It was only a matter of time before I came across medicinal mushrooms and fungi on my herbal journey. I’ve always loved eating mushrooms and learning to forage for them has been on my bucket list for some time, but I’ve never really studied their medicinal uses. Of course, as I learn more, I want to know more and this is no exception. There are a variety of mushrooms valued for their medicinal properties, and of these, reishi mushrooms are probably the most well-known and well-studied.
What is Reishi?
Ganoderma lucidum, reishi, also known as “ling zhi” in China, is the main species people refer to when discussing reishi, although there are several different species of Ganoderma with medicinal properties of their own. G. lucidum has been used in Japan, China, and other Asian cultures for thousands of years as a tonic for health and longevity and is often referred to as the “mushroom of immortality.”
Reishi grows exclusively on hardwood trees, usually oak. The fruiting body is reddish orange to brown with a shiny top that appears varnished. It is a polypore, which means it doesn’t have gills, instead releasing spores through small pores in its underside. If obtained fresh, there may be a white rim around the edges which is younger growth and edible. Other than this growth, reishi is considered inedible. With a texture described as spongy wood, it’s nearly impossible to chew! However, the entire mushroom is used medicinally, and even the spores possess a number of beneficial constituents.
Dried reishi mushrooms can be purchased whole, sliced, or in powdered form. It can be consumed as tea or a broth, which is steeped for several hours resulting in a strong, bitter concoction. Don’t worry, this can be mitigated by adding other ingredients! Because of its bitter taste, tinctures are a popular way to consume reishi. Double-extraction tinctures, meaning a combination of alcohol extraction and hot water decoction, are best because different constituents are better extracted by each method and a greater range of benefits may be obtained.
Numerous Beneficial Constituents Found in Reishi
The two major groups of bioactive compounds responsible for reishi’s wide range of benefits are polysaccharides and triterpenes. The polysaccharides in reishi have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, anti-ulcer, anti-tumor, and immune-stimulating effects. Triterpenes, which contribute to reishi’s bitter taste, are known for their anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, anti-tumor, hypotensive, and antioxidant properties. Approximately 140 different triterpenes have been identified in reishi, with about 50 being unique to reishi. (1)
Other constituents contributing to reishi’s healthful effects include peptidoglycans, sterols, phenols, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and high levels of germanium. Germanium is an element found in many medicinal plants and mushrooms, currently under study for its anti-cancer, antioxidant, immunomodulating effects. (2) (Immunomodulators help balance the immune system, meaning they stimulate, but also protect against over-stimulation of the immune system). Germanium is also believed to increase the uptake and utilization of oxygen in the body. (Hobbs, 1986)
So what does all of this scientific mumbo-jumbo mean in plain English??
It means that reishi mushrooms are potent allies against a wide range of chronic diseases and degenerative disorders.
Reishi Fights Cancer
Many of the scientific studies have focused on reishi’s purported effects on cancer. It is shown to be chemopreventive, anti-tumor, and anti-mutagenic for a wide variety of cancers, including breast, ovarian, cervical, liver, lung, and prostate cancers. When combined with current medical treatments, reishi has been shown to enhance the therapeutic effects of chemotherapy and may improve patient outcomes. In addition, those who supplement with reishi are noted to suffer fewer side effects (anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, lack of energy) and report a greater quality of life while undergoing treatment. (3, 4)
While noting it’s immune-stimulating and chemotherapy-enhancing effects, a Cochrane database review recently concluded that there is insufficient evidence to recommend it as a first-line treatment for cancer. (5) In Japan, it has been officially listed as an adjunct treatment for cancer. (Hobbs, 1986)
Reishi Protects the Liver
Numerous studies have demonstrated reishi’s beneficial effect on liver function and it is believed to promote liver detoxification. It has been shown to prevent damage from alcohol and other toxins, with greatest effects noted in healthy people. In addition, reishi helps reverse damage and relieve symptoms associated with hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fatty liver disease, especially in mild to moderate cases. (6, 7, 8)
Reishi Promotes Healthy Respiratory Function
In traditional medicine, reishi is said to have a particular affinity for the lungs. Its anti-inflammatory and antihistamine actions are useful in treating chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. It is also used as an expectorant and antitussive, and is known to improve oxygen exchange in the lungs. (Hobbs, 1986)
FYI, these same actions contribute to reishi’s effectiveness in treating seasonal allergies!
Reishi Protects Against Heart Disease
Reishi’s traditional use as a cardiotonic is supported by it’s anti-inflammatory, lipid lowering, and hypotensive properties. (9) It is also believed to relieve palpitations and angina, and can be helpful in reducing edema. Those taking blood thinners should be aware of reishi’s anticoagulant properties. (Hobbs, 1986)
Reishi Combats Aging
Considering all that we’ve covered so far, reishi’s historic reputation as the “mushroom of immortality” or the “elixir of eternal youth” may be well deserved. The idea also seems to have scientific support. Studies have shown that reishi’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulating activity exert a strong protective effect, preventing cell damage and death and effectively slowing the aging process throughout the body.
In addition to neuroprotective effects, bioactive compounds in reishi appear to stimulate production of nerve growth factor, which may be useful in treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. Early research has shown that reishi compounds may interfere with signaling pathways in the brain that lead to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and it has been used to successfully treat Alzheimer’s. (10)
In traditional medicine, reishi is considered an adaptogen, recommended for reducing stress, anxiety, and mental fog, while increasing energy and vitality. It may not make you immortal, but it’s easy to see how reishi supplementation could result in an enhanced quality of life.
Reishi May Help Relieve Shingles Pain
In small scale studies, reishi has been shown to be effective in treating shingles pain with “dramatic improvement” reported in elderly individuals. Its antiviral properties may also help speed the healing of lesions. (11)
Reishi Prevents Altitude Sickness
This is one of those things that are just good to know. Likely due to it’s ability to improve oxygenation of the blood, reishi is known to be an effective remedy for altitude sickness. (Hobbs, 1986) Some users report greater effect when used in combination with holy basil (tulsi).
It May Be An Antidote for Poisonous Mushrooms
The dosage given for this use is 120-200g (!) of dried reishi decocted in water, to be taken as a tea 3-5 times per day. I haven’t been able to identify the particular species it works for however, so I’m not sure how useful this information is. (For comparison, the usual dosage for reishi is about 1 gram of dried mushroom 3 times per day). (Hobbs, 1986)
Foraging for Reishi
As I mentioned earlier, learning to forage for mushrooms is on my bucket list and a skill I’d like to start learning sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, G. lucidum will be hard to find where I live BUT Ganoderma tsugae grows abundantly in these dense PA hemlock forests. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it on hikes. G. tsugae is also known as Hemlock reishi, and it’s medicinal properties and healthful benefits are similar to those of G. lucidum.
I will probably end up “scouting” rather than “foraging,” at least until I’m sure I’ve identified the correct mushroom, but I am definitely looking forward to the hunt!
Thanks for reading!
Hobbs, C. (1986). Medicinal Mushrooms An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, & Culture. Summertown, TN: Botanica Press.