Everyone knows mushrooms are magic, but we’re not talking hallucinogens here. Fungi happen to have incredible medicinal powers that have been harnessed in Chinese medicine for centuries. Finally the Western world is wising up to what mushrooms can do. Haute wellness brands like Moon Juice are touting obscure varieties like reishi and lion’s mane for their benefits to immunity and mental sharpness.
Here are four of the most potent superfood mushrooms that deserve a spot in your wellness routine. (Check with your physician first before gorging on them, especially if you take medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have an autoimmune disease or bleeding disorder.)
Once a delicacy for royals, reishi were known as “mushrooms of immortality.” Around the late 20th century, scientists started to discover their anti-anxiety and brain-boosting properties. One study found that reishi facilitates the production of nerve growth factor, a protein that helps regulate neurological health. And would you believe that reishi may even be strong enough to fight cancer? It has shown potential to inhibit the growth of tumors and strengthen immunity in advanced stages of the disease. Studies point to polysaccharides and ganoderic acid in the mushroom as being major players in suppressing cancer growth. These aren’t your ideal umami ingredient for a sauté dish, though. They grow on wild plum trees and have a bitter, woody taste, so they’re most commonly found in the form of tea or in protein powder blends. Pick up reishi products from Asian or health food markets.
Take one look at the pom pom–like lion’s mane growing out of a tree trunk and you wouldn’t think it’d be an edible mushroom, let alone one with a flavor reminiscent of lobster or scallops. Aside from its quirky-cute looks, one of the cool things about this fungus it has no toxic look-alikes, so if you happen to spot one in the wild, it’s generally always safe—and very tasty—to eat. If the distinctive savory taste isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider the long-term positive effects these globular guys can have on the brain. They boast two distinct types of nerve growth factors that are known for improving cognitive function in middle-aged and elderly people and easing symptoms of depression and anxiety in post-menopausal women. Not into foraging for wild mushrooms? No problem—lion’s mane, also known as yamabushitake, is available as a supplement or powder at health food markets.
Also a far cry from the average white and crimini mushrooms that make regular appearances in everyday cooking, chaga looks like burnt charcoal on the outside and rust-colored wood on the inside. They grow on birch trees and have shown incredible healing powers on damaged and dying trees. No wonder they’ve been consumed in Siberia for thousands of years to promote longevity. Of all mushrooms, chaga has the highest content of superoxide dismutase (SOD), an antioxidant enzyme with anti-inflammatory properties. Chaga is an adaptogen, balancing the immune system with beta-D-glucans, giving immunity a boost when needed, and keeping it in check when it’s overactive. This is instrumental in fighting chronic inflammation, which manifests as acne, fatigue, weight gain, and depression, and can ultimately lead to autoimmune diseases. Chaga may be difficult to find, but it’s available at health food stores in capsule, tablet, or powder form, as tea, or in dried chunks.
Cordyceps are parasites that grow on bugs, but don’t let that scare you! Historically found in the high mountain regions of China, cordyceps are now commonly reproduced in laboratories. One of the most popular benefits is enhancing libido, but amped-up sexual performance isn’t all there is to love. Cordyceps can also increase metabolic rate and stamina—great for exercise and athletic performance as well. Let us reiterate that medicinal mushrooms are no joke, and Western medicine is still catching up on researching their effects. That’s why it’s vital to discuss any long-term use with your doctor first to ensure you reap the benefits safely.