A number of mushrooms traditionally used in Chinese medicine have made their way onto the global market with extraordinary claims about their health benefits. Are they true?
You may have seen the expanding medicinal mushroom sections in supplement shops or perhaps someone you know sings praises to them. Truth be told, the countless supposed health benefits ascribed to these mushrooms seem so miraculous it invites healthy skepticism.
When you dig a bit deeper and search for evidence, it quickly becomes obvious that some of the statements are indeed exaggerations, some are based on dubious animal experiments, yet others are actually backed by science. Let’s take a closer look.
Numerous mushroom products advertise the content of health-beneficial beta-glucans. They are natural components of all mushrooms cell walls and a type of fiber.
Scientific studies have shown that beta-glucans have some truly unique properties. They stimulate your immune system and strengthen it against bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic infections by priming your white blood cells and making them more effective.
Through a similar mechanism, beta-glucans have also demonstrated anti-cancer properties, helping to shrink tumours. It may sound incredible but they have such potency that they have been successfully used in support of cancer therapy in several trials (Vetvicka et al., 2019). They are no cancer cure but can make cancer treatment more effective.
And beta-glucans have one more benefit – they feed the good bacteria in your gut, which in turn boosts your immune system. Win-win!
Beta-glucans are found in all mushrooms described below and often they are behind their health-protective properties.
Reishi, also known as Lingzhi mushroom or Ganoderma, has a very bitter taste so it’s mostly used in supplements or added as powder to various mixtures – most frequently to coffee.
Reishi mushrooms are a very rich source of beta-glucans, other bioactive compounds and antioxidants so are used for boosting the immune system, fighting inflammatory conditions, and as a supplement to cancer treatment (Santesso and Wieland, 2016). Some studies show that reishi can improve cancer treatment outcomes by up to 50 percent but experts are still cautious about recommending it (Jin et al., 2016).
Another supposed effect of reishi is anti-diabetic. Several studies suggest that reishi indeed has some promising effects on our sugar metabolism and insulin producing cells in the pancreas but there’s simply not enough data to draw conclusions (Winska et al., 2019).
If you take reishi, be careful – although not very common, adverse effects can include dryness of the mouth, throat and nose together with itchiness, stomach upset, nosebleeds and bloody stools. It can also be dangerous if you take medications for high blood pressure and blood clotting as reishi amplifies their effects.
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This mushroom has become a popular food and is widely available these days. Traditionally, shiitake was used to alleviate minor aches, pains, fatigue, and to support heart health. Recently it’s been claimed it can help bolster cancer treatments.
Scientific research is limited but cautiously supports the assertion that a type of beta-glucan in shiitake – lentinan – may help our bodies fight cancer.
According to one study it makes our immune system attack cancer cells and another study found out it helped make cancer treatment more effective (Money, 2016). However promising this sounds, shiitake mushrooms aren’t magical but they can help support your health.
Chaga is a parasitic mushroom growing mostly on birch trees in colder climates. It’s commonly found in Russia, China, Northern Canada and Alaska. It’s been traditionally used ground and brewed as tea to boost immunity and overall health. Nowadays, it’s usually sold as a supplement with a myriad claims - from fighting fatigue and preventing cancer to treating heart disease and diabetes.
Research says there’s no reliable evidence for chaga and cardiovascular disease or diabetes (Money, 2016). There are, however, some data showing it kills cancer cells in cell cultures (in Petri dish) and that it has potent immune system boosting properties which can help us fight infectious diseases (Glamočlija et al.,2015; Baek et al., 2018). It contains very powerful antioxidants, which are thought to be behind these immunity-strengthening effects (Najafzadeh et al., 2007).
Before you get too excited and buy a huge bag of chaga, be warned that it contains a lot of oxalates - natural compounds that may prevent the absorption of some nutrients such as iron. In high doses (several teaspoons of chaga daily) oxalates can be toxic and even damage the kidneys so if you use chaga, stick to the recommended dosage (Kikuchi et al., 2014).
Lion’s Mane or Hedgehog mushrooms have a very unique shape and some equally unique properties. They contains several compounds that stimulate nerve cell growth and regeneration. These have been studied for their potential in the prevention and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and are emerging as effective agents (Khan et al., 2013; Lai et al., 2013; Money, 2016; Rupcic et al., 2018)
Traditionally, Lion’s Mane mushrooms are used to treat gastritis and stomach ulcers – while these effects have not been fully supported by science, one study showed that the mushroom extract stops stomach cancer cell growth and even causes their death (Wang et al., 2017). And the same effect was observed when it was used on human leukaemia cells (Li et al., 2015). Other studies agree that Lion’s Mane has anticancer properties and stimulates the immune system (Khan et al., 2013).
When it comes to other claims about its health benefits, many are based either on anecdotal evidence or on animal experiments and therefore cannot be substantiated.
A peculiar parasitic fungus that infects and kills insect caterpillars. However, only a few Cordyceps products are sourced from the wild and are labelled as such – an absolute majority of Cordyceps is grown in labs in a special solution.
This mushroom has strong anti-inflammatory properties which can be useful in a number of conditions, such as asthma, but more research is needed on its effects on people (Smiderle et al., 2014). It contains some powerful antioxidants, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and has been shown to halt the growth of human leukaemia, breast, lung, colon and cervical cancer cells (Reis et al., 2013; Chou et al., 2014; Dong et al., 2014; Wu et al., 2019).
Cordyceps may also help people with chronic kidney disease – studies show that when it’s used in combination with conventional medicine, it may slightly improve kidney health of the sufferers (Zhang et al., 2014). However, as the review authors, the evidence is not strong enough and more research is needed.
Medicinal mushrooms have a long history of use and can offer a number of health benefits. There’s still much to explore about them and how they affect us. For example, scientists are continuously isolating new compounds from many mushroom species and discovering their properties.
And precisely because we don’t know that much about all these mushrooms, we should be careful. Medicinal mushroom supplements contain safe amounts that may or may not produce desired health effects but if you don’t feel like they are doing anything for you, don’t increase the dose as that may be dangerous.
On the flipside, research shows that unless taken in excess, all the medicinal mushrooms are safe and well tolerated. They boost our immune system and if you suffer from an inflammatory condition, these products may offer extra benefits to you.
Other medicinal mushroom health effects are long-term and hard to measure – such as cancer prevention or nerve cell protection – so there’s simply no way to be certain if they work or not. Future research will hopefully provide some much needed answers. In the meantime, a wholesome plant-based diet will certainly boost your health!