The Fascinating History of Medicinal Mushrooms

Everyone knows something about mushrooms. You’ve probably strolled past multiple species on trees or in the grass on a nature walk. Or perhaps you add them to your favorite dishes for a unique flavor. More recently, you might have explored mushrooms for their proposed medicinal benefits.

Mushrooms’ medicinal qualities have become relatively mainstream in recent years, with supplements, tinctures and teas filling the shelves on health food stores and vitamin shops. However, these mushrooms and their powerful health benefits are far from new. In fact, they’ve been used around the world in various ways for millennia!

What are medicinal mushrooms?

Essentially, medicinal mushrooms are exactly what they sound like—mushrooms with medicinal properties. Out of the thousands of species of mushrooms humans have identified, only a select portion contain the right combination of chemical compounds and nutrients to be considered medicinal.

Some of the compounds that contribute to these mushrooms’ health benefits are vitamins, antioxidants, terpenes and special polysaccharides called beta-glucans. This combination of beneficial compounds is believed to strengthen the immune system, improve cognitive health, reduce free radical activity and even potentially fight cancer! Because of their different chemical makeups, certain mushrooms are better for certain ailments or desired benefits.

Medicinal mushrooms throughout history

Medicinal mushrooms are not a new concept by any means. They are most often linked to Traditional Chinese Medicine, and these practices are what have largely been adopted in Western culture as of late. But medicinal mushrooms have an even more storied past than that.

Historians have documented the use of medicinal mushrooms across many civilizations dating back thousands of years. Around 3300 BCE, a man was frozen in ice with the Piptoporus betulinus mushroom in his bag. Researchers discovered him in the glacier in 1991 and identified the mushroom, now known as the Birch Polypore, as one with immune-boosting and antiseptic properties.

Studies of Egyptian hieroglyphics have illuminated that noble peoples of ancient Egypt ingested mushrooms and viewed them as plants of immortality sent from the gods. Medicinal mushrooms were also noted by ancient Greek and Roman authors like Seneca and Dioscorides. Vikings and ancient Greeks are also believed to have dabbled in hallucinogenic mushrooms, demonstrating the prevalence of fungi in these cultures.

Dating back to 100 BCE, ancient Chinese texts describe numerous popular mushrooms of today, noting their ability to cure respiratory illnesses and other ailments and documenting their high value in society. Later, North American and Mesoamerican cultures also had documented use of mushrooms for medicinal purposes since the 16th century.

Beyond these uses, modern medicine did not turn its attention to fungi until the creation of penicillin in 1928—a medical marvel for its time. Since then, experts have leveraged different fungi to some extent in traditional medicines like antibiotics. But not until more recently have mushrooms in their natural state been given mainstream attention for medicinal properties under the “alternative medicine” umbrella.

Most common medicinal mushrooms today

Today, researchers continue to explore the benefits of these mushrooms that ancient civilizations used thousands of years ago for very similar ailments. A few mushrooms in particular have become popularized in recent years:

  • Reishi: Reishi mushrooms are among the most documented medicinal mushrooms and are believed to have been used the most throughout history. The mushroom contains terpenoids, which are powerful anti-inflammatories. It is also believed to help boost the immune system and reduce oxidative stress thanks to antioxidants.
  • Lion’s mane: Lion’s mane mushrooms are being studied for their effects on cancer cells, since they are believed to stop the growth of tumors. They’re also believed to be useful for preventing and/or treating Alzheimer’s disease by regenerating nerve tissue in the brain. This ability may help improve cognitive performance on a daily basis as well.
  • Cordyceps: Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus that grows out of insects, is another anti-cancer mushroom. It also contains high levels of antioxidants, making it a great anti-aging mushroom, and can help fight off fatigue.
  • Shiitake: Shiitake mushrooms are very popular in Japan, where they were discovered. Rich in vitamins, fiber and amino acids, this mushroom is believed to be useful for immune system improvements, cancer prevention and cholesterol management.
  • Turkey tail: Turkey tail is also popular for its anti-cancer properties. It contains high amounts of polysaccharide K, which is now used as an anti-cancer drug in Japan.

As research on medicinal mushrooms continues, researchers are sure to discover exactly why so many ancient physicians used mushrooms to cure ailments in patients around the world. Until then, medicinal mushroom supplements and extracts are available to try alongside other traditional and alternative medical treatments!

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