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herbalist's favorite functional mushrooms: hand holding reishi mushroom

An Herbalist M.D. Shares Her 4 Favorite Functional Mushrooms

Mainstream interest in mushrooms has been growing over the past few years as people become more educated on their many health benefits. (September has even been deemed National Mushroom Month.) More and more research continues to be done on various medicinal mushrooms, and has shown that they can help support metabolic health, cardiovascular function, healthy weight maintenance, and more. As a neurologist and herbalist, I absolutely adore all things mushrooms; I eat them, teach about them, prescribe them, and even forage my own. 

Why I Love Mushrooms

Most people don’t think of mushrooms as being a highly nutritious food, but they are actually tremendously nutrient-dense. They have a high protein content —up to 45 percent!—and contain fiber, trace elements, vitamins, and minerals. And while mushrooms grow in the dark, they’re one of the only vegan sources of vitamin D (which helps to boost and balance your immune system, among other benefits). Mushrooms also contain phenolic compounds like gallic acid, which naturally bind toxic metals like mercury and lead, and detox them from your body.

Mushrooms also contain prebiotics, which directly support your gut and immune function. These polysaccharides—especially beta-glucans—nourish beneficial bacteria in your gut. From there, those helpful bacteria balance out the potentially harmful bacteria that also normally live in your gut and prevent them from causing disruption. All of these diverse bacteria then help educate your immune system so that it can better determine which microbes coming through your digestive tract are friend versus foe and your body can eliminate problematic strains before they cause problems. (Pretty cool, right?) They also promote a healthier gut lining so that you can better absorb nutrients—like all those that mushrooms have to offer!

Read More: The Gut-Brain Connection, Explained By A Neurologist

By nourishing the microbiome and supporting a healthy immune system, mushrooms ultimately help to promote overall balance throughout the body—and when the body is balanced, it operates in a way that benefits you.

My Favorite Functional Mushrooms

There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms that are safe to eat and absolutely delicious—and you don’t have to forage in the wilderness to experience the health benefits they offer. Even the ordinary white button mushrooms you can buy in any grocery store have been shown to increase your gut’s microbial diversity and help you fight infections in your digestive tract.   

That said, some mushrooms are particularly medicinal and have been well-studied. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane mushroom is an amazing helper for healthy brain function by supporting neurogenesis. What this means is that lion’s mane helps your neurons make more new connections, which translates to greater ease in learning new things, better overall memory, and improved focus and concentration. 

Read More: Do’s And Don’ts For Getting Focused And Boosting Productivity

Lion’s mane also contains a multitude of important antioxidants and neuro-protective phytonutrients. Certain compounds found in lion’s mane, namely hericenones and erinacines, increase nerve growth factor (NGF) in nerve cells, which promotes nerve tissue growth and enhances motor function. In fact, research has shown that adults with mild memory problems associated with aging who took lion’s mane extract had better brain function compared with control participants who did not ingest the mushroom. Taking lion’s mane daily is a good way to boost brain health.

2. Turkey Tail

Resembling the colors of vibrant turkey feathers, turkey tail mushrooms are as visually captivating as they are beneficial for our health. Turkey tail boasts a remarkable ability to modulate the immune system, making it a valuable ally for those who seek immune balance. Their prebiotic properties also support gut health, which also contributes to a strong immune foundation. 

3. Chaga

Chaga mushrooms hail from the birch forests of Siberia and are considered potent anti-aging medicine. Bursting with antioxidants, chaga helps neutralize harmful free radicals that contribute to disease. Its betulinic acid content supports healthy cholesterol levels and aids in cellular regeneration. Chaga’s immune-supporting properties (which are attributed to its polysaccharide content) also fortify your body’s defenses against invaders. What’s more, chaga boosts collagen levels and balances adrenal hormones to support healthy and beautiful skin. If you want to feel young into your later decades, chaga will be your best friend.

4. Reishi

Reishi mushrooms, often referred to as the “elixir of immortality,” have been revered in traditional Eastern medicine for centuries. Packed with bioactive compounds, reishi is a true powerhouse for balancing blood sugar, regulating hormones, boosting energy, supporting immunity, healing the gut, and helping us feel calm and happy. Rich in beta-glucans, these mushrooms are potent immune system supporters, both for those experiencing allergic symptoms and those who need protection in the face of illness. Furthermore, reishi contains triterpenes that support liver health and improve detoxification. To top it off, reishi helps reduce stress levels and promotes relaxation.

Make The Most Of These Mushrooms

For most of us, mushrooms are as close to a gut superfood as we can get. Just remember that quality matters. If you opt for a supplement, choose one that’s made primarily or entirely from a mushroom’s fruiting body (the mushroom itself), not mycelium (mushrooms’ underlying network or “root system”). Most studies have found the health benefits to be greater and more concentrated in fruiting bodies than in mycelium. 

Whether you decide to take mushrooms as supplements or incorporate them into food and drinks, you can’t go wrong. You can even add mushroom powders to coffee, cacao, smoothies, and salad dressings. Rotate them, enjoy them, and take advantage of all of their fantastic health benefits!

Dr. Maya Shetreat MD headshot

 

Dr. Shetreat is a neurologist, herbologist, and author of The Dirt Cure, in which she presents a nutritional plan for getting and keeping children healthy. She works and studies with indigenous communities and healers from around the world, and is the founder of the Terrain Institute, where she teaches earth-based programs for transformational healing.

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