I first saw medicinal mushrooms being used in a family of Taoist healers with whom I was apprenticing in the early 1980’s. I had been asked to help the matriarch teach cooking classes, since she spoke very little English. Lily Chuang was a brilliant herbalist, but she preferred to prevent illnesses in her family rather than treat them. One of the tricks up her sleeve was regular use of Shitake Mushrooms (Lentinula edodes). She always had a jar of the dried mushrooms rehydrating in the refrigerator. Every meal included a small amount of these gems, cooked with eggs, in oatmeal, in soups and stir fries. She even made “burgers” out of the tough dry stems that she powdered in a coffee grinder and mixed with grated vegetables and eggs, and pan fried until brown. The soaking water from the rehydration process was used as a delicious addition to soups and grains.
Nowadays, Shitakes are widely available in many forms-dried, fresh in the produce section and incorporated into capsules and tablets of medicinal mushroom blends. Shitakes are one of the most flavorful mushrooms to use as food, while some of the others are too bitter or woody to use this way, and are better taken in capsule form. Shitake mushrooms are very rich in a large sugar molecule called a polysaccharide, which has been found to show strong anti-tumor, anti-viral and immune enhancing effects, such as increasing macrophage and killer T-cell activity. Shitakes have been shown to improve the health of chronic hepatitis, HIV and AIDS patients. Research also has shown their ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. General dosage as food would be to eat 2-5 mushrooms daily, cooked in some form (or taken as directed in capsules). Maitake (Grifola frondosa), another delicious mushroom, but not as widely available, has been found to be even stronger in its action against cancer.
Two other woody textured medicinal mushrooms that are powerful healers are not eaten as foods, but taken in teas, tablets or capsules: Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)** and Ganoderma Lucidum (aka Reishi, Ling Zhi). Chaga has long been used in Russia and Eastern Europe for treatment of cancers, gastritis and stomach ulcers. It has an enormously high level of anti-oxidants for reducing inflammation, fighting infections and promoting good health. Chaga is available from Canadian suppliers in a powdered form which can be prepared as a pleasant tea (www.mitobi.com). With cancer on both sides of my family, this tea has become one of my staples.
Ganoderma Mushroom is used as an immune-modulator, which means that it normalizes both an overactive immune system (auto-immune conditions) and an underactive immune system (frequent or chronic infections). It is not generally used as a tea due to the bitter flavor, but is widely available in pills, capsules and tinctures (alcohol extracts). Ganoderma has been used in the Chinese pharmacopoeia for over 3,000 years. Its benefits include: anti-inflammatory, liver protective, anti-tumor, reducing altitude sickness (by improved oxygen utilization), anti-histamine, cholesterol lowering, and lowering of mental disease symptoms caused by environmental stress. With older patients, the research shows a marked benefit on the heart and lungs in conditions such as coronary artery disease, palpitations, dyspnea (difficulty breathing) and chronic bronchitis.
One of the most restorative mushrooms from the Chinese tradition is actually a combination of a fungus and a caterpillar: Cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao=Winter Worm Summer Grass). This is a caterpillar that freezes just under the surface of the ground in winter, and in spring a fungus grows out from its body. These are very expensive and are now being cultivated minus the caterpillar. This is considered in Chinese medicine to be a very powerful, deeply strengthening immune tonic, used in serious problems such as bone marrow failure, HIV-AIDS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and generalized weakness. They were made famous recently when a group of very successful Chinese female athletes credited their Olympic success to Cordyceps . They are often included in the medicinal mushroom blends that are prepared into capsules and available at your local health food stores. In traditional Chinese culture, Cordyceps are prepared into meat and poultry soups with other herbs like ginseng. A word to the wise…if you do this, crush up the Cordyceps first; otherwise, when it rehydrates into the soup, the caterpillar clearly become visible and may be staring back at you on your soup spoon.
For further information and research details, go to the following sites:
**Instructions for preparing Chaga tea:
Put 2 tablespoons of the powdered chaga mushrooms in a non-aluminum, non-Teflon pan with 3-4 cups of pure water. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Strain off the tea and do a second boiling with another 3-4 cups of pure water, again simmering for 20-30 minutes. Strain the tea and combine with the first boiling. Refrigerate and reheat before drinking. This will last a week in the refrigerator. Drink 1-3 cups of tea per day.
Cathy McNease is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz. You can read more of her columns, advice and guidance in her collection, In Harmony with the Seasons: Herbs, Nutrition and Well-Being, available in print and e-book.