that it inspires you to start incorporating mushrooms into your daily health routine!