I am a bit of a self-proclaimed fungi fan when it comes to mushrooms, particularly those of the medicinal varieties. Upon professing my adoration for medicinal mushrooms and their exceptional health benefits, I generally get one of 3 responses: a rush of excitement as my colleague, friend or a complete stranger declares that they too are obsessed with these immune-boosting beauties, an entirely blank stare followed by mild confusion and a request for clarification “medicinal what?”, or a knowing wink and a confession that they too are into spending some time in the forest “enjoying” mushrooms. So, speaking to response #3, let’s be clear - medicinal mushrooms are not psychedelics - there is no altered mental state happening here unless you consider the potential to improve your health an alteration!
If you already share my passion for medicinal mushrooms and their health benefits, I do hope you’ll read on in the interest of shared interests and our mutual fungi fan club. For those of you who are wondering what on earth I am going on about - welcome to the conversation!
There are many species of mushroom that have significant health benefits, but for our purposes here I am going to walk you through my top five faves; Chaga, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail and Shiitake. I do hope you’ll be inspired to check them out and perhaps continue to discover more about these fab fungi on your own.
As with many health and wellness trends, medicinal mushrooms are certainly having their day in the sun (or should we say the shade?), and although some of us are just hearing about the health benefits of the medicinal fungi family members now, mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years!
Among the commercial fungi infused products to be found I’ve noticed chaga coffees and chocolates, reishi sparkling waters and a myriad of supplements supporting brain health, stress relief, and immune function as well as professing other health benefits. Not only are these products widely available on health food shop shelves but they’re popping up online, in Instagram stories and targeted posts as their growing popularity continues to rise - just like mycelium beneath the forest floor, medicinal mushrooms are everywhere!
So, what exactly are we referring to when we say medical mushrooms and how do we incorporate them into our wellness regimes?
A visit to a herbal dispensary will likely yield the opportunity to purchase dried medicinal mushroom varietals in their natural form which can be used in teas and cooking, but there are many brands that have taken these beneficial ingredients and created powders, supplements and easy to incorporate products that can be less intimidating and simple to use.
The taste factor is certainly a variable to consider when it comes to how we want to incorporate medicinal mushrooms into our diet - there’s no way around this - many of our fabulous fungi have an earthy, sometimes bitter flavour and in my opinion taste best when masked with other ingredients. I do love dark hot chocolate with a mushroom powder or a mushroom coffee or focusing on pleasing herbs and spices in a mushroom infused broth (I’ve had success making my own with my instant pot or ordering a gorgeous prefab from the folks at Live.
Alternatively, consider that supplements and tinctures have little to no taste to speak of, so that’s potentially a more palatable option for mushroom newbies.
Now before we go any further and as with all responsible natural health discussions - a disclaimer. While medicinal mushrooms can have multiple health benefits, it is always wise to check in with your health professional before adding supplements and/or new foods to your regime. The information provided here is not and does not replace medical advice. As with any supplement that you might consider adding to your wellness routine it’s certainly possible to have an allergic or adverse reaction, so it is always wise to proceed with caution when introducing new substances.
In addition, a quick note about foraging - while it is absolutely wondrous to wander through the forest and discover all of the brilliant mushroom species hidden in plain sight, it’s important to be able to identify beyond a shadow of doubt what you’re looking at if you’re even going to consider ingesting. Foraging for mushrooms is wonderful and should be done with expertise, but for the purpose of our conversation today we’ll stick with the understanding that we’re sourcing medicinal mushroom products from reputable sources.
All that said, I am a huge proponent of medicinal mushrooms and use them daily in my wellness routine whether it’s taking supplements to manage stress, using infused protein powder to support immune function, or relaxing with a chaga chai flavoured kombucha, I simply can’t get enough of the myriad of medicinal mushroom benefits. So, let’s take an amble down the forest path and explore some of my favourite fungi shall we?
A particularly popular medicinal mushroom, chaga has an outer black layer and grows primarily on birch trees in northern parts of Europe, Asia, as well as in Canada and in the more northeastern areas of the United States. Chaga is quite often found in all sorts of health food products ranging from tinctures and powders to hot chocolate, coffee and tea, sodas, protein powder, and chocolate bars to name a few. So, what makes it such a popular addition to our healthy regime? Well for starters incorporating chaga into our wellness practices can greatly contribute to our general health. Four Sigmatic, one of the OG medicinal mushroom brands in the wellness sphere refers to chaga as your daily bodyguardand sings chaga’s praises thanks to its antioxidant properties (which) support your immune system and overall wellbeing.
Chaga is also considered an adaptogen which helps your body adapt to different stresses. It is also said to lower blood sugar levels, be anti-inflammatory and has been used to treat cancer.
Next up we have one of my fave medicinal mushrooms for chilling out - reishi. Recognizable by its reddish kidney shaped cap and white or brown underside, varieties of this mushroom can be found all over the world, even right here in Canada. Reishi mushrooms adaptogenic properties are helpful in combatting stress, as well as being anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral. Reishi has also been used in cancer treatments. Like chaga, reishi is found in an assortment of health food products which is helpful since it tastes quite earthy and bitter and can be a challenge to add to cooking. I’ve had success infusing dried chaga and reishi into a lemon ginger immunity tonic, but I equally prefer reaching for powdered mixes or elixirs, both for taste and convenience.
Named for its statuesque appearance, this medicinal mushroom’s long spines resemble a shaggy mane and make it quite easy to identify once you know what you’re looking for. In addition to sharing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties with chaga and reishi, lion’s mane is also thought to improve cognitive function. Studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain two special compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells. Netflix’s Fantastic Fungi touches on the potential for Lion’s Mane to be a possible treatment for Alzheimer's patients. I’ve recently discovered kits online to grow your own which sounds like a lovely option for the kitchen gardeners among us.
Named for its brilliant fan shape and spectacular design, this medicinal mushroom is found around the world and grows in clusters, bearing a striking resemblance to its namesake. Like other members of the medicinal mushroom family, turkey tail is also full of antioxidants, has significant immune boosting properties and has been used in cancer treatments. This wondrous mushroom also contains prebiotics and is thought to improve digestion and help balance the gut microbiome - if this appeals to you, try adding it in powder form to a smoothie or take it as a tincture.
Most of us are familiar with shiitake mushrooms as they are readily available in fresh and dried forms in the grocery store, but it may come as a surprise that these recognizable fungi are also considered medicinal and as such have many properties that contribute to our overall health. Four Sigmatic includes shiitake mushrooms in their immune support mushroom blend, as does Rainbo in their super multi-mushroom synergy tincture and CanPrev with their myco10 mushroom powder. Shiitake mushrooms are quite simple to cook with in my experience and impart that delicious umami flavour to seasonal dishes - they also have a meaty texture and work superbly in vegan recipes.
Take your time discovering these members of the fungi kingdom as you consider which varieties might best suit your needs and wellness goals. Whether you’re considering whipping up a shiitake mushroom pasta, adding a mushroom tincture to your morning tea, or winding down with a reishi hot chocolate, there are plentiful and exciting ways to add the superfood power of medicinal mushrooms to your wellness regime.
Written by Janelle van Leeuwen
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