Building Immune Resilience with Medicinal Mushrooms
I have always found the transition from warm weather to cold weather a rapid shift. All of a sudden the days are drastically shorter, and the air has that crisp nip to it. While autumn is my favourite time of year, this shift always seems to be a shock to my body. My immune system feels vulnerable. Especially when riding on public transit where every other person has rosy noses and the sniffles. This is the time of year I like to be extra diligent with my health practices.
As a student of naturopathic medicine, I have been exposed to many different herbs, plants, foods, supplements, homeopathics, acupuncture points and other natural treatments that can help the body strengthen its natural ability to ward off external pathogens and maintain harmony in the body. Out of all these natural remedies, there is one branch of botanical medicine that I am drawn to above all others. I am obsessed with our fungi friends, the medicinal mushrooms.
Again and again I am in awe of the abilities mushrooms have. No longer are mushrooms known solely for their culinary abilities, their medicinal properties are becoming more widely known, you could even say they are on the cusp of being a trend.
Our planet is literally covered in mushrooms. What most of us are naive to is the fact mycelium makes up a quarter of the biomass on our planet, and there are over 5.1 million different species, with at least 270 species offering medicinal value. Mycelium is present in the majority of healthy soils.
It consists of a dense web beneath the soils where it facilitates multidirectional transfer of nutrients between plants and itself. In fact, in one cubic inch of soil there can be 8 miles of mycelium!!
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of this magnificent mycelium, and offer many significant uses from bioremediation of chemical spills and contaminations to the potential for a sustainable fuel source. Not only do mushrooms offer incredible potential for our environmental issues, but mushrooms also hold many wonderful benefits for our internal wellbeing.
The health benefits of medicinal mushrooms are vast and include cholesterol-lowering properties, anti-viral, anti-microbial, liver-protectant, antioxidant, and anti-hypertensive effects. What I use and appreciate mushrooms most for however is their incredible ability to modulate the immune system and build deep immune resilience.
What sets them apart?
Now, I am not just talking about your everyday white button mushroom that often gets picked off that veggie pizza, nor am I talking about the hallucinogenic magic 'shrooms you may be familiar with. Medicinal mushrooms are known specifically for their health enhancing compounds that not only support deep immune function, but also help with hormone balancing and stress. They also have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. The medicinal benefits can mostly be attributed to the polysaccharides and triterpene saponins present in the mushrooms, specifically beta-D glucans. These beta-D glucans act by stimulating the production of white blood cells, which in turn help your body resist infections.
As I mentioned there are over 270 species of mushrooms offering medicinal value. However, I will be sharing with you my top 5 favourites. These 5 powerhouses offer top notch support for the immune system, stress management, endurance, brain power and more!
The Big Players
Chaga (Inontus obliquus)
I know it is better form to save the best for last, but I love Chaga so much I couldn’t help myself. Chaga, known as the “King of Mushrooms”, grows on birch trees in northern colder climates and takes 15-20 years to reach full maturity.
During this time it is able to extract many nutrients and enzymes from the birch trees and transforms them into useable forms for us to consume. Chaga is not only high in nutrients like b-vitamins, minerals and enzymes, but it is also one of the highest concentration of antioxidants of any food.
This deep immune tonic is delicious as a decocted tea. Chaga can be rebrewed and rebrewed over the stove many times. It has a slightly sweet vanilla taste that mildly resembles coffee. I love it on its own, or in a hot chocolate elixer. See my recipe here.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
In Chinese Medicine, Reishi has been long regarded as a mushroom of immense spiritual strength.
It is known to nourish the chinese “shen” which loosely translates to the mind or consciousness. Reishi is a potent adaptogen that helps your body be resilient to the harmful effects of stress.
It also helps tonify the immune system and strengthen the bodies response to health challenges.
Reishi has been heavily studied in the scientific realm, and time and time again its been proven to have the following pharmacological actions: anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, analgesic, anti-tumor, anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, blood pressure lowering, and the list goes on and on.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolour)
There is something about the beautiful pattern of a turkey tail mushroom that is like no other.
It grows abundantly here in the Pacific Northwest, and I often come across it on my hikes. It grows in clusters on fallen hardwood trees. Again, like Reishi and Chaga, Turkey Tail is a powerful immune modulator.
It is known specifically for its use in cancer therapy. It strongly counteracts the immune suppressing effects of chemotherapy. It contains a compound called polysaccharide-K.
It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many different cancers in combination with other therapeutic agents. It is also anti-viral, making it promising in the treatment of HIV and Hepatitis B, and other viral diseases as well.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Cordyceps is a more energizing mushroom.
In addition to being an immunomodulator, it is great for those wishing to enhance their physical endurance.
It acts as a broncho-dilator, which translates to better respiratory function, and more oxygen to cells.
It is considered a yang tonic in chinese medicine (yang is the energy that warms and activates our body’s function), and helps enhance energy, sexual function, mental power, and physical endurance.
It also helps to tonight and restore the adrenal glands, making it the perfect mushroom for anyone suffering late stage adrenal fatigue or burnout.
Lions mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lions mane is a super interesting mushroom. It is a white mushroom with white icicle looking spines that give it a unique appearance. Not only does it look REALLY cool, it also has some incredible health benefits. It offers a lot of interesting benefits for the immune system, the nervous system and the brain.
A few of the main constituents help penetrate the blood brain barrier, and help build nerve growth factors which are linked with our neutron function. This can help improve cognitive function and prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as parkinson and alzheimers. It can also help improve general focus. Like the other mushrooms mentioned, lions mane also contains the beta-d-glucans which are beneficial for immune modulation.
I hope you now feel inspired to incorporate medicinal mushrooms into your life. They are generally palatable and mix well into coffee, tea, smoothies, or elixir hot drinks.
Please note it is important that you not harvest any mushrooms without prior identification training, as there are many mushrooms that are poisonous and can be lethal if ingested. If you are a novice to the world of medicinal mushrooms I suggest you start out by experimenting with pre-formulated products. Some of my favourite companies sell medicinal mushrooms on their own or in blends. Check out the following companies for high quality medicinal mushrooms!
Amelia is a wellness and lifestyle blogger, naturopathic medical student, and adventure fanatic located on the west coast of Canada in Vancouver, BC.
She aims to inspire others to get outside and connect with nature.
She is wildly passionate about exposing the innate health benefits our planet has to offer us through plants and the natural world.
She is a lover of the mountains, woods and oceans, and an advocate of dreaming big!