The use of mushrooms for medicinal purposes can be dated back at least to 2000 years ago, during the Han dynasty of China. The woody fungus known as Lingzhi (ganoderma luciderm) was supposed to offer immortality. It’s a shame we know that’s just not true, though is there something of a mushroom’s healing properties? The swiss brown and button mushrooms we get from the supermarket are probably best left to simmer on the bbq, however a few mushroom varieties capture the interest of researchers as they have been used for eons in traditional herbal medicine. So much so that there is even an International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms!
The aforementioned Lingzhi has been the subject of various studies and trials. Earlier this year (2018) the journal “Molecule” published a review of the analysis of Lingzhi. The key compounds within Lingzhi are polysaccharides and triterpenoids which are reported to contribute to lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, decreasing allergic responses, antioxidant and antibacterial and even aiding liver function.
Another marvellous mushroom is shiitake (Lentinula edodes) which has been
used in both Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine for centuries. In 2015, a clinical trial indicated that daily consumption of shiitake for four weeks offered improved gut immunity, lowered inflammation and increased immunity factors (interleukin (IL)-4, IL-10, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α, and IL-1α levels).
Cordyceps sinensis, isn't given the name of caterpillar fungus because it grows to look like a caterpillar. The fungus actually grows out of a caterpillar, so technically may not be 100% vegetarian. It grows at very high altitudes such as in Tibet or Sikkim in Northern India. This sneaky fungus has also been shown to improve immunity and one study even applied cordyceps in renal transplant patients with positive results allowing a reduction in the dosage of immunosuppressive therapy.
As always, more research is needed to identify the mechanisms of these fungi, and results in studies don't necessarily translate from one population to another. That said, the data available is very promising which probably accounts for the vast number of herbal formulas and supplements, both traditional and Western which contain mushroom extracts. I often prescribe mushroom extracts to boost immunity, whether for recurrent colds, chronic allergies, or even just wanting to boost the immune system ready for the barrage that comes with an overseas trip. Medicinal Mushrooms don't have to send you on a 1960's psychedelic trip to be magical!