A guide to medicinal mushrooms: lion's mane, reishi and more

Mushrooms have officially taken over the wellness space and that extends well beyond the magic kind, or even the ones you find on your plate. Health enthusiasts are putting mushrooms in everything from coffee to smoothies to medicine cabinets, and it’s looking like it’s just the start of the mushroom boom.

© Provided by CNET Medicinal mushrooms are popular — but do they really work? Elizabeth Perez Holowaty/Getty Images

But not all mushrooms are created equal. Many of them have special (science-backed) properties that are seriously impressive. One of the most beneficial types of mushrooms are called functional mushrooms, which are pretty different from the button mushrooms you might add to a pasta dish (although those are good for you too). 

“Functional mushrooms are mushrooms that have benefits that extend past nutritional benefits found in traditional mushrooms we are familiar with from cooking,” says Alana Kessler, a registered dietician. “Functional mushrooms can be taken via capsules, powders, liquids (teas) and sprays,” says Kessler. 

With so many different types of mushrooms out there, how do you know which ones are best for you? And which ones are worth buying in a tincture or supplement versus just cooking and eating them? Keep reading for a complete overview of all of the healthiest mushrooms you can use — from the kind you can eat to those that have health benefits if you take them in a more concentrated supplemental form. 

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Medicinal mushrooms are popular — but do they really work?

Medicinal mushroom basics 

You’ll find medicinal mushrooms in many forms, but one of the most common ways to supplement is with a mushroom powder or extract (more on that later). While many mushrooms are taken in supplements, powders or other forms, some medicinal mushrooms are also eaten in their whole form. “Mushrooms in general offer up great nutrition and are low in calories. They provide selenium, B vitamins, vitamin D and potassium — necessary for energy and absorption of nutrients, as well as beta glucans which are important for lowering inflammation and providing fiber, especially shiitake and maitake,” says Kessler. 

An overview of edible medicinal mushrooms

Maitake: “Can be sautéed, cooked into dishes, or eaten cooked on its own (not typically raw),” says Kessler. Maitake mushroom is an adaptogen, which means it can help the body adapt to stress and stay in balance. It also has potential anti-cancer benefits, in addition to helping improve cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

Shiitake: “[Can be] cooked into any types of dishes, can be eaten raw, but typically cooked,” says Kessler. Shiitake mushrooms may help fight cancer and inflammation, and they contain beta glucans, which may help lower cholesterol.  

Lion’s mane: “Not typically eaten raw, and can be substituted in recipes as crab meat. [Helps] support mood health and memory,” says Kessler.

Oyster mushrooms:  “Not typically eaten raw, can sauté, or use in stir fry,” says Kessler. Research has shown that oyster mushrooms contain antioxidants and may help decrease risk of certain diseases like cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

© Provided by CNET Lion’s mane is known for helping improve focus and brain health. Getty Images

Functional medicinal mushrooms

While not an exhaustive list, the below types of mushrooms are some of the most common kinds that are sold and marketed today in supplements, extracts, powders and other products. 

Lion’s mane 

Lion’s mane mushroom is best known for potential benefits for brain health. Some supplements and products that market lion’s mane claim that it can help boost focus and memory. Although there is not much human clinical research on lion’s mane, some animal studies have shown that it can help boost memory and may help prevent diseases that affect cognitive function like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Lion’s mane is high in antioxidants, which can help lower inflammation in the body.

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Reishi 

Traditionally used in East Asian medicine, reishi is a type of mushroom that’s been used for many reasons and has a long list of potential health benefits. It’s currently being used to help cancer patients in China who need help strengthening their immune system after cancer treatments. 

According to Kessler, reishi contains several polysaccharides that stimulate parts of the immune system. “[Reishi] helps the body fight viruses and bacteria by stimulating production of T-cells,” says Kessler. Reishi may also have benefits for fighting cancer as “the polysaccharides cause a significant increase in ‘natural killer’ cells, which destroys cancer cells, shrinks tumors and slows the spread of existing cancers,” says Kessler.

Reishi may also help reduce stress, decrease depression symptoms and help improve sleep, thanks to naturally occurring compounds called triterpenes. 

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Chaga 

“[Chaga] fungus grows in colder climates and is high in fiber. It is possible this is a reason that while it is beneficial for immune function and provides antioxidants, it is also used as a complementary treatment to heart disease and diabetes as it helps to lower blood sugar,” says Kessler. In addition to antioxidants and fiber, chaga also contains a variety of other nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc, iron and calcium, among others. 

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Turkey tail

Turkey tail is best known for its potential benefits for immune health and it’s been studied for treating cancer alongside other treatments.

“[Turkey tail] stimulates processes in the body which fights tumor growth and metastasis, including production of T-cells and ‘natural killer’ cells,” says Kessler. “Studies have shown that polysaccharide-K (PSK, a compound in turkey tail) improved the survival rates of patients with gastric and colorectal cancers and showed promise in fighting leukemia and some lung cancers,” says Kessler. 

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Cordyceps 

Perhaps the most popular mushroom in the fitness crowd, Cordyceps is embraced by fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike for its ability to boost recovery and stamina. “Cordyceps boosts metabolism and stamina, and speeds recovery by increasing ATP, and improves how the body uses oxygen,” says Kessler.

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What to look for when buying mushroom products 

Some mushroom supplements and products contain fillers and other ingredients you need to avoid in order to find the best quality product. “When purchasing a mushroom supplement, make sure starch is listed. Some supplements can be filled with ‘filler’ so make sure only 5% of the recipe includes starch,” says Kessler. Another tip from Kessler is to choose a concentrated extract over powder form. She says to look for “hot water extracted” on the label or company website.

“Avoid supplements that say mycelium — this means the supplements are void of the beta-glucan which gives it much of its medicinal quality. Look for labels that say triterpenoid compounds and active polysaccharides,” says Kessler.

Finally, keep in mind that taking medicinal mushrooms requires patience and you won’t see immediate benefits. “It takes at least two weeks to notice the effects of functional mushrooms, and it is recommended to take a week off every four to six months,” says Kessler.

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