Back in the day, when someone brought up the topic of ‘shrooms, it generally wasn’t for health purposes or cooking. Roll forward from that adolescent blur, and the use of medicinal mushrooms for health and longevity is rising.
People have turned to the power of mushrooms for thousands of years. Records in China indicate therapeutic use of Ganoderma (Reishi) mushrooms dating back to 2,500 B.C. “Clinical studies on Reishi are extensive,” says Mike Masek, Director of the The Forager’s Path School of Botanical Studies. “It’s the most well-studied medicinal mushroom in Western medicine.”
“The use of mushrooms and herbs in America has been steadily increasing since about 1970, with the coming of age of the Baby Boomers,” says Masek, who is a Baby Boomer himself. “Many of the first wave of herbalists are in that generation and are now in their 60s and 70s.”
Masek attributes the growing popularity of medicinal mushrooms to the effectiveness of natural supplements, the affordability of herbal medicine, the limits of modern medicine, and a growing desire among people to connect to nature’s remedies.
Medicinal Mushroom Standouts
Two standouts in the mushroom world for healthy aging are Reishi and Lions Mane (Hericium erinaceous). And a lot of the excitement around medicinal mushrooms points to research indicating they can play an important role in immune system support.
“Research supports Reishi in improving host immune response, inhibiting the histamine response, supporting cardiovascular health, lung and respiratory support, especially when combined with Cordyceps Sinensis,” says Masek. Reishi also supports the liver, is an antiviral, anti-inflammatory and as an adjunct to cancer therapies.
Lions Mane supports healthy brain function, providing nerve growth factors, or NGFs, in the brain. Research indicates it may also play a role in preventing dementia in conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Beta Glucan Connection
“A lot of the current excitement around medicinal mushrooms is due to the research developments and popularization of beta glucans,” says Masek. Beta glucans are sugars in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens and certain plants, such as oats and barley.
Beta glucans naturally boost the immune system and are powerful weapons to support overall health. “They resist denaturing by enzymes present in our digestive systems, and as a result they pass through the digestive process intact and mimic an antigen, triggering an immune response.
Medicinal Mushroom Safety
The benefits and effectiveness of Reishi and Lions Mane mushroom supplements are extensively researched. Experts agree they are generally safe and have high antioxidant properties. “There are always exceptions, especially for people on multiple medications,” Masek says.
Simply consuming mushrooms can be beneficial. “Many of these mushrooms are food grade. This means they can be added to meals, rather than pharmaceutical strength supplements,” he says.
Mushrooms are great sources of selenium, a mineral with antioxidant properties, as well as copper, niacin, potassium and phosphorus. They also contain protein, Vitamin C and iron.
On Healthy Aging
Healthy aging is a journey that begins and ends with four focus ingredients, says Masek, a certified herbalist and expert who dedicated his career to botanical studies more than 25 years ago.
- Quality food and diet, including lots of organic vegetables and fruits.
- Quality sleep, as our bodies rebuild, repair and regenerate during sleep.
- Community connection, because living a relevant life with connection to other people is essential.
- Connection to nature, spirituality and/or religion because people need a connection to the creator and the bigger universe.
Masek’s mission is to empower people with the knowledge to use healing plants and wild foods to create healthier lifestyles. He also wants to help people achieve better physical and emotional health by reconnecting with the rhythms of nature.
Where to Start
If you’re considering adding medicinal mushroom supplements to your regimen, there are a few trusted places to start. Masek points out that Lion’s Mane is especially beneficial for people over 50, due to its ability to support overall cognitive brain function.
He recommends consulting with a qualified herbalist or naturopathic doctor who has training in the use of medicinal mushrooms.
Additionally, renowned mycologist, researcher and author Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti, has written extensively about the subject. He writes, “Although mushrooms have long been used by various cultures, only recently has modern science rediscovered what the ancients knew long ago – that mushrooms can be deep reservoirs of powerful medicines.”
Masek says that as far as commercial products, Stamets’ company is among the most trusted names in the field.