We can’t help but feel mushrooms got a bad rap. If it weren’t bad enough that mushrooms carry the stigma of likely killing you, which in fairness, some can…along with some plants, and some animals… this shouldn’t have to be said, but here we are, there are a lot of things that can kill you. If that weren’t bad enough, it seems that Americans are mainly limited to the “Paris Hilton” of mushrooms, the button mushroom. Why is it the Paris Hilton of mushrooms? Well, it’s pretty boring, and got famous for no real reason. There is SO much more that the mushroom kingdom has to offer! There are seemingly endless species of mushrooms that can deliver a unique spectrum of nutrients seldomly found in the plant or animal kingdom (Vitamin D2, Beta-Glucans, Triterpenes), produce actions in your body like enhanced physical performance, enhanced cognitive performance, help alleviate depression/anxiety, and some have an unexpected and pleasant flavor (think lobster!). In this article we’re going to illuminate 5 mushrooms that you may never have heard of, and why they are so much fun(gi) to include in your diet. Without any further blah, blah… let’s go!
1.) Shiitake: This one will likely be most familiar on the list as you likely said it a lot as a kid in place of the curse word. Just us? Okay, cool. Shiitake may prove to have some very surprising medicinal benefits, identifying it as somewhat of a hybrid between a culinary and medicinal mushroom. Studies have shown that Shiitake may help in reducing the risk of certain cancers
One shiitake extract called lentinan is a beta glucan. This is a type of complex sugar compound. Beta glucan is believed to stimulate the immune system and trigger certain cells and proteins in the body to attack cancer cells. In laboratory studies, it seems to slow the growth of some cancer cells.
In mice, lentinan has been shown to stop bowel cancer cells growing. In laboratory tests, the protein part of lentinan (lentin) can stop some fungal cells growing. It can also stop leukaemia cells dividing. Some Japanese researchers give lentinan along with chemotherapy to treat patients with lung, nose, throat, and stomach cancers.
In China a literature review of 12 studies looked at lentinan when given with chemotherapy for lung cancer. They found that lentinan worked on the immune system and improved quality of life in lung cancer patients. -Cancer Research UK
With those potential benefits, and all of its other unique nutrients, why not throw some shiitake into your next stir-fry or soup? And if you’re feeling extra fun, Try This Shiitake Bacon Recipe!
2.) Lion’s Mane: In our opinion, this mushroom definitely holds the title for the coolest name in the kingdom. After you see a picture of it though, it all makes sense… This mushroom has been toted for increasing cognitive function, focus, mental alertness, and even sports performance that requires quick reflexes. Why? Studies have shown that Lion’s Mane helps to remyelinate the axons of nerve cells, or in other words, help strengthen the communication speed of your nervous system. In this study, extracts of the Lion’s Mane mushroom are proven to stimulate NGF (Nerve Growth Factor). This is very promising research for those suffering from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
You can either take this as a supplement (we recommend Host Defense for Lion’s Mane), or buy it at your local supermarket and try out a recipe (feel free to get real funky with this one- it’s surprisingly good!) This is the one that tastes a bit like lobster!
3.) Cordyceps: Cordyceps is an especially strange fungus. In nature, the way it spreads its spores (i.e. reproduces) is by entering insects, taking over their nervous systems and influencing them to climb to the highest height possible, then shooting it’s fruiting body out of the insect’s head. Don’t believe it? Check it out.
Strangely enough, when we consume this mushroom it dramatically increases our capacity for endurance exercise. The following article outlines a study done in the 90’s:
A Chinese study conducted on mice, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, investigated whether oral administration of cordyceps results in enhanced endurance and resistance to fatigue. After 3 weeks of administration, the groups given CS-4 were able to swim significantly longer than the control groups. The results of the study were dose-dependent with results of one group on a higher dose showing a 30% increase in endurance and the second group showing a 73% increase in endurance. The study concluded that the cardiotonic action, inhibition of tracheal constrictions, and relaxation of contracted vascular smooth muscle (which CS-4 evokes) increase the ability and endurance of exercise.
Another double-blind study, done this time in humans, showed the same result. Reduction in lactate buildup. In other words, the cordyceps mushroom helped athletes to resist fatigue and gain greater anaerobic performance.
The cordyceps most popular today is a strain that is grown on grain in a sterile setting…so don’t worry, no insects were harmed in the growth of this naturally performance enhancing mushroom. Our favorite source for cordyceps is Hero2, made by Freshcap Mushrooms.
4.) Reishi: Oh, Reishi. “The queen of medicinal mushrooms”, “The Herb of Spiritual Potency”, “The Mushroom of Immortality”. You have many wonderful names, and for good reason. In fact, Reishi was so revered in ancient eastern culture, you would often see it in carvings on temples of spiritual worship, in paintings alongside spiritual masters, and appearing in numerous other spiritual renditions. It was said to be saved only for emperors and those of high status for it would inspire certain enlightenment in all those who consumed it (which for some reason didn’t sit well with the rulers…). A word that western science is adopting in order to describe the action of this phenomenal herb, and others like it, is “Adaptogen”, because it helps adapt the body and mind to outside stress factors instead of eliciting a harmful stress response.
For more information on Reishi’s other actions such as anti-cancer, immunomodulating, anti-oxidizing, anti-viral/anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, liver/gall bladder protectant, and so on… check out this study.
5.) Chaga: Last, and debatably most unique and powerful of the five mushrooms listed here, is Chaga. Chaga is a unique “mushroom” in that it is really a fungal cell mass- meaning it doesn’t have a pretty little mushroom cap (fruiting body) like traditional mushrooms.
This black crunchy looking fungal mass grows on Birch trees in the north eastern hemisphere and has been used as a medicine for tribes in this region for thousands of years. Fun Fact: Otzi, the Iceman, the 5,300 year old man found frozen and mummified was carrying, in his very small pouch, Chaga mushroom of all things. It’s theorized that he knew he had some kind of viral condition or bacterial infection and was treating it with Chaga, or he was using it to transport fire (another key characteristic of Chaga).
There is a great deal of evidence to support Chaga’s powerful medicinal benefits, which all seem to be of great need in our world today. Chaga can aid in digestion, help the assimilation of nutrients, detox the body of chemical compounds, reduce stress in the body and mind, is powerfully anti-inflammatory, contains 40x more antioxidants than acai berries, and has over 215 vitamins, mineral, and phytonutrients. This is one powerful fungus that redefines the term “superfood”. We, of course, recommend you get your wild-harvested Chaga mushroom products from Life Itself. You’ll find options to brew a pleasant tasting tea at home, or try some prepared Chaga teas/coffees.
We hope you enjoyed an introduction into the magical world of mushrooms! Be sure to follow @thisislifeitself on Instagram for more fun content like this. Hari Om!