Before I moved to Asheville, North Carolina (the wellness mecca of the South), I had never even heard of medicinal mushrooms, let alone tried them. Soon after my move, however, foraging for mushrooms and herbs became part of my regular routine. So much so that in 2014, I went to work for an herbal supplements company, where one of my projects was researching the burgeoning market for medicinal mushrooms.
Fascinatingly, if you compare DNA, mushrooms are actually closer to humans than they are plants. And we love to snack on them—we eat about three pounds of mushrooms annually (up 20 percent from 2000). In adaptogenic drinks and supplements, mushrooms were a top trend in the natural products industry this year.
Millennials (and modern science) are catching on to what herbalists and traditional healers have known for millennia: Mushrooms are medicinal.
Mushrooms generally do one of two things, health-wise: They help with stress and/or the immune system. Even the button mushrooms in your regular grocery store have some medicinal benefits, and plenty of less common varieties are loaded with nutritional and health benefits—with the studies to confirm it. (One of the leading mycologists, Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D., published a comprehensive review of medicinal mushrooms in 2017 that cited 122 clinical research studies).
"They are excellent for immune system-supportive and antioxidant properties," says Erica Steele, N.D., a functional medicine practitioner. "Many of them have potent antiviral and antitumor properties, while some support metabolic and inflammatory conditions such as hypertension and cholesterol."
When Mary Bove, N.D., a naturopath and herbalist based in New Hampshire, began practicing more than 40 years ago, medicinal herbs were not found on grocery store shelves, and few species of mushrooms were readily available, either. And as we've collectively started to rediscover the value of holistic and natural healing practices, we've also taken a renewed interest in mushrooms.
This fungal renaissance has perfect timing. "Mushrooms are effective and poignant for our current time and needs," Bove says. Basically, we're sick and we're stressed, and we're sick of being stressed, so our neuroendocrine systems are breaking down. According to the most recent Stress in America survey, nearly two-thirds of us think this is the lowest point in history that we can remember—and we're worried about our health and health care too. (The real kicker? Stress interferes with immune function, so we're creating a vicious cycle.)
Clinical herbalist and nutritionist Sandi Ford thinks mushrooms are the perfect food to help counteract the stress of our busy modern lives, which can be very taxing on the immune system. "I consider them a food for an anti-cancer lifestyle," says Ford, who practices in northern California. "Mushrooms are strengthening to our immune systems."
Let's look at how mushrooms support our health and take a dive into the most popular medicinal varieties, plus what they've been shown to do for us in clinical trials.
How Mushrooms Help Your Immune System
All mushrooms contain a type of complex carb called beta-glucans that stimulates your immune system and helps suppress tumor growth. Mushrooms play both sides of the field in your immune system: On defense, mushrooms like cordyceps and turkey tail directly fight viruses and bacteria. These are called "immune stimulants."
On the offense, mushrooms (including reishi and shiitake) help nourish and even strengthen your immune system and its parts, like bone marrow or white blood cells. These mushrooms are called "immune tonics."
How Mushrooms Help You Manage Stress
You likely know some herbs (like ashwagandha, tulsi, and maca) that are adaptogens, helping the body adapt to both environmental and psychological stresses. But mushrooms (including cordyceps and reishi) can also be adaptogens. This category of herbs supports the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, and they support the adrenals, which are in charge of stress management. Ford explains that this class of herbs "helps rebuild and strengthen an empty tank" when you've run out of energy.
Steele says that adaptogens meet you where you are. "If the person is too manic or frantic, it will help ground them, and vice versa—if the person is sluggish, tired, or fatigued, they can help stabilize the body. I view them as a strong stabilizer in our hectic, sometimes unpredictable world."
Things to Know Before You Start Making Mushrooms Lattes
I'm no mycologist, but I have spent the last few years studying and cooking with medicinal mushrooms. In fact, I wrote the book (or a book, rather) on these 'shrooms. (Cooking with Healing Mushrooms, my first solo cookbook, came out in July!) There are a few things you need to know before you start getting creative in the kitchen with your mushrooms:
- Never eat them raw. Yeah, you might enjoy a sliced baby bella in your salad, but tbh, it's not great for you—although no, it's not going to kill you. The thing is, mushrooms contain an anti-nutrient called agaritine, which cooking helps reduce. And the cell walls of mushrooms are mostly chitin (the same material as shrimp shells), which is not digestible raw, but cooking mushrooms breaks down the cell walls, unlocking their nutritional properties. Some mushrooms (like morels) are toxic if eaten raw, and others (like shiitake) can give you a rash or a bellyache. (An Instagrammer's cookbook was actually recalled over recipes that included raw morels!)
- Know which ones need to be extracted. In my book, I call mushrooms either tough or tender. Any edible mushroom that's soft enough to slice and sauté is tender—that includes shiitake, maitake, and buttons. Hard mushrooms like chaga, reishi, and turkey tail need to be extracted using water and/or alcohol, then made into capsules, tinctures (alcohol-based liquids), or powders. Extracts can be added to lattes and the like, but raw mushrooms (even dried ones) need to be cooked.
- Mushrooms aren't magic. No herb, mushroom, or supplement is a cure-all. Don't expect major changes to happen overnight, and as with any wellness or health regimen, you still have to put in the work. If you're taking cordyceps for stress but making no effort to reduce or manage what you're experiencing, you can't expect your stress to simply disappear. As with herbs, supplements, or pharmaceuticals, you need to do your part to deal with the root cause of your issues, not simply treat the symptoms.
The Beginner's Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms
Here's a quick breakdown of some of the common types of mushrooms, and what to do with them:
Used for: antioxidant protection and immune health
Flavor and texture: bitter and must be extracted; pleasant with spices, like chai
The basics: With a long history of use in Eastern Europe, chaga is considered a tonic (it helps your overall wellness/immune health) and has strong antioxidant properties.
"Chaga is used to ward off the common cold, support the skin and hair, and lower inflammation within the body typically caused by stress," Steele says. "It also is a powerful antitumor agent."
How to use it: Add the extract to chai, broth, coffee or smoothies.
Used for: adaptogen (energy, stamina, and endurance), immune health
Flavor and texture: tender and pleasant when fresh; mild when dried; usually extracted due to rarity
The basics: Used in China for stamina and energy for generations, cordyceps is now popular with athletes. It's an adaptogen that has a laundry list of traditional and modern uses—including fighting fatigue and boosting immune health.
"Cordyceps increases energy," Steele says.
How to use it: Add dried cordyceps to soups and broths; use the extract in smoothies, sports drinks, or energy bars.
Used for: brain health, including memory and cognition
Flavor and texture: like a cross between chicken and fish in both flavor and texture; mild and chewy, with a sweet scent
The basics: This mushroom actually looks like a lion's mane—it's white and shaggy. Lion's mane boosts memory and cognition (and may even improve mild cognitive impairment) and is considered to be a nootropic, or a cognitive enhancer. It's another one that's gaining favor among athletes.
How to use it: Slice and saute fresh lion's mane as you would chicken or fish; add the extract to smoothies, coffee, or your morning oatmeal.
Used for: immune health, blood sugar levels
Flavor and texture: rich, meaty yet delicate texture; very juicy; woodsy
The basics: Maitake (aka "hen of the woods") is known to boost the immune system and influence blood sugar levels. "Maitake is one I like to eat as much of as I can," Ford says.
How to use it: Sear over high heat, then braise; as an extract, add to smoothies, coffee, or tea.
Used for: stress, sleep, immune health, lungs
Flavor and texture: bitterness is a sign of potency; must be extracted or made into tea
The basics: Also called the mushroom of immortality, reishi has been used for 4,000 years in China and Japan. It has traditionally been used as an adaptogen, to balance and support the endocrine system, and to promote healthy sleep. Modern research backs up its use for cancer, diabetes, and more.
How to use it: Use in chocolate truffles, coffee, smoothies or warm milk.
Used for: immune health, antioxidant support, healthy skin and liver
Flavor and texture: savory, rich, meaty, plentiful umami; dense and chewy, especially when broiled
The basics: Perhaps the best-known medicinal mushroom due to its long-term use as food, shiitake is used to boost the immune system for ailments ranging from sniffles to tumors.
"Shiitake is a strong antitumor and antiviral as well as a potent immune-supporting agent," Steele says.
How to use it: Simmer dried shiitakes in soups and stews; saute fresh ones; use extracts in smoothies and other drinks.
Used for: immune support, liver protection
Flavor and texture: bitter and earthy; must be extracted
The basics: Turkey tail is an extensively researched mushroom; it's actually used with standard cancer treatments in Japan. Turkey tail has traditionally been used for cholesterol, liver health, and immune health. "Turkey tail helps aid digestion and is an immune system supporter for infections," Steele says. Ford uses it for acute infections, boosting deep immunity, and to protect the liver.
How to use it: Simmer fresh or dried mushrooms in teas or broths or add extracts to smoothies and other drinks.
Stepfanie Romine is an ACE-certified health coach, fitness nutrition specialist, and registered yoga teacher based in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. She has co-authored several books about healthy living, including The No Meat Athlete Cookbook. Her first solo cookbook, Cooking with Healing Mushrooms, is out now. Find her at The Flexible Kitchen or connect with her via Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Some copy adapted from Cooking With Healing Mushrooms: 150 Delicious Adaptogen-Rich Recipes that Boost Immunity, Reduce Inflammation and Promote Whole Body Health (Ulysses Press, July 2018) by Stepfanie Romine.