Children can be forgiven for thinking of mushrooms as “icky” — the only time they’re likely to encounter them is the soggy version on fast-food pizza. It’s usually not until your teens that you begin appreciating the deep umami delights that mushrooms add to your favorite dishes.
In your twenties (and please, not before then) you’re likely to make your acquaintance with psychedelic mushrooms at a party, a camping trip, or a music festival. By definition, this vein of mycology is hard to generalize about. Our sources agree that it’s potentially quite fun, even liberating, when done in the company of trustworthy friends and good music.
Your thirties offer the perfect moment to graduate to the next level of mushrooms, the medicinal kind. While previous experiences with fungi developed your palate and expanded your mind, these mushrooms promise to enhance your well-being. And they couldn’t come at a better time. At this stage of maturity, you’re just starting to feel the cold fingers of time tapping on your shoulder. You’re not rebounding from a night of partying like you used to (more on hangover cures here). You want more from your body than just remaining alive.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used as long as there have been people (the mushrooms have been around longer, we just didn’t know they were good for us). Folk healers and herbalists throughout time and around the world have used them for a variety of ailments. While all these powerful fungi offer antioxidant properties that cleanse the liver, aid in digestion, provide mental clarity and promote longevity, each mushroom type has special targeted substances that can help with a variety of specific health goals. Better still, you no longer have to be an expert forager to enjoy the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. (And we do mean expert: wild mushrooms are not something you want to risk being wrong about.) Today, you can reap the benefits of medicinal mushrooms through products you use every day: coffee, tea, protein powder, and even face cream.
Keep reading to learn the specific benefits of some popular medicinal mushrooms, as well as our favorite way to take them.
Types of Medicinal Mushrooms
In Japan, they call it the “dancing mushroom,” since foragers who came upon this clustering fungus would get jiggy with glee. Known in English as “hen of the woods,” the maitake is making a name for itself as degenerative disease’s worst nightmare. Thanks to its powerful antioxidant punch, maitake is currently being researched as a treatment of diabetes, tumours and even cancer.
This pale branched fungus has an ethereal beauty when you come upon it in the woods — it looks like something out of Lord of the Rings and its brain-boosting powers are about as close to magic as you can get. Consuming Lion’s mane encourages your body to produce two important bioproteins (nerve growth factor, or NFG, and myelin) that not only improve clarity, cognition, and memory but also inhibit degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.
When you’re looking to enhance your performance, be it in the gym, the boardroom, or the bedroom, cordyceps is the mushroom you should reach for. The special bioactive compounds in cordyceps help improve circulation, allowing the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently. That means sustained energy, improved stamina (and libido), and quicker recovery from whatever you might have been doing, not to mention better sleep afterwards.
With its cute knobby profile and a color pattern that looks like your grandma’s favorite set of soup bowls, reishi looks as friendly as it is. It is sought after for a mood-boosting compound called triterpene, which is said to alleviate anxiety, ease depression, and encourage better sleep. No wonder people call this cute little shroom “nature’s Xanax.”
While it is indeed medicinal, chaga is not a true mushroom, but a sclerotic fungus — a variety that hardens upon contact with the air. It looks more like a burned stump than anything you’d want to eat, but trust us, you want to eat it. Used for centuries among the indigenous people of northern latitudes, chaga has exploded out of obscurity in recent years. It can be found in everything from tea to chocolate to cosmetic products, thanks to its ability to fight off oxidative stress (the kind that contributes to aging, haggard skin) as well as lower cholesterol and even prevent cancer.
You know it for the creamy umami flavor it adds to your favorite Asian dishes, but did you know shiitake is also good for your ticker? The phytonutrients in this tasty mushroom help maintain healthy blood pressure and circulation by preventing the buildup of plaque within your arteries.
The aptly named turkey tail mushroom, with its fan-shaped body and variegated bands of brown, is the best friend your immune system ever had. It brings something called polysaccharide-K (PSK) to the party, a compound so effective that it’s actually prescribed for cancer patients in some countries and an approved anticancer prescription drug in Japan. Using turkey tail has proven to be effective in fighting off leukaemia and other cancers — imagine what it could do for your winter cold.
Ways to Try Medicinal Mushrooms
Until recently, the only way to take your mushroom medicine was to choke down a bitter, murky brew. But now there are a variety of ways to enjoy these healing fungi, and some of them are downright delicious. Here are a few of our favorites:
Note: As with any dietary supplements, it’s important to exercise caution and common sense. Little has been established about the side effects and safety of regular or long-term use of medicinal mushrooms. Do your research, and if you’re currently taking medication, talk to a healthcare practitioner before trying them.
The handcrafted blends from this small company out of Massachusetts pair a variety of medicinal mushrooms with dried herbs and superfoods that beautifully complement the fungus’ flavors and health benefits. We love their lion’s mane tea with its heavy dose of ginger and golden turmeric, as well as the dark, earthy spice of the chaga chai.
If you shop at a health food store, a colorful package bearing the words “mushroom coffee” has probably made you pause. Four Sigmatic pairs shade-grown Arabica beans with chaga, cordyceps, or lion’s mane, depending on what benefits you’re after.
This tasty rice-based protein powder includes a high-vibe blend of reishi and cordyceps that will add a boost of energy and mental clarity to your morning smoothie.
If you’d rather leave your taste buds out of it, Moon Juice makes it easy to absorb medicinal mushrooms through your skin. Their Exfoliating Face Serum uses reishi to combat the signs of oxidative stress and fortify the skin’s natural barrier, while their Plumping Jelly Serum combines reishi with silver ear, another powerful mushroom, to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
No reason to get fancy if you don’t want to. Ancient Apothecary offers a full spectrum of medicinal mushrooms in capsule form — just toss down one or two per day to fortify your body against cold and flu season while improving your productivity, focus, and stamina.