Mushroom Medicine: Science is Confirming How Fungal Folk Remedies Heal Us
- Written by Robert Johnson
The mushroom boom that’s making global headlines is impacting sectors ranging from mental health and climate change to beauty and fashion (Stella McCartney released an entire clothing line made from mushroom leather).
As a hardcore fungi fan, I couldn't be happier about mushrooms’ new star status. But long before Gwyneth Paltrow started waxing poetic ab out them, mushrooms were integral to many traditional medicine practices and religious rituals. Mushrooms have been part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) pharmacopeia since at least 1000 B.C., and they’ve been used as effective folk remedies in societies ranging from Siberia to Mexico since the beginning of recorded history. Paul Stamets calls mushrooms “nature’s miniature pharmaceutical factories.” Now modern science has confirmed what ancient healers knew: mushrooms of all kinds contain magic.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms’ Brain and Gut Benefits Confirmed by Science
Take lion’s mane mushroom, for example. In Chinese and Japanese medicine traditions, lion’s mane was used to help with ulcers and gastritis, as it was thought to nourish the gut, benefit internal organs, promote good digestion, and increase general vigor and strength. Lo and behold, researchers today have identified the specific compounds found in lion's mane that actually impact our gut health, our energy levels and even our brain function.
Lion’s mane contains polysaccharides that actually inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) a bacteria that is the main cause of stomach ulcers and contributes to gastritis and stomach cancer. Other studies indicate lion’s mane has potential to relieve inflammatory bowel disease by regulating immunity and gut microbiota.
Lion's mane mushrooms contain additional compounds, called erinacines and hericenones, that can stimulate the growth and repair of nerve cells in the brain. These compounds have been shown to have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects. A 2021 study of patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI) found that lion’s mane had neuroprotective effects against the inflammation and oxidative stress that accompanies TBI. Another study published in Phytotherapy Research found that lion's mane extract improved cognitive function in healthy adults aged 50 to 80 years old.
Ancient herbalists didn’t understand the chemistry of lion’s mane—but they knew that it improved patients’ gut health, brain fog and energy. We now know those improvements were no placebo effect.
The Immune-Boosting Properties of Turkey Tail
Turkey tail mushrooms have been used in Asian cultures for millennia to address respiratory infections, digestive issues, and liver problems. According to UCLA medical doctors, it turns out this common fungi, which grows wild in forests across North America, contains “nonspecific immune modulators” that stimulate the immune system. Scientists think turkey tail’s ability to bolster immune function comes from beta-glucans, phenols and flavonoids, compounds that actually increase the activity of immune cells.
In Japan, a preparation made from the turkey tail mushroom has been used as complementary therapy in cancer treatment for decades—in fact, polysaccharide K (PSK), the best-known active compound in turkey tail mushrooms, is an approved mushroom product for cancer patients in Japan.
Cordyceps Won’t Kill You—It’ll Make You Stronger
The cordyceps mushroom is currently best-known as the fictional villain of the hit HBO show “The Last of Us.” where it causes brain infections that have devastated humankind. In reality, cordyceps has a long history of use as a traditional remedy for fatigue, low stamina and lung health. The people of China, Tibet, Nepal and India historically consumed cordyceps to increase stamina, support their lungs and help their bodies adapt to difficult high mountain conditions like reduced oxygen.
Long popular with competitive athletes, cordyceps’ capacity for improving endurance and stamina is well-documented. A 2017 study found that cordyceps improved participants’ tolerance for high-intensity exercise, while another study found that cordyceps supplements substantially increased the study participants’ cardiovascular endurance. How? Cordyceps increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that provides energy to cells.
Cordyceps also has anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it’s been useful for respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and coughs. A three-month-long study published in Evidence-Based and Complementary Alternative Medicine concluded that “a formulation of Cordyceps sinensis improved the health-related quality of life, asthma symptoms, lung function, and inflammatory profile of the patients with moderate-to-severe asthma.”
The ancient herbalists who used cordyceps for respiratory issues knew what they were doing.
Mushroom Mania is Both Old and New
Lion’s mane, turkey tail and cordyceps are just a few of the mushrooms that modern science has now confirmed have pharmacologically active compounds and medicinal value. As the West discovers mushrooms’ amazing potential for health and healing, it’s fascinating to consider that healing practitioners figured out the beneficial properties of hundreds of different mushroom species, thousands of years ago, without microscopes, laboratories or germ theory.
We’re fortunate to live in an era with all the benefits of modern science, but it still thrills me to watch these ancient natural mushroom remedies as they’re re-discovered by the West. Mushrooms are part of a paradigm shift in our culture’s approach to health—they’re transforming our approach to psychological well-being, disease, injury, aging and longevity in ways that are downright magic.