The Brave New World of Medicinal Mushrooms

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Walk into any Whole Foods or similar market, and you’ll see how our interest in mushrooms has, well, mushroomed. The produce section boasts varieties from lion’s mane to shiitake, while the supplement aisle has powders, capsules and tinctures galore. There’s mushroom coffee, mushroom chocolate and mushroom jerky.

We still prefer to eat our mushrooms, but mushrooms as medicine are increasing in popularity. They’re gaining attention both as immune boosters and as adaptogens, which helps the body adapt to stress. Mushrooms might be trendy, but they have been used as food and medicine for thousands of years, says Dr. Erica Steele, ND, a functional medicine practitioner. “Different mushrooms have many different properties to them but are widely known for their immune-modulating capabilities,” says Steele, who runs Holistic Family Practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


Mushrooms contain a type of complex carbohydrate called beta-glucans, which stimulate the immune system and inhibit tumor growth. Beta-glucans naturally increase and stimulate antibodies and natural killer cells, and they influence gene expression and healthy cell growth.

Some mushrooms — including cordyceps, shiitake and turkey tail — are immune stimulants, directly working on the immune system to help you defend against viruses and bacteria. Other varieties (including reishi, cordyceps and shiitake) are immune tonics, meaning they support your immune system as a whole (or its parts).

Adaptogens (including cordyceps and reishi) help the body adapt to emotional and physical stress and support the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.


Here’s a quick breakdown of some popular medicinal mushrooms:



Common uses: antioxidant protection and immune health

Chaga looks like a chunk of burned wood — you’d never guess it’s a mushroom. It is traditionally considered a tonic that helps overall wellness, works as a blood purifier and pain reliever with potent antioxidant properties. This mushroom must be extracted as it’s too tough to cook.



Common uses: adaptogen; energy, stamina and endurance; immune health

Cordyceps was used to increase stamina and vital energy in ancient China, which is why it has gained a reputation among athletes. As an adaptogen and a tonifying herb, cordyceps is used to boost stamina and restore energy, especially after being sick or exhausted. It also supports healthy aging — and a healthy sex drive.



Common uses: memory, concentration and nerve health

This shaggy mushroom is a nootropic, a cognitive enhancer. Lion’s mane helps creativity, motivation and memory, as well as brain function. It’s another mushroom favored by athletes.



Common uses: GI health, blood sugar and healthy weight

Maitake (hen of the woods) offer immune support, and they have been shown to help lower blood glucose levels. Modern research has examined using maitake for liver protection, blood pressure and cholesterol.



Common uses: adaptogen; longevity, sleep and immune health

Reishi — known as the mushroom of immortality — protects the immune system by regulating natural killer cells and cytokine responses. It’s also a potent antioxidant. Reishi is perhaps the most versatile mushroom, with 4,000 years of use in Asia. Its most common uses are for sleep, stress and general immune health and vitality. As an adaptogen, it is used to support endurance and the endocrine system. This mushroom must be extracted, as it’s too tough to cook.



Common uses: immune health, cholesterol, antioxidant protection, skin health, liver support

Shiitake has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years in China and Japan. Historically, shiitake was widely used as an immune booster for everything from colds to cancer. Studies have supported its antiviral and anti-cancer properties, and it offers a boost for white blood cells and protects the immune system from oxidative stress. It’s been used to regulate the immune system, protect the liver (thereby also promoting healthy skin) and support the cardiovascular system.


Calling all avocado lovers: Crunchy veggies and tender, spicy mushrooms are delightful on their own and even better when heaped onto half an avocado. This meal is low-carb, too, which is why I used maitake — to help support healthy blood sugar levels. Maitake mushrooms are flavorful and juicy, with a rich, almost meaty flavor. I like to get the edges nice and crispy in a hot pan for even more deliciousness.

Total time: 25 minutes


  • 2 teaspoons safflower oil or another neutral oil
  • 1 3 1/2-ounce (100g) package maitake, root end trimmed and petals chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt-free taco seasoning
  • 1/4 cup (40g) chopped red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium red or yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup (90g) corn kernels
  • 2 avocados, sliced in half and pits removed
  • 1/4 cup (15g) cilantro, leaves only, chopped
  • 1/4 cup (30g) toasted, unsalted pumpkin seeds
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges


Place a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, along with the maitake, taco seasoning and red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes until the onions start to get some color and soften. Add 1/4 cup (60ml) water and cook another 5 minutes, until the water has mostly evaporated. Add the garlic, bell pepper and corn; lower heat to medium. Cook another 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, scoop each avocado half out of the skin and place pit side up on a plate. Top with 1/4 of the maitake mixture. Garnish with the cilantro, pumpkin seeds and lime wedges.

Serves: 4 | Serving Size: 1/2 avocado + 1/4 mushroom mixture

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 226; Total Fat: 17g; Saturated Fat: 3g; Monounsaturated Fat: 7g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 73g; Carbohydrate: 19g; Dietary Fiber: 8g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 5g

Copy and recipe adapted from “Cooking With Healing Mushrooms: 150 Delicious Adaptogen-Rich Recipes that Boost Immunity, Reduce Inflammation and Promote Whole Body Health” (Ulysses Press, July 2018) by Stepfanie Romine.

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