Mushrooms are an incredibly valuable and nutrient-dense food that provides our gut bacteria with unique types of fiber that we cannot get from any other food. But recent trends have also begun to discuss the power of medicinal mushrooms , a sub-category of mushrooms that, in addition to being a nutrient-dense food, have known medical benefits.

Medicinal mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Unlike some other techniques and products in the alternative medical community, mushrooms are extraordinarily well studied and validated for having medical benefits.

You may have heard that medicinal mushrooms are great for our immune systems , but did you know that they can also improve our blood sugar, help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, and combat fatigue?

What are medicinal mushrooms

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a fungus. They are a unique class of organisms that play an important role in all ecosystems, especially as contributors to the decomposition and recycling of plant and animal matter.

They are well studied for their unique compounds that contribute to this unique ability to digest other types of organisms.

Medicinal mushrooms are considered as such because they have been studied for their ability to improve or maintain health; current estimates are that there are approximately 700 species of mushrooms with medicinal properties .

That said, not all of these species have rigorous science to back them up (at least for now). There are several well-established medicinal mushroom species that have been used by traditional cultures, especially in Asia, but also in regions of Eastern Europe and Africa, and that have been well studied in the scientific literature. These include:

  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
  • Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
  • Chagas (Inonotus oblique)
  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
  • Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)
  • Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

Of course, this is just a small sample of the roughly 14,000 species of mushrooms (and an estimated 500,000 to 10 million species of mushrooms worldwide). So the well-studied handful of mushrooms may just be the tip of the iceberg, medically.

Known Physiological Effects of Medicinal Mushrooms

There are many known physiological benefits of medicinal mushrooms . Here’s a breakdown of all the established ways medicinal mushrooms can influence our health:

Immune system

This may be the best-known mechanism behind the health effects of medicinal mushrooms, as there has been a lot of pressure on the antitumor and immunomodulatory effects. But that is not all. Several physiological actions have been identified as additional ways that these powerful fungi influence our immune function.


Polysaccharides in over 30 species of medicinal mushrooms have been shown to prevent tumor formation, exhibit direct antitumor activity, and prevent metastasis (spread of cancer from the original organ to another location / organ system).

Specifically, studies have shown that these effects are most powerful when combined with chemotherapy and, more importantly, it is safe to implement both at the same time. This activity is modulated by T cells, so a person must have an intact T cell system and thymus.


Components of medicinal mushrooms have been shown to induce gene expression leading to the creation of a variety of immunomodulatory cytokines and cytokine receptors.

This allows the immune system to respond appropriately to stressors and helps dampen inappropriate inflammation.

Elimination of antioxidants and radicals

Antioxidants and radical scavengers are compounds capable of neutralizing free radicals and oxidized compounds in the body. Antioxidants also work within the enzyme systems in the liver that are important for detoxification and elimination.

The compounds in medicinal mushrooms have been shown to have powerful antioxidant capacity, which undoubtedly contributes to their anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory qualities.

Antibacterial, antiparasitic and antifungal

Some studies are comparing the antimicrobial activity of medicinal mushrooms with that of pharmaceutical antibiotics. Current thinking is that mushrooms require their own antimicrobial properties to stay vital in nature, and humans who consume medicinal mushrooms reap some of those benefits.

Interestingly, studies now show that shiitake mushrooms can be an antimicrobial agent in treatment-resistant and otherwise difficult infections such as shigella and E. coli O157: H7 .

Medicinal mushrooms are anti-inflammatory

Several of the above categories certainly count as anti-inflammatory, but medicinal mushrooms are considered powerful general anti-inflammatories . Several medicinal mushroom polysaccharides have been shown to have anti-inflammatory activity, including terpenoids, phenols, polysaccharides, and proteoglycans.

Let’s take a moment to highlight what this could mean for the management of autoimmune diseases.

Some beta-glucans (fibrous components of fungi that can be potent bioactive) are very small molecules, so they can actually bind to immune cells directly, thus affecting immune activity in addition to indirect effects mediated by the gut microbiome.

This fact provided the original reason to avoid medicinal mushroom extracts in the Autoimmune Protocol. Patients with autoimmune diseases should be wary of anything that stimulates the immune system.

However, more recent studies reveal that medicinal mushrooms are more likely to be immunomodulatory rather than immunostimulatory. The reishi mushroom is the best studied in this regard.

Two studies in patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed a decrease in joint pain concurrent with a decrease in interleukin (IL) -18, which very potently activates Th1 cells.

A mouse study on lupus showed that supplementation with reishi mecicinal mushroom extract caused a decrease in autoantibodies and increased survival.

While whole medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, which is fairly easy to find in supermarkets, are included in the Autoimmune Protocol, there is clearly a great need for additional research to confirm this before reishi and other medicinal mushroom extracts are obtained. explicit approval in patients with autoimmune diseases.

For now, medicinal mushroom extracts should be considered a gray area in the AIP.

Cardiovascular system

Medicinal mushrooms are also known to help our cardiovascular system. As with the immune system, there are studies supporting preventive benefit and disease-fighting support.

Medicinal mushroom species have been shown to treat arrhythmias, ischemic heart disease which is the most common cause of heart attacks, and chronic heart failure.

Part of the established mechanism for these benefits in heart disease is that the anti-inflammatory traits of medicinal mushrooms increase blood vessel dilation and circulation to the heart. These effects are also true for circulation in the brain.

It also appears that supplementing with medicinal mushrooms, especially cordyceps, reduces total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and triglycerides.

Similarly, they improve blood pressure and inhibit platelet aggregation time, which can be very helpful in preventing heart disease.

Respiratory system

Various medicinal mushrooms have been studied in clinical trials related to lung health, and there are also traditional uses for lung conditions. For example, cordyceps has been used for centuries to treat chronic respiratory disorders, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.

This use has been confirmed in studies of asthma patients, specifically when participants use the mushroom for 5 to 6 weeks. Another study specifically investigated the effect of cordyceps in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (stages I to III) and found benefits.

Medicinal mushrooms in the endocrine system

One of the best-studied ways that medicinal mushrooms affect our health is that they improve blood sugar regulation. The mechanism for this appears to be that mushrooms supply amazing prebiotics (also known as foods for our gut microbiome) that support a healthy gut.

Believe it or not, blood sugar regulation is highly dependent on our gut health and it’s not just about the total amount of sugar and carbohydrates we consume over time.

That said, eating whole medicinal mushrooms and / or powdered whole medicinal mushrooms is essential to get the full benefit here, but you get the incredible double hit of nutrients as well as the unique fiber found in many mushrooms called chitin.

You may have already seen my in-depth series on adrenal fatigue called Adrenal Fatigue Demystification. In fact, I mention several medicinal mushrooms in the third post, Nutritional and Lifestyle Support for the Adrenal Glands. Studies have shown that cordyceps can help maintain hormonal homeostasis and can improve adrenal function.

Believe it or not, medicinal mushrooms have also been studied to help with sexual function. Randomized controlled trials have shown that medicinal mushrooms can increase libido and improve male sexual dysfunction.

Detoxification and elimination (from the kidney, liver and intestines)

Mushrooms have long been used in China to gain benefits for chronic kidney diseases such as chronic nephritis and kidney failure.

Medicinal mushrooms have been linked to proper water balance, which helps in cases of kidney disease. Likewise, due to the incredible antioxidant function we’ve already talked about, medicinal mushrooms are amazing for liver health .

Basically, because they support antioxidants so much that it takes some of the burden off the liver to generate antioxidants to promote cellular detoxification and the elimination of foreign and toxic substances.

Mushrooms (including medicinal mushrooms) are a surprising source of a unique type of fiber, chitin. Chitin is a type of fermentable oligosaccharide fiber made from long chains of a glucose derivative called N-acetylglucosamine with amino acids attached.

It can only be obtained from mushrooms and other fungi, insect exoskeletons, fish scales, and shellfish shells.

It turns out that chitin is a pretty amazing prebiotic. It has been shown to support the growth of a variety of gut-friendly bacteria, including Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Akkermansia, and Bacteroides, while also decreasing the abundance of the inflammatory microbe Sulfovibrio which has been found in relatively high concentrations in people with inflammatory gut. . disease.

Therefore, consuming whole medicinal mushrooms could be amazing for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome .

General vitality and fatigue

Studies have shown that participants taking medicinal mushrooms report improvements in fatigue, as well as improvements in subjective measures of fatigue and exhaustion, including cold intolerance, dizziness, hypoexuality, cognitive changes (“brain fog”).

Along the same lines, several studies have investigated medicinal mushrooms for supportive therapies during chemotherapy. In general, these therapeutic mushrooms improve the response to chemotherapy treatment and help reduce the side effects associated with this treatment.

Extracts versus whole medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms have traditionally been prepared with “decoctions”, which is like a super tea: the mushrooms are simmered for 20-120 minutes. This process helps break down resistant fungal cell walls and allows components to be released into solution.

As we mentioned earlier, fungi are rich in chitin, which is what makes up their cell walls. Hot water extraction (with or without alcohol extraction) appears to be the only way to break down the cell walls of these resistant fungi and make chitin usable in our gut microbiome.

In fact, even more chitin can be obtained from some medicinal mushrooms from hot water extractions than from just eating the entire medicinal mushroom.

While it is good to consume these mushrooms as a whole food, it is worth noting that this is not the way that is generally studied. Those that are easy to buy whole (like shiitake), it is recommended to incorporate them into your kitchen.

For others, hot water extracts and hot water extracts plus alcohol are likely to maximize benefits.

Another thing to look for are extracts that are actually made from the medicinal mushroom versus those that are made from the mycelium – the root system. Mycelium is generally grown in grains, and products that contain mycelium can be misleading.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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