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Mad About Mushrooms: How to Choose and Use Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms aren't your average mushrooms. Featuring unique natural compounds, these mushrooms can benefit your health in a number of ways like lowering blood sugar, fighting inflammation and strengthening the immune system.

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Move over portobello mushrooms – it’s time to give some love to your more potent cousins, medicinal mushrooms.

No, we’re not talking about magic mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms are equally powerful, but their potential is in the ways they may benefit many different aspects of your health. From boosting energy to enhanced immune function to helping you unwind at night, there’s a mushroom for almost anything.

There are a few compounds in mushrooms that have been linked to health benefits. The main compounds include beta-D-glucans, triterpenoids and ergosterol. Beta-D-glucans are a naturally occurring structural component of the cell wall that can activate or potentiate both innate and adaptive immunity. Triterpenoids also impact the immune system and work with beta-D-glucans to do so. They play a role in liver protection, histamine response, antioxidant activity and inflammation too. Ergosterol in mushrooms, meanwhile, is similar to cholesterol in humans and plays a role in immunomodulation and antioxidant activity.

The medicinal mushroom market has been growing in popularity and availability. Some of these beneficial mushrooms are considered culinary mushrooms – meaning you can use them in cooking. Just make sure to cook them well, at high temperatures, which will break down any toxic compounds. Other mushrooms are strictly available in capsules, tinctures or powdered form. Companies like Four Sigmatic and Om make some of our favorite powdered mushroom products.  

Which fungi can have the biggest impact on your health? Here’s a look at some of our favorite medicinal mushrooms.

Shiitake

Shiitake
Photo: Jensine Eckwall

The most popular of the culinary mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms are loaded with B-vitamins – and they’re great for a number of health concerns and conditions. Shiitake mushrooms can help reduce blood sugar, may improve cardiovascular health and can reduce inflammation. 

It’s a great mushroom variety to cook with, as shiitakes have a very meaty texture. Remove and discard the tough, woody stems before using, then saute with olive oil, garlic and coconut aminos for a delicious side dish. You can make this medicinal mushroom the star of your plate in dishes like the Shiitake Skillet Bake with Mushroom Gravy or a Shiitake “BLT” Sandwich.

Lion’s Mane

Lion's Mane
Photo: Jensine Eckwall

What organ does a lion’s mane mushroom look like? If you said the brain, you’d be right. And that’s also the clue as to its primary function: improving brain health. 

Lion’s mane is a mushroom that’s been used to promote cognitive function for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Nerve growth factor synthesis, which is tied to the regulation of brain neuron growth, maintenance, survival and proliferation, may be induced by certain compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms. 

If you’re lucky enough to find this kind of medicinal mushroom at your local market, saute it in olive oil or ghee with plenty of garlic, salt and pepper until lightly golden. 

Maitake

Maitake
Photo: Jensine Eckwall

Also known as the “King of Mushrooms” or hen-of-the-wood, maitake mushrooms help regulate the immune system by stimulating lymphocytes, or a kind of white blood cell that’s a natural killer cell. These mushrooms can also help regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and they have antiviral properties. Laboratory studies and small uncontrolled studies in humans show that maitake extracts have the potential to slow the growth of tumors and stimulate certain immune cells

Maitake mushrooms are available fresh or dried in gourmet markets, Asian markets or upscale supermarkets. They can be simply stir-fried or sauteed and then pureed into a soup. You can also use maitake mushrooms in dishes like Mushroom Cashew Lettuce Wraps and a Quinoa-Mushroom Frittata with Fresh Herbs.

Cordyceps

Cordyceps
Photo: Jensine Eckwall

Used for increasing energy because of its ability to increase ATP production, cordyceps can be used to improve athletic performance. In TCM, cordyceps have been used for lung-related issues like asthma and seasonal allergies. 

Look for cordyceps militaris extract and add to soups or stews. You can also turn this medicinal mushroom extract into a tea. Cordyceps mushroom powder can also be used to make quite a few different kinds of dishes, from desserts like Chocolate Raspberry Bars with Cordyceps to salad dressings like the one featured in this Riced-Broccoli Buddha Bowl with Herbed Chicken.

Turkey Tail

Turkey Tail
Photo: Jensine Eckwall

This medicinal mushroom, which looks like the tail feathers of a turkey, improves immune function by stimulating cytokine production, increasing natural killer cells (lymphocytes) and other immune-boosting functions. It has the highest level of beta-D-glucans of all mushrooms. However, turkey tail must be taken regularly to experience the immune system benefits.

Instead of searching for this particular mushroom at local stores, it’s best to use turkey tail extracts. You can find these supplements in liquid or capsule form.

Reishi

Reishi

Have you ever sipped some reishi tea? At the end of the day, sitting down and enjoying a hot mug of reishi mushroom steeped in hot water can be great for your health. This medicinal mushroom brew promotes a sense of relaxation and can encourage better sleep. 

In order to feel the benefits of reishi, however, it must be used daily for at least two months. Regular use of reishi has also been associated with improved immune function. 

Get a daily dose yourself by incorporating reishi mushrooms into beverages like a Reishi Golden Milk Nightcap or blending them in a smoothie.

No matter which type of medicinal mushroom you choose, the benefits for your health can be wonderful. Discover more reasons to give these mushrooms a try: