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Shura Ford, Doctor of Chinese medicine, discusses four of the most important medicinal mushrooms.

It seems like new superfoods are popping up everywhere these days but one has literally been used for centuries - the mushroom. Mushrooms in various forms have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a source of health, vitality, nutrition, and longevity, and are considered both a food and a herbal medicine.

Support for the lungs

While mushroom varieties are available throughout the year, wild-harvested ones are collected in autumn. In TCM philosophy, eating seasonal food is important because the energetic nature of seasonal food aligns with the energetics of the body. Mushrooms are an ideal autumnal food tonic. Autumn is the season of the metal element and is associated with the lungs. From a TCM perspective, mushrooms' properties support and regulate the lung energy, tonify the qi and blood, reduce phlegm and mucus, and relieve cough. Also in TCM, the lung energy is closely related to the body's immune function and modern analysis exploring the compounds present in mushrooms is reflective of these philosophies. Research into mushrooms' health properties has generally focused on the immune-modulating effects of the polysaccharide beta glucans contained in various mushroom varieties. Mushrooms are a good source of fibre, low in sugar, high in selenium and contain vitamins B, D, and C, plus iron and some protein. They are particularly beneficial for vegans and vegetarians.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidium), known as Ling Zhi in the Chinese herbal materica medica, is the most revered mushroom in TCM. Renowned as a tonic, its properties include tonifying the qi and blood, tonifying the lungs, nourishing the heart, and calming the spirit. Reishi is used to balance the body and mind and support vitality. Research into its active compounds has shown that, along with the beneficial beta glucan polysaccharides, reishi contains a chemical called triterpene which modulates the immune system, benefits white blood cell activity, and inhibits histamine release.

Maitake (Grifola fronosa), also known as 'hen of the woods', contains polysaccharide beta glucans and is recommended for immune support and general wellness. Maitake has been investigated in clinical trials for its role in cancer support and recovery: found to improve the function of white blood cells and the immune system, it is often prescribed as a complement to conventional cancer treatment. It also reduces some side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, such as fatigue, nausea and weight loss.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is often used in Asian cooking. In Shi Liao (Chinese food prescriptions), shiitake's properties are that it strengthens the spleen and regulates the qi. It's high in germanium, a trace element that improves oxygenation of the body and stimulates immune function, and also contains the beta glucan polysaccharide lentinan, which has been shown in clinical trials to stimulate and increase white blood cell activity, most particularly lymphocytes.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are particularly high in germanium, and are a tonic for the immune system. Oyster mushrooms also contain a distinct amino acid called ergothioneine, which has antioxidant properties.

Shura Ford is a doctor of Chinese medicine. Contact her at Ford Wellness Group, www.fordwellnessgroup.com.au