Mushrooms may lack the aesthetic appeal that draws us toward other colorful vegetables, but don’t let that deter you from incorporating them into your routine. These fungi offer numerous health benefits and have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
Nutritionally, mushrooms provide a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as copper, potassium, B vitamins, and zinc. These micronutrients are essential for making red blood cells, optimizing heart and brain health, supporting muscle and nerve function, and maintaining a strong immune system. Mushrooms also contain antioxidants like selenium, glutathione, and ergothioneine, which help protect us from inflammation and cell damage that can increase risk for developing chronic diseases. Some mushrooms contain vitamin D, but this is only if they were treated with ultraviolet light during the growing process (and it will say so on their packaging).
The antioxidants and potent compounds unique to certain mushrooms are what give them their medicinal properties. Although we’re used to seeing culinary mushroom varieties like white button, crimini, and portobello at the grocery store, there are several others that are worth mentioning for their medicinal uses. Mushrooms have been used in therapies throughout history and are thought to offer over 130 remedial properties, such as anti-tumor, anti-parasitic, anti-hyperlipidemic, anti-anxiety, and anti-diabetic. They have been used to help patients undergoing chemotherapy, with certain blood-borne viral infections, with AIDS and similar immune disorders, among other conditions. Despite this knowledge of their benefits, only recently has modern Western medicine begun learning about how to utilize mushrooms based on ancestral practices.
A few specific mushrooms with incredible benefits include; Reishi mushrooms which have been used to control blood sugar, support immunity, protect liver health, fight bacterial and viral infections, support cancer treatment, and manage diabetes. They have also shown some promise in potential insomnia treatment. Shiitake mushrooms have been used to support immunity, to prevent tumor growth, for antioxidant, antimicrobial and antiviral effects, for reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, and for liver protection. In Japan, a compound from Shiitakes called lentinan is used in cancer prevention. The Cordyceps mushroom is commonly used for anti-aging therapies, diabetes, wasting diseases, cancer, bronchial asthma, tuberculosis, jaundice, alcoholic hepatitis, and erectile dysfunction. Maitake mushrooms are often used for inhibiting cancer growth, lowering cholesterol, and managing type 2 diabetes. The Oyster variety has shown promise in reducing cholesterol, inhibiting growth of breast and prostate cancer cells, and for its anti-inflammatory properties in ailments like joint pain. Lion’s Mane is praised for its neuroprotective effects, and may even be helpful for preventing progression of degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis or Alzheimer’s.
There are hypothesized to be tens of thousands of mushroom species on the planet, but only a small fraction have been discovered thus far. Before you go out foraging for your own, keep in mind that a very small percentage are considered to be edible, while some are actually quite lethal. Instead, reap the benefits of the known culinary and medicinal mushrooms by using them in stir fries, soups, pastas, and burgers, or by trying mushroom tonics, powders, or capsules.