For thousands of years, mushrooms have been renowned not only as a culinary staple but also for their medicinal uses, including promoting energy, immunity, and relieving stress. With so many mushroom types, each has its own unique properties and unparalleled therapeutic benefits.
This guide touches on almost everything you would want to know about mushrooms. We’ll start with precisely what mushrooms are (and what’s in them), their history, and how they grow. Then we’ll walk you through some of the different mushroom types, their properties, and health benefits. Finally, we’ll show you the different ways you can supplement them into your diet to get the utmost superfood advantages!
The History and Makeup Of A Mushroom
All mushrooms are fungi, which is a common fact. Since mold and mildew are also fungi, mushrooms cause some people to turn up their noses without question. But there are over 144,000 species of fungi 1, including yeast. So if mushrooms are a turn-off, you may need to avoid bread and beer, too.
In scientific terms, Fungi is the kingdom that a mushroom belongs to. While fungi were once labeled as plants, their lack of chlorophyll2 and their unique structures shifted them to their own group.
Mushrooms are umbrella-shaped sporophores, which are the spore-bearing parts of the fungus. They use fibers called hyphae3 to take in food and mature into structures that penetrate the soil to rise and disperse spores.
Some mushrooms are safe to eat and offer numerous health benefits, while others pose a risk if ingested or sometimes even touched. These often colorful, poisonous mushrooms are sometimes referred to as toadstools4 to differentiate between delicious, beneficial mushrooms and toxic, inedible mushrooms.
The History Of The Mushroom
About 4600 years ago5, Egyptians were already touting the numerous health benefits of mushrooms. They even believed that they created immortality, and Pharaohs even kept them for themselves.
While immortality may be a myth, the Chinese and Japanese have also been utilizing mushrooms for thousands of years. The Shiitake mushroom was initially cultivated in China over 800 years ago for its medicinal use. Other types even date back to 300 B.C. in China.
Different cultures cultivated various types and species of mushrooms for other uses. The Japanese even combined Shiitake mushrooms with AIDS drugs6 in hopes of boosting immune response.
The most basic culinary mushrooms, the Portobello and Crimini, were first harvested in France around 16507 when a melon farmer first observed them growing in this crop compost. Since then, they’ve become the easiest to cultivate and market.
Are Mushrooms Good For You?
Inside a mushroom, you’ll find fiber, vitamins, and minerals. While actual nutritional benefits can vary from mushroom to mushroom, you’ll find a variety of immune-boosting compounds in general.
- Antioxidants: These are compounds that prevent oxidation, which produces free radicals8 that damage your cells
- Beta-glucans: All fibers are not created equal. This particular fiber is strongly linked to reducing bad cholesterol and improving the overall health of your heart.
- Prebiotics: These act as food for probiotics and help with your digestion and gut health to enhance your overall wellness.
- B Vitamins: These essential vitamins9 help your body convert your food to energy. They also aid in the formation of red blood cells.
- Copper: Helps the body absorb iron10, which helps to form red blood cells. It also supports collagen and energy production.
- Potassium: A mineral that helps your cells function adequately11. Potassium is responsible for the electrical functions of the heart, which ensures a healthy rhythm.
With so many nutritional benefits and the fact they grow from the earth, you may wonder if mushrooms are considered a vegetable.
Are Mushrooms A Vegetable?
Botanically and scientifically, they’re fungi, so they can’t be considered a vegetable. Vegetables are defined12 as the edible portion of a plant – and a mushroom is not a plant. So while they’re packed with nutrients and offer plenty of health benefits, they’re not considered a vegetable.
How Do Mushrooms Grow?
At some point in your life, you’ve likely been hiking and looked down to see mushrooms sprouting on a stump. You may have even had them on your lawn and found yourself seeking measures to eliminate them.
What makes them flourish? And how can you grow them purposely? Mushrooms grow where the environment is perfectly hospitable. They thrive in locations where there has been wet, humid weather. The fungi are below the surface, but the “fruit” (the mushroom itself) sprouts and can spread its spores to other locations.
If the new location is just as hospitable, the fungus will thrive there as well. As long as organic matter is available to feed on and conditions remain cool, wet, and humid, the mushroom will continue to exist. Once it dries out, the mushroom goes away, but the fungal mycelia13 continue to stay in the soil as long as it remains fed.
How To Grow Your Own Mushrooms
You may not be able to produce any mushrooms at home, which is why you’ll find that some are more expensive than others. For example, the Matsutake Mushroom grows under red pine trees in Japan. Other cultivation methods have been unsuccessful, so you can find them priced up to $2,000 per pound14.
To grow your own mushrooms15, you’ll need to start with the right environment – for most types, that’s defined as dark, cool, and humid, preferably between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Many choose their basements or a spot under the sink.
You’ll also need to begin with mushroom spawn. Mushroom spawn is a mixture of mushroom spores and the sources they need to feed on, such as grain or sawdust. Depending on which species of mushroom you’ll be growing, each has its own growing needs. For example, white mushrooms need composted manure, and shiitakes prefer wood.
The best thing you can do is purchase a mushroom growing kit, which has everything you need to get started. For example, this kit is for growing Oyster mushrooms and includes organic plant-based soil, mushroom spores, and a spray mister.
The easiest way to get the concentrated benefits of mushrooms without the anguish of growing them is to purchase mushroom supplements. We’ll discuss more on those below.
A 2018 study16 found that medicinal mushrooms may be an unknown source of compounds for cancer therapy. The anticancer potential is just one of the many hopeful benefits in the past and the future. Here are some of the top mushrooms for medicinal use and what each does for your body.
Power Mushrooms: Which Offer The Most Potential Health Benefits?
Turkey Tail Mushroom
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is a famous polypore mushroom that, hence its name, resembles the tail of a wild turkey. With stripes of brown, tan, and white, its distinctive look is easy to spot on dead hardwoods all over the world. In Japan, it’s often referred to as the “kararitake” mushroom, which translates to “cloud mushroom” because of its swirling cloud look.
Used for centuries in Chinese medicine by practitioners, studies17 have shown the Turkey Tail mushroom to promote immune function and digestive health. They often created a brew of turkey tail mushroom tea to combat sickness. In traditional medicine, it’s used as an antitumor remedy. It’s also used to help with pulmonary issues, like clearing dampness and strengthening the lungs.
Turkey Tail mushrooms are among the most heavily researched mushrooms because of their naturally occurring polysaccharides – especially polysaccharide K (PSK). PSK has been shown in studies18 to support a robust immune response on a cellular level.
Turkey Tails also have compounds that support digestive health and contain more than 35 phenols19, which are the most potent sources of antioxidants.
They also include quercetin and baicalein20, which are flavonoid antioxidants. Quercetin has been shown21 to promote the release of interferon-y, which is an immunoprotective protein. It’s also known to inhibit the release of cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, which are inflammation-producing enzymes.
Related: Get Turkey Tail mushroom supplements here.
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most well-known mushrooms in the world. Native to East Asia, they’re tan or brown in color with a convex cap that is 2-6 inches when fully grown22. They grow naturally on decaying trees and have been grown in Asia for thousands of years23. They’re now the second most-produced globally.
Until 1972, shiitake culture was banned in the United States because the mushroom collects nutrients from wood, raising concerns about it “feeding” on necessary timbers, like structures and railroad ties. This theory proved to be a myth.
Since then, shiitake mushrooms have become cultivated and utilized on a larger scale, and have become more widely known for their health benefits.
A Study on Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms have immune-boosting vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. A 2015 nutritional study24 set out to determine whether dried shiitake mushrooms consumed daily would improve immune function. The study took 52 healthy males and females between the ages of 21-41 who consumed mushrooms daily for 4-weeks.
The study, which used blood, saliva, and serum testing, concluded that the consumption resulted in improved immunity (as seen by enhanced cell effector function) and a reduction in inflammation.
In addition to immune support, Shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that are known to reduce bad cholesterol25. Here are the three compounds and their role in cholesterol reduction:
- Sterols: block cholesterol absorption
- Beta-glucans: a type of fiber that lowers cholesterol
- Eritadenine: hinders an enzyme that creates cholesterol in your body.
Related: Get a Mushroom Master Blend that includes dried Shiitake mushrooms here.
Mushroom Powder and Other Mushroom Supplements
It’s not easy to get a large amount of mushrooms in your body without eating different types with every single meal. Mushroom supplements can help you benefit from the extraordinary advantages of mushrooms in a concentrated form. Here are some ways you can supplement mushrooms into your diet, and where you can get them:
- Mushroom Powder: a pulverized dried mushroom form, you get the health benefits in a manner that you can add to many things. Add it to your coffee, tea, smoothies, and recipes. This master mycologist-created blend from OM contains over 2,000mg of organic mushroom superfood per serving, including the benefits from 10 different species of mushrooms! It’s also vegan, gluten-free, keto-friendly, paleo, kosher, and grown in California!
- Mushroom Capsules: With the mushroom powder in capsule form, you can take them anytime without adding it to foods. You get all the benefits of the mushroom powder, but with an easier way to consume it. Try these capsules that have the same 2,000 mg of organic mushroom superfood per serving.
- Mushroom Cold Drink Mix: Don’t like mushroom flavors? This route may be perfect for you. These powder supplements are added to water and provide a fruity flavor while getting all your mushroom benefits.
- Mushroom Coffee: Not only can you add a mushroom powder to your coffee, but you can also get coffee that is ready to go with a mushroom blend. This one has a bold flavor and offers 2000mg of mushrooms plus Ginkgo Biloba for focus.
- Mushroom Hot Chocolate: Not a coffee drinker? You can still get the benefits of mushrooms in a cup of creamy hot cocoa. This hot chocolate mix gets mixed with eight ounces of water or milk and has a four-mushroom-blend to support your immune system.
- Mushroom Broths: If you prefer the savory route, you can try getting your mushroom benefits in a broth form. These broths come in Veggie Miso, Beef Bone Broth, Mushroom Broth, and Chicken Bone Broth and all contain a blend of mushrooms for a healthy boost.
The Magic of Mushrooms
No matter how you decide to get mushrooms into your diet, the health benefits are superb. There isn’t much to lose with so much research into these magical fungi – but a lot to gain by including them into your diet.
The new ways to consume them make it easier to get all of the fantastic health benefits – even if you don’t like the mushrooms’ taste. With more studies being developed each day and more advantages being found, the pro-immune and anti-inflammatory compounds may undoubtedly be something to strive to incorporate into our daily diets.