In a recent scientific article, mushrooms were called “nature’s miniature pharmaceutical factories, rich in a vast array of novel constituents and wide open for exploration.” Mushrooms have been valued for their medicinal (and culinary) traits since Hippocrates discovered one had anti-inflammatory properties and used it to treat wounds in 50 BCE. The article went on to say, “We are now fully engaged in a rapidly emerging scientific revolution in medicinal mushrooms.” We are so excited about this revolution and want to help you understand how best to benefit from medicinal mushrooms.
What are medicinal mushrooms?
Medicinal mushrooms are fungi that have been shown to possess “more than 100 medicinal functions,” including but not limited to their antioxidant, anticancer, anticholesterol, antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties as well as their ability to protect heart and liver health, support immune function, and detoxify the body. Among the top medicinal mushrooms are chaga, shiitake, maitake, cordyceps, reishi, turkey tail, lion’s mane, oyster, agaricus, and tremella.
In order to reap the benefits from medicinal mushrooms, it’s critical to make a breakthrough—literally.
How to benefit from medicinal mushrooms
Mushrooms may look and feel somewhat soft on the outside, but they hide a complex microscopic structure made of a hard, indigestible carbohydrate that is part of the cell walls of mushrooms. It is called chitin, and it harbors the bioactive medicinal ingredients of the fungi. If you want to enjoy their therapeutic gifts, you need to break through this hard shell.
There is a very specific way to do this. To reach the bioactive ingredients and access the health benefits of the mushrooms, you must melt the chitin using hot-water extraction. This is a slow process, taking up to 24 hours of hot simmering. But it is worth the wait. Once the chitin is melted away, the therapeutic compounds (polysaccharides like beta-glucans) can be readily absorbed by the body. A hot-water extract is the only way you can get the real benefits from medicinal mushrooms.
Medicinal mushroom hot-water extracts are made using this hot water technique, which is then followed by evaporation of the water, drying, and packing the extract inside capsules. Only hot-water extracts can have their therapeutic compounds measured, showing you the percentage of Polysaccharides and Beta-glucans. So check the label. This is how you can tell the difference between a powder (finely ground up dried mushrooms) and a hot-water extract (with absorbable therapeutic benefits). If you want the full medicinal benefits, you need a hot-water extract.
What if you want to eat medicinal mushrooms?
If the medicinal value of mushrooms is locked away behind chitin, can you still get health benefits if you eat mushrooms? Yes and no. You can get the protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients from medicinal mushrooms by eating them, regardless of how you prepare them. But you will not get the full spectrum of medicinal benefits.
However, if you simmer medicinal mushrooms for an extended time in stews, soups, sauces, broths, or other hot liquid foods, you can break through the chitin. The same is true of mushroom powders, which should be added to liquids, then heated and simmered to release the medicinal compounds.
Mushroom teas are a healthy, caffeine-free alternative to coffee. If you want to get medicinal benefits from mushroom teas, dehydrated slices or chunks should be simmered for several hours. Once prepared, tea can be kept in the fridge for a few days, ready to be heated up or added to your favorite recipes as a broth.
The biggest misconception is assuming you get therapeutic benefits by adding medicinal mushroom powders to your smoothies or instant drinks. You will get some nutrition, but not the medicinal benefits these fungi are famous for.
Medicinal mushrooms are being increasingly appreciated for their many health benefits. But if you want to reap those benefits, it’s essential to consume them in a form that allows their bioactive components to be released and utilized by our bodies. So when choosing, be sure to select the format that suits your needs. Hot-water extracts with quantified polysaccharides and beta-glucans offer the highest therapeutic benefits for the best results.
[Editor's Note: New Roots Herbal uses the hot water extraction method to ensure their mushroom supplements are optimized for the most benefits. You can get them at your local health food store in Canada or on Amazon in the US.]