A recent documentary by LouieShwartzberg titled “Fantastic Fungi” explores the magical world of mushrooms. Current science reveals the intricate role fungi play in the forest ecosystem — with their extensive underground mycelial networks. Forestry scientists call this network the nervous system of the forest, serving as a communication hub between plants and soils. In the doc, the medicinal value of certain species is explored. Traditional cultures have a long history of using mushrooms as medicine, for immune support and to treat infection. Many medicinal varieties grow locally, particularly in old growth rainforests. They include Reishi, Turkey Tail, and Matsutake, to name a few.
Reishi: the ancient “mushroom of immortality”
Reishi mushroom, or Ganoderma lucidum, is a species of shelf fungus found in Asia and the Puget Sound. Renowned by Chinese physicians for its many healing actions, medicinal use dates back centuries. The fruiting body is harvested and dried, and then either powdered for capsules and teas or preserved in alcohol tincture. This process extracts the many healing compounds, including polysaccharides, nutrients, proteins, and other alkaloids.
Traditionally, Reishi is used to support a healthy immune system and promote longevity. Reishi also nourishes the adrenal glands, restoring function and vitality for improved wellbeing. Researchers have found that Reishi is particularly useful this time of year in the midst of cold & flu season due to its anti-bacterial and anti-viral actions. Reishi has activity against staphylococcus, streptococcus, influenzae, and other airborne respiratory infections. During allergy season, Reishi mushroom alleviates symptoms by blocking the release of histamine and balancing immune response to allergens. In China and increasingly in our area, Reishi is used as a complementary cancer treatment, supporting immune health, chemo recovery, and improving fatigue.
Taking a walk through the forest, you may come across Reishi, with its characteristic reddish, shiny top resembling a fresh coat of shellac. Reishi usually grows in marshy areas on decaying logs, and often has a pattern resembling deer antlers. In particular, Reishi loves alder bogs and swamps in old growth understory. The shiny red top tells it apart from the common dull-brown shelf mushrooms doting the tree trunks.
Turkey Tail: coriolus versicolor
We’ve all stepped over stacks of Coriolus growing out of mossy logs on Northwest trails. The striped pattern and white edge truly resemble a turkey tail, and are hard to miss. Used by indigenous communities for immune support, Coriolus has a number of health benefits. There’s increasing scientific study into Coriolus as a complementary cancer therapy. Research reveals improvement with chemotherapy and radiation, and overall improved immunity, much like Reishi. Turkey Tail is also taken for liver health, lung disease, and to treat infections. Reishi, Coriolus, and other Northwest medicinal mushrooms all share certain compounds. In particular, they are high in the complex carbohydrate beta-glucan — a polysaccharide that ramps up white blood cell counts to improve the immune response.
Taking medicinal mushrooms
For shelf fungi like Reishi and Coriolus, a tincture extract, capsule, or tea is the way to go. Capsules are best taken on an empty stomach morning and evening. Always purchase from reputable sources with sustainable harvest methods and check with your doc for safety and interactions. Medicinal mushrooms that grow on the forest floor, like Matsutake, are a delicious food as medicine. Making a Matsutake water broth is the traditional Japanese approach, and is a great way to extract medicinal properties. Medicinal mushrooms are wonderful for both preventive health and to treat common infections. We all can use an immune boost this time of year, with flu season in full swing. Next time you’re out in the woods, check out the forest floor to spot Turkey Tail, you’ll start seeing it everywhere! And check out “Fantastic Fungi” for a deeper dive into mushroom science and ecology.