Medicinal mushrooms and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Medicinal mushrooms and Traditional Chinese Medicine
When picturing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), perhaps you conjure up images of acupuncture clinics, tai chi and unpronounceable herbs. But there’s an entire kingdom that’s central to TCM — a kingdom that we in the west are quick to overlook…
The Kingdom of Fungi.
Mushrooms have played an integral role in Chinese culture for an estimated 7,000 years. Historically, mushrooms were used as a delicious food source and fermented for products like wine, vinegar and soy sauce. 
Traditional Chinese Medicine emerged around 3000 years ago — a time when mushrooms began to evolve from a culinary delight to a health-giving medicine to promote wellbeing, bolster immunity and prevent disease. 
Back then, Chinese medical practitioners relied on anecdotal evidence and observations of medicinal mushrooms — theories that we’re now beginning to test in laboratories in the west (with exciting early findings, we might add).
It’s important to note, fungi have also been used for their healing properties in other eastern countries like Japan and Malaysia, only it’s a little less documented. This article will focus specifically on China.
- What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
- What are medicinal mushrooms?
- What are the most well-known mushrooms in Traditional Chinese Medicine?
What is traditional Chinese medicine?
Before we begin, we think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re no experts in the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We’re from the western world.
In saying that, we’re passionate mushroom farmers. So, it’s hard to explore the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms without drawing on TCM. Taking this into account, this section is written through our western lens and by drawing on several reliable sources.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has existed — and evolved — over thousands of years. It’s centred around the “Qi”, a vital energy that circulates through the body. TCM suggests an imbalance of Qi can lead to illness and disease. 
TCM seeks to create a balanced Qi and address health problems through various treatments, such as…
- Acupuncture — using needles to stimulate points in the body
- Moxibustion — burning leaves on specific points in the body
- Herbal remedies — consuming active ingredients made from plants (like leaves, roots, stems, seeds and flowers)
- Cupping — creating suction through heated cups on certain points in the body
- Movement — gentle movement practices like tai chi
So, where do mushrooms come into the picture?
The first known “herbal pharmacopeia” in China was Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing from the 29th century BC, the oldest official list of 365 medicinal substances. And this list included — you guessed it — several species of medicinal mushrooms. 
Many medicinal mushrooms in this list are deemed to belong to the “highest class” of medicines, believed to deliver strength, vigour and longevity. The most revered mushroom in TCM is reishi (but more on that in a minute).
What are medicinal mushrooms?
For many of us in the west, our appreciation for mushrooms is limited to “well, they taste damn good on toast.” But they go so much further than that.
From a western viewpoint, medicinal mushrooms can be defined as fungi that are used in the form of extracts or powder for medicinal and nutritional purposes. 
They have a high concentration of “active compounds” which trigger immunological activity. More precisely, they have a high concentration of polysaccharides (a fancy word of long chain carbohydrates), with the most renowned one being beta-glucan.
Renowned mycologist, Paul Stamets, once stated in an interview that “all gourmet mushrooms are medicinal.”  This suggests that medicinal properties aren’t only found in a select few “unicorn” mushrooms but the majority of strains.
Side note: when we talk about medicinal mushrooms we’re not talking about psychedelic mushrooms. That’s another topic for another day: Microdosing psychedelic mushrooms. What do we know so far?
The most well-known medicinal mushrooms in Traditional Chinese Medicine
We don’t like to play favourites with medicinal mushrooms. But we can’t deny that some varieties have been more prevalent in Traditional Chinese Medicine than others, including reishi, cordyceps and turkey tail.
Here in the west, we often go by the term “reishi” to describe this stunning, earthy polypore. But this term actually originates from Japan. In China, it’s commonly known as “ling zhi”. Traditional Chinese Medicine sings reishi’s praises, also referring to it as “the mushroom of immortality” and “herb of spiritual potency”. 
As for its history, reishi is believed to have been used in medicine for around 4,000 years for treating a range of ailments, from arthritis to insomnia to gastric ulcers. A famous natural history book in China claimed that “continued use of ling zhi will lighten weight and increase longevity.” 
In the last 20 years, the western world has turned to the lab and explored the benefits of reishi (through both human and animal studies). Early findings suggest it can…
- Boost immunity
- Reduce stress and fatigue
- Improve sleep
- Detoxify the body
- Enhance energy and stamina
Also known as “caterpillar fungi”, cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus that typically grows in the Tibetan highlands. It grows by infecting insects or insect larvae before spurting out of the head of its dead host. Yikes.
Because of these (very) specific growth requirements, cordyceps were reserved for the wealthy few. In ancient China, they would prepare cordyceps in the emperor’s palace by stuffing a duck with the fungus and roasting it over a fire. Back then, cordyceps was used to strengthen the body when it was exhausted or ill.
In more recent times, another strain has emerged called cordyceps militaris. This is used as a substitute for cordyceps sinensis because it can be easily cultivated in indoor labs (without insects) making it more available for the rest of the world.
Modern studies suggest cordyceps (both sinensis and militaris) can benefit…
- Athletic performance
Ah, turkey tail. In China it’s called “yun-zhi” meaning “cloud fungus”.
Despite being grown all around the world, it’s particularly common and renowned in China, having been used in TCM for millennia. Here, it’s believed to support the liver, strengthen the lungs and boost the immune system. 
Now the western world has come to the party, modern research is exploring the potential for turkey tail to…
- Boost immunity
- Support gut health
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve vitality and longevity
- Be used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments
There’s so much to learn about medicinal mushrooms from Traditional Chinese Medicine
As you can see, the western world is finally discovering what Chinese culture has been telling us for years: mushrooms are good for you. Really good for you.
Despite many of the TCM theories being observational and anecdotal, we’re seeing more and more studies emerge that support their views.
If you’re interested in trying a reishi, cordyceps or turkey tail for yourself, we recommend you first speak with a medicinal practitioner you trust. Then, there are a few different ways you can easily add them to your diet…
- Mushroom powders, made using a hot water extraction process to draw out the medicinal compounds. Add it to your tea, coffee or meal. Recommended dosage is ½ teaspoon per day.
- Mushroom extracts, made using a dual extraction method of both hot water and alcohol to draw out the medicinal compounds. Simply drop it straight into your mouth. Recommended dosage is 2ml per day.