Rediscovering Medicinal Mushrooms

Rediscovering Medicinal Mushrooms

by Jackie Callahan 

turkey tail, too

I have been interested in medicinal herbs for ten years, but only recently have become interested in the fungi kingdom, and all of the amazing health benefits that many of the mushrooms included in this group, have to offer. Awareness of this treasure trove of information started trinkling into my consciousness as more and more herbalists began mentioning the health benefits of one mushroom, or another, and began including them on their immune-booster lists. These inventories of known plants, which help build the immune system, either by playing a preventative role, or a curative one, were now more often including mushrooms. As a result, little, by little, I became more interested in them, and began doing my own research; what I have found has been very exciting.

It is well documented that mushrooms have been used for nutritional, medicinal and ritualistic purposes, all over the world, for thousands of years. A cave painting exists in Algeria depicting a shaman dancing amongst mushrooms, which dates back 7,000 years. The Greeks and the Romans treasured the benefits of mushrooms, and several documents on the subject exist from the first century AD, and earlier. The earliest known document on the health benefits of mushrooms comes from India, written in 3,000 B.C.

China, too, has long treasured mushrooms, and records exist of their use, that go back 7,000 years. This is especially true because mushrooms have been a central focus in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years.

Paul Stamets, D.Sc, owner, developer, and leading visionary of the Host Defense Company, has been a dedicated mycologist for over 30 years. He has discovered and co-authored 4 new species of mushrooms and pioneered countless techniques in the field of edible and functional mushroom cultivation. He is the winner of many awards, including Utne Magazine’s naming him one of the “Fifty Visionaries Who Are Changing the World.”

Paul works in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and sees them as a resource of incalculable value. His vision is to preserve and protect these incredibly diverse and rich old-growth forests, especially in regard to the fungal genome. His dream, and life goal, is to preserve and protect as many of these ancestral strains of mushrooms as possible.

Largely thanks to him, we have seen medicinal mushrooms become readily available on the alternative medicine market. The interest in these medicinal mushrooms has been largely sparked by research that has been carried out in Russia, Europe, China, Japan and the U.S and Canada. Here are some highlights of just a few of these mushrooms:

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

One of these multiyear studies, carried out on the Turkey Tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) in the United States, by National Institute of Health, was very promising. It showed that turkey tail was very effective in boosting the immune systems of breast cancer patients who had ended their radiation therapy treatments. It was found that the natural killer cell activity and lymphocytes (natural immunity boosters which dramatically decline during radiation therapy) are significantly increased in these patients, thereby helping them to gain strength as their new proliferation of killer cells attack remaining cancer cells. In addition, turkey tail has been widely studied in China and Japan for its immune – stimulating properties (more than 400 studies published in Japan show the benefits to the immune system.)

Further research has shown it to be anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral, and an anti-cancer agent.

Chaga (Inonotus ibliquus)

Chaga mushrooms are one of the highest food antioxidants on the planet. Antioxidants are substances that stabilize free radicals  (maurading unpaired electrons, which are known to damage cells, protein, and DNA, and have been associated with cancer.) A substance’s ability to stabilize these reactive atoms (thereby rendering them harmless) are measured by ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbent Capacity) units. There are many foods which are natural antioxidants; blueberries, for instance have long been recognized as a great antioxidant food, have an average rating of about of 24.5 ORAC units per gram. Almost unbelievably, chaga has a rating of 1104 ORAC units per gram! Chaga’s high rates of Superoxide dismutase (SOD) the body’s most powerful natural antioxidant, is responsible for this extremely high rating, and it also plays a critical role in reducing internal inflammation.

In addition, extensive research in Russia, China and Japan, as well as the United States, has long associated the mushroom with anti-cancer activity; this is due to a number of properties of the mushroom: some boost the immune system, while other properties destroy cancer cells, and still others, prevent cancer cells from replicating.

The mushroom is also nutrient dense with significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. In addition, it is purported to be: anti-tumor, anti-cancer, immune stimulating, and anti-viral.

To use as a tea, take 3 tbl of chaga mushroom powder and add to 16 cups of water. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then, allow the tea to come to room temperature. For extra medicinal value, you may repeat the entire process; then bottle and refrigerate; drink hot or cold.

Reishi (ganoderma lucidum)

Immune enhancing

Anti viral

Cholesterol reducing


Stimulates macrophage, killer cells, and T-cell production in host (natural killer cells Non-B and non-T lymphocytes that bind to diseased cells

Relief from bronchitis, asthma and allergies (enhances respiration – helps oxygen-absorbing capacity of alveoli)

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)

*Increase stamina and circulation

* Helps to alleviate arthritis, high blood cholesterol, helpful in the treatment of diabetes

*Immune stimulant

*Activates killer cells to fight cancer

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

* Brain food that increases intellect and nourishes the nervous system (Paul Stamets)

* Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for digestion and curing gastric ulcers


*Immune stimulation

*Nerve growth regeneration

* Anti-Microbial

*Stimulates neurons to re-grow (possible treatment for senility and Alzheimer’s disease)

* Promotes growth of Natural Killer (NK) cells

Immunity Soup

Makes 12 cups – 6 servings

1 ½ tsp extra virgin olive oil

2 large onions, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, mashed

1 tbl minced fresh ginger

4 oz shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

2 large carrots, thinly sliced on the bias

2-½ pieces astragalus root (about 15 inches total)

10 cups mushroom stock

2-tbl tamari

Salt to taste (optional)

2 cups broccoli florets

½ cup chopped scallions

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and ginger and sauté until soft and translucent. Add the shiitakes, carrots, astragalus root, and mushroom stock. Bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the tamari and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Add the broccoli florets and cook until tender, about 2 minutes

Remove the astragalus root pieces. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with scallions before serving.

Borrowed from True Food, by Andrew Weil, M.D.

One caution: be sure you are aware of the source of your mushrooms; it is essential that they are organic, and that you know they come from a reliable source. Not all suppliers are reputable, either the quality of the mushroom is poor, or, they have not used sustainable practices in harvesting. Also, if mushrooms are imported, be sure that country’s health and handling standards are of the highest quality.

jackie callahan in Wellness at Healthy Living and Cafe New York




Jackie Callahan has been interested in health and nutrition for her entire adult life. She is an amateur naturalist and has written over 13 illustrated journals on the flora and fauna of Fish Creek, an outlet of Saratoga Lake, and is currently studying with master herbalist, Dr. Aviva Romm, working toward a certification as an herbal educator. She works as a sales associate in the Healthy Living (Saratoga) Wellness department. She lives in Saratoga Springs on beautiful Fish Creek with her husband, John and their son, Alex. She also has two grown children, Danielle and Devin, who live in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Burlington, Vermont, respectively.