Bioactive Mushrooms for Health: Magick or Medicine?

Mushrooms. They seem to be everywhere right now. Your friends who mushroom hunt through the woods; that weird mushroom drink your partner has every morning; that cordyceps supplement your sister recommended for sleep – and that’s apart from just… eating some mushrooms.

Before this fungal explosion hit the mainstream, people thought medicinal mushrooms meant those kinds of mushrooms – the magic ones that are a staple at every music festival. But there’s a lot more to mushroom-y medicines than that. From cancer-killing functions to cognitive support, medicinal mushrooms have a lot more to offer than as a sautéed side for that weekly steak at your favorite restaurant.

Origins of Fungus in Folk Medicine

Humans have used mushrooms for medicinal purposes for at least 5300 years. How do we know that? Otzi – the famous Ice Man whose frozen body was preserved under ice until his discovery in 1991, died around 3300 BCE. He was carrying a pouch with amadou – a mushroom used by many ancient cultures for everything from dressing wounds to starting fires.

3000 years later, around 450 CBE, Hippocrates listed this same mushroom as anti-inflammatories and useful for cauterizing wounds. And in texts throughout the history of Chinese medicine, mushrooms are included in medical literature from 100 BCE on. In North America alone, there are 79 species of native medicinal mushrooms, 16 of which have been confirmed as bioactive by modern medicine and moved onto isolated clinical research.

History of Mushrooms in Mainstream Medicine

Everyone knows about the mushroom boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when psychoactives began to be explored as alternative treatments to mental health ailments. But, while far less sensational and publicized, non-psychoactive mushrooms have just as interesting implications for modern medicine moving forward.

It’s not exactly a mystery of what’s in a certain species of fungus, but how it affects the body. Mushrooms are packed with protein and essential nutrients like vitamin D. But they’re also packed with polysaccharides. Like, hundreds. Often, these are the compounds we’re looking at when we isolate mushroom ingredients for clinical studies. A recent review of the literature on the bioactive properties of the polysaccharides in 700 species of mushrooms revealed some pretty amazing things:

  • Mushrooms may prove useful for up to 126 medicinal functions, including antiparasitic, antifungal, immunomodulatory, hepatoprotective, antibacterial, antiviral, and many
  • Several of these mushroom-derived polysaccharide compounds have proceeded through Phase I-III clinical studies and are now widely used throughout Asia for cancer treatments.
  • Some polysaccharides have anticancer and antitumor properties.

Clinical Evidence for Fungus in Functional Medicine

Let’s discuss the current literature on three of the most potent and well-known names in medicinal mushrooms: reishi, cordyceps and lion’s mane.


Reishi is a mushroom native to Asia that’s been recognized in Chinese medicine for over two millennia. It was included in the first medical book dedicated solely to herbs, and by the 15th century, we see reishi imagery all over Chinese art, including in women’s accessories, furniture and other items. It’s a popular medicine all over Asia to this day.

Reishi gets a lot of face time in both the health supplement market and, surprisingly, clinical medicine. That’s because, of the many cool things it seems the reishi fungus can do, its anticarcinogenic properties are perhaps the most impressive. Major studies are consistently underway on reishi as a complementary treatment for many different cancers, including breast cancer, liver tumors and leukemia.

Other bioactive benefits reishi has demonstrated in medical research include:

  • Increase immune system function
  • Increase proliferation of healthy cells
  • Act as an antioxidant
  • Fight viral infections
  • Fight bacterial infections
  • Treat diabetes

There is also some evidence that the triterpenes in reishi can fight HIV. Speaking of triterpenes, these are one of two compound groups that give reishi its potent bioactive powers:

  • Polysaccharides: immunostimulating, hypoglycemic, antiviral
  • Triterpenes: anti-inflammatory, antitumorogenic, hypolipedemic


Cordyceps is a group of parasitic species of fungi that basically absorb moth larvae to grow. It’s creepy, especially if you’ve watched The Last of Us, but don’t worry; adding cordyceps to your diet won’t turn you into a raging fungus-ridden zombie – there are way more things besides warmth stopping cordyceps from making humans their hosts.

Cordyceps has been used as medicine for at least 300 years, first recorded in Chinese medical texts in the late 1600s. It has traditionally been used as a tonic for kidney disease, lung-related illnesses, asthmas treatments, and for heart health. A recent review of the clinical data on cordyceps in human trials confirms it’s proved useful for well over a dozen purposes, including:

  • Antidiabetic
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antitumor/antimetastasis
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Liver protection
  • Renal protection

Some of the compounds in cordyceps that are responsible for these bioactive functions include:

  • Ergosterol: regulates heart rate, antiviral activity, anticancer properties
  • Nucleosides: promotes neuronal growth, regulates neurotransmitter activity, antitumor activity
  • Polysaccharides: antioxidant activity, immune system support, anti-inflammatory

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane is said to have a long (but vague) history in Chinese and Tibetan medicine; the story is that Buddhist monks would use lion’s mane tea as a way to boost their meditative abilities and vitality. The way lion’s mane seems to affect the brain makes this mushroom useful for mental and cognitive health by boosting the biological processes that happen to accomplish those things.

Lion’s mane induces neurogenesis by increasing the production of nerve growth factor in the brain. In study after study, researchers have observed increased hippocampal activity, which is important for two big reasons:

(1) The hippocampus is the center of learning, emotion and memory. It forms new memories, archives long-term memories, helps regulate emotional responses, helps with neural plasticity (flexible cognition), and aids in social behaviors.

(2) Countless psychological, physiological and neurological disorders negatively affect the health/function of the hippocampus.

So the health of your hippocampus is high-key important. Lion’s mane’s effects on the hippocampus have demonstrated significant benefits in a large body of preclinical and clinical studies, including:

  • Anti-allergen
  • Antidepressant activity
  • Anxyolitic activity
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor – neural plasticity and memory formation)
  • Increased outgrowth of NGF (Nerve Growth Factor – neural proliferation

Some of the key compounds in lion’s mane that stimulate neurogenesis, regulate neurotransmitter activity and reduce inflammation include:

  • Amycenone
  • Erinacines
  • Hericenones

Hate the Taste of Mushrooms? Don’t Let it Stop You!

Pretty cool, right? As a wellness center that focuses on integrative and holistic medicine, we’re always here for treatments that are natural. Medicinal mushrooms are chocked full of vital nutrients we need more of, but these bioactive compounds are also native to our bodies (meaning we have the equipment to receive, process and use them), so they’re safe.

And good news for those of us that hate mushrooms or simply can’t find a raw pound of lion’s mane at the grocery each week – you don’t have to eat them; there are pill supplements you can take to reap all the great benefits of functional fungus. Given that – we’d say they’re definitely worth a try.

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