Ancient Siberian folklore tells of a dark, potent fungus growing on the bark of black birch trees, with the power to promote longevity, boost the human immune system, and soothe a range of ailments. Modern science supports many health benefits of this super fungus—known to most as chaga—as well as those of its Eastern cousin, reishi. And thanks to innovative cultivation practices, we can benefit from these natural healers without damaging the sensitive forests in which they grow.
Know your medicinal mushrooms
Mushrooms are often haunted by an unfairly insalubrious reputation—but contrary to popular perception, most mushrooms are not toxic or psychoactive. In fact, there are four subcategories of mushroom: poisonous, psychedelic, culinary, and medicinal.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used throughout humankind’s history to treat ailments ranging from cancer to infections. With the backing of modern science, many of these mushrooms have exploded in popularity as natural health supplements. Today, you can find medicinal mushroom extract in the form of capsules, powders, sprays, and even food items.
Mycelium is the vegetative structure of fungi. Mycelium is like the root system that gathers and absorbs nutrients, while the “fruiting bodies” of mycelium are what we call mushrooms. Studies have shown that medicinal mushrooms’ benefits aren’t restricted to the fruiting bodies. The mycelium has immune-supporting effects too.
Chaga and reishi—the stars of the mushroom kingdom
Two medicinal mushrooms stand out due to their particularly potent and wide-ranging health benefits: chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). Both chaga and reishi contain a treasure trove of bioactive compounds with antioxidant, anticancer, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
Chaga, warrior from the north
Often referred to as the “king” of medicinal mushrooms, chaga (from the Russian tschaga) is a rare white rot fungus that thrives in the cold climates of North America, northern Europe, and Russia. It’s not traditionally beautiful—chaga grows as a lopsided, charcoal-black parasitical mass on the bark of hardwood trees—but its charred exterior belies incredible healing potential.
Research suggests chaga can suppress the growth of cancerous cells. With its antibacterial and antiviral properties, it’s also a potent immune system supporter that may help us fight off harmful pathogens without toxic side effects. Chaga may also help reduce inflammation in the body and ease the itch of seasonal allergies.
Shiny red and kidney-shaped, wild reishi grows in tropical or temperate climates on deciduous trees like maple. Reishi is known as the “mushroom of immortality” in traditional Chinese medicine thanks to its antiaging powers. Antibacterial and antiviral, reishi has been prized for its ability to combat fatigue and promote relaxation.
Reishi may help the body recover from brain, liver, and skin injuries. With its anticancer compounds, reishi has also been used to help protect the body during radiation and chemotherapy.
Eat, drink—and use medicinal mushrooms!
Earthy tasting and rich, chaga and reishi supplements are creative additions to your pantry.
Combining common herbal ingredients with mushroom mycelium, tea infusions have been used to extract mushrooms’ goodness for centuries.
Coffee blended with medicinal mushroom extract gives you an immune system boost along with a caffeine fix.
Dark chocolate infused with the mycelium of organic mushrooms makes for a supercharged indulgence.
Blend mushroom extract powder into your next smoothie for an extra antioxidant hit.
Use chaga and reishi powder for a punchy addition to these protein-packed treats.
More medicinal mushrooms
For centuries, the following mushrooms have been used for a variety of health concerns. Today’s scientific research continues to unearth more benefits.
Mushroom, Botanical name, Potential medicinal uses
- cordyceps, Cordyceps sinensis, to stimulate the immune system, increase physical endurance, and promote antitumor activity
- lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, to help reduce anxiety and depression
- maitake, Grifola frondosa, to provide critical immune system support
- shiitake, Lentinus edodes, to strengthen immune function and help maintain healthy cholesterol levels
- turkey tail, Coriolus versicolor, to promote survival of cancer patients while easing harsh side effects of chemotherapy
Choose sustainably harvested mushrooms
Where your mushrooms come from matters. Medicinal mushrooms’ explosion in popularity means that demand for fungi often outstrips their natural growth, threatening our forests’ delicate ecosystems.
“Large-scale commercial harvesting of wild chaga mushrooms would quickly endanger—and eventually eliminate—native populations,” says Christine Hecktor, associate brand manager at Host Defense, a mushroom supplement company. “Mushroom harvesting that is truly sustainable will leave the majority of the mushroom intact and undisturbed.”
Host Defense supplements, for example, use chaga cultivated in a lab from a sample of a wild specimen no wider than the diameter of a pen. This harvesting process preserves the mushroom and the host tree in their natural habitat, while the lab sample continues to grow for decades to come. To protect deciduous trees, reishi is often cultivated for commercial purposes on hardwood logs or woodchips.
Cultivating small samples and reproducing them in the lab allows Host Defense to include nutrient-rich mushroom mycelium—something that can’t be harvested in the wild—in their supplements, increasing the efficacy and potency of the formulas’ immune-boosting abilities.
And go organic too
Finally, remember that mushrooms are always a product of their environments—and that includes any toxins, pollutants, heavy metals, or pesticides.
“Because mushrooms naturally bioaccumulate substances from their surrounding soil, we recommend a mushroom supplement that is grown organically,” says Hecktor.