Medicinal mushrooms are a $5 Billion dollar industry in the U.S., and that number is only growing. A big part of mushrooms’ meteoric rise is a result of the increasing knowledge around the reishi mushroom -- what it is, how it can be consumed and what it’s good for. Also known as the lingzhi mushroom or the “mushroom of immortality,” the reishi mushroom has been used since 100 B.C. to support human health.
So, what are the benefits of this mushroom, and how can you make it a part of your lifestyle? This guide has the answers.
What Is A Reishi Mushroom?
While the reishi (scientific name: Ganoderma lucidum) is a growing focus of contemporary scientific research, it has been used throughout Asia for over 2,000 years. The relatively rare mushroom grows in glossy, kidney-shaped outcrops on deciduous trees, such as maple trees growing in humid climates.
But what effects does the reishi mushroom have on our physiology?
Like all mushrooms, the reishi is low in fat, high in protein and fiber and full of nutritious compounds like Vitamin D. However, it has long been considered unique in its medicinal and health benefits. According to WebMD, researchers are currently studying the fungi’s application for the following purposes:
- Improving memory
- Aiding fatigue
- Supporting healthy blood sugar levels
- Providing antiviral properties
- Managing discomfort
- Soothing stress
- Maintaining healthy sleep habits
An early volume of Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacological plants, written in 1590 A.D., describes the reishi as having “tonifying effects, enhancing vital energy, strengthening cardiac function, increasing memory and anti-aging effects.”
As scientists study this mushroom, they are uncovering chemical pathways that give the mushroom some of these specific properties.
Below, we’ll detail some of the most studied, well-documented benefits of reishi mushrooms for immunity.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, reishis are linked to longevity and immortality. Now, Western science is beginning to prove that reishis support the immune system itself.
The main active compound in reishi mushrooms are chains of carbohydrate molecules found inside proteins, known as polysaccharides. They play an important role in our immune function. The reishi mushroom’s Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides (GLPS) have a significant impact on our immune system, directly influencing white blood cells as well as cell signalling.
A 2003 study tested GLPS’ effect on several immune system health indicators in immunocompromised patients:
Cytokines – These proteins are a key part of immune system signalling and regulation, causing white blood cells to rush to the site of a threat.
T Cells – These cells are a kind of lymphocyte (white blood cell) that helps the immune system identify foreign cells and respond to them.
Natural Killer (NK) Cells – NK cells attack and kill invading pathogens.
This study found increased NK cell and cytokine activity, indicating enhanced immune response. While the cellular mechanisms that enable GLPS to act on immune cells are complex and under rigorous study, early results are promising.
While many present studies focus on immunocompromised patients, healthy people also take reishi supplements to cope with circumstances that can suppresses immune system response, including:
- Poor sleep
- Heavy athletic training
Combatting Fatigue, Improving Mood
Since reishi mushrooms have demonstrated a profound effect on the immune system, it’s perhaps no surprise that they can also benefit overall mood and well-being, too.
After all, inflammation and chronic stress create physical discomfort. This in turn affects mood, which may make it difficult to sleep. Physical and emotional stress have a cumulative effect on both immune function and emotional health.
Thus, current studies look at the reishi’s potential mood regulating properties .
A 2011 study tested the effects of reishi extract on 132 people experiencing stress and other mood-related issues. After eight weeks of treatment, more than half of the subjects who received reishi reported a significantly improved sense of well-being. These subjects struggled less with fatigue than those in the placebo group.
In addition, scientists have specifically tested the reishi's ability to combat fatigue.
A 2011 study focused on women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The endocrine treatment many breast cancer patients receive causes persistent tiredness, and is difficult to address with conventional approaches. After four weeks, the women who took reishi reported the following benefits:
- Having more energy
- Feeling less stress
- Feeling improved mood overall
While both these studies focus on people with specific medical ailments, reishis may have similar effects on healthy people. Because reishi mushrooms can improve mood and energy, many people take them to enhance their focus, maintain healthy sleep cycles, and boost their overall sense of well-being.
Improving Gut Health and Digestion
Gut health plays a central role in regulating our physiology.
The gut microbiome, made up of fungi, bacteria and viruses, helps our bodies to break down food, absorb nutrients and effectively modulate blood sugar.
Poor gut health is linked to a variety of negative health outcomes including chronic inflammation and reduced immune response. To improve gut health, it’s essential to populate the gut with healthy bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
Preliminary research suggests that reishi mushrooms help to support healthy gut bacteria by serving as a prebiotic:
- It’s possible to improve gut health by taking probiotics or eating fermented food, which directly add beneficial bacteria to the gut.
- However, without the right fibers to feed on, these good bacteria will immediately die, ceding their territory back to harmful bacteria.
Reishi mushroom fiber serves as a prebiotic, helping healthy bacteria to thrive. This can be linked to a wide array of resulting health benefits.
A study in Nature Communications treated mice with reishi mushroom extract (similar to tea) for eight weeks to test the effects on gut and digestive health. At the end of the study, researchers concluded that the reishi mushroom “alleviates inflammation by modulating the composition of the gut microbiota and maintaining intestinal barrier integrity.”
While more human studies are needed, preliminary results suggest reishis can have a positive effect on the following:
- Gut health
- Healthy digestion
- Blood sugar levels
Additional Potential Benefits
While reishi mushrooms have been part of medicinal cultures for 2,000 years, Western science has only begun to test and understand mushroom supplements benefits.
Although more research needs to be conducted, studies are beginning to confirm the following:
Improved athletic performance – A 2009 study on 40 soccer players found improved immune health, even under stressful training conditions.
Topical treatment – Preliminary results suggest that reishis may help soothe irritated skin when applied topically.
As more research emerges, we’ll have a better understanding of why this mushroom has been associated with immortality and longevity for thousands of years.
How to Find and Use Reishi Mushrooms
Now that you’re familiar with reishi mushroom benefits, you may be eager to add this potent dietary supplement to your daily routine. However, reishis grow in select temperate climates, so it’s unlikely you’ll find one sprouting in your yard.
Even if you happen to forage for and find them, these tough, chewy mushrooms are less than ideal for cooking and eating.
Thankfully, the reishi mushroom has often been consumed by the following ways:
Reishi Tea or Coffee
Many clinical trials use reishi mushroom extract in water, similar to any traditional medicinal tea. If you can find a reliable source for whole or chopped reishis, boil the mushroom in water for a fragrant, earthy tea.
Reishi mushroom powder is a versatile ingredient with a strong mushroom flavor. It can be added to lattes or cooked in recipes. Just be sure to get your powder from a reputable source, since some reishi products have been proven to be light on the actual reishi. A recent scientific study showed that few reishi mushroom supplements contained as much of the mushroom as advertised, if any.
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