Superfood mushrooms are becoming more and more popular in the health and wellness space — especially recently. But their newfound popularity has deep roots.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years. Superfood mushrooms are included in many Chinese herbal medicines thanks to their therapeutic properties.
Mushrooms have a long list of health benefits — including boosting your immune system, improving brain function, and reducing inflammation (to name a few). However, each mushroom has its own unique benefits and improves your health in different ways.
Before we get into the specific mushrooms, I want to mention that most of these superfood mushrooms are not meant to be eaten raw or whole. Instead, they’re intended to be taken as powders (which is great news if you don’t like the taste of mushrooms).
This makes it super easy to incorporate superfood mushrooms into your daily health and wellness regimen. Just add a spoonful to your morning smoothie, coffee, or tea. You can even sprinkle it over your food if you’d like!
While superfood mushrooms have some amazing health benefits, it’s important to remember that most of the clinical research is in its earliest stages — meaning, most studies are conducted in test tubes or on animals. We’ll know more as soon as researchers begin to study the impact of these mushrooms on humans.
In this article, we’ll look at the top 6 superfood mushrooms, their unique benefits, and why you should consider adding them into your daily regimen.
Let’s dive in.
Chaga mushrooms are a type of fungi that grow on the bark of birch trees in cold climates. Chaga mushrooms mostly grow in Northern Europe, Siberia, Russia, Korea, Northern Canada, and Alaska.
Chaga has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine in Russia and other northern European countries to boost immunity and improve overall health. It was typically grated into a powder and added to herbal teas. But today chaga is available in powdered or capsuled supplements.
It’s believed that taking chaga with warm or cold water releases its medicinal properties.
So what are all the health benefits of chaga mushrooms?
Inflammation is a natural way your immune system helps protect your body from disease. But long-term inflammation wreaks havoc on your health — and can lead to several diseases including heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis (1).
Multiple studies suggest that chaga is helpful at combating long-term inflammation and fighting harmful bacteria and viruses that enter your body. This is because chaga supports the formation of beneficial cytokines (proteins that regulate your immune system) while preventing the production of harmful cytokines.
Studies suggest that chaga stimulates your white blood cells (2) — which help you fight off infections from viruses and bacteria.
In one animal study, researchers found that chaga reduced inflammation and gut damage in mice by preventing the activation of inflammatory cytokines (3).
Chaga can also help you combat free radical damage.
Free radicals are unstable atoms in your body that damage your cells, accelerate aging, and cause illnesses. When free radicals damage your healthy cells, it leads to inflammation. And many researchers are convinced that free radical damage plays a role in the development of cancer (4).
Chaga mushrooms, on the other hand, are antioxidant powerhouses. Antioxidants are chemicals that are known as “free radical scavengers” because they neutralize free radicals and prevent them from causing damage, aging, and inflammation.
In other words, chaga mushrooms are one of the most powerful mushrooms at fighting free radicals that accelerate aging and may lead to cancer.
There have been many studies conducted on animals and in test-tubes that show chaga preventing and slowing the growth of cancer cells (5). And one study done on mice even found that supplementing with chaga shrunk tumors in mice by 60% (6).
Researchers believe this is due to antioxidant triterpene contained in chaga — which has killed cancer cells in test-tube studies (7).
And that’s not all these chaga mushrooms are known for.
Researchers believe chaga might help fight diabetes because it lowers your blood sugar levels. In fact, in a study looking at diabetic mice, chaga supplements helped decrease blood sugar levels by 31% over three weeks (8).
And it also helps you regulate your cholesterol — by lowering the “bad” kind of cholesterol (LDL) while promoting the good kind of cholesterol (HDL) (9). This combination helps reduce your risk of heart disease.
In addition to these benefits, chaga mushrooms are loaded with important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients including B vitamins, Vitamin D, potassium, rubidium, cesium, fiber, copper, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium, calcium, and amino acids!
Now let’s discuss reishi mushrooms.
Reishiis a fungus that grows in hot and humid climates in Asia. Reishi mushrooms contain important molecules that improve your health including triterpenoids, polysaccharides and peptidoglycans.
Reishi mushrooms can either be eaten fresh or in powdered forms. Let’s look at some of the health benefits of reishi mushrooms.
Like chaga mushrooms, reishi mushrooms are also immune system boosters and help fight inflammation. This is because reishi mushrooms, like chaga mushrooms, support your white blood cells.
Unlike chaga mushrooms however, reishi mushrooms support your white blood cells by increasing activity of natural killer cells. Natural killer cells are white blood cells that help your body fight off infections and cancer cells (10). This is why reishi mushrooms are generally considered to boost immunity with those that are already sick.
Reishi is mostly known for its calming properties — due to its high amounts of triterpenoids. Triterpenoids are mood-boosting compounds that help ease anxiety, depression, and stress (11). They also promote better and longer sleep in rats (12).
But that’s not all:
One study explored the benefits reishi had in 132 people with neurasthenia — a medical condition associated with fatigue, aches, headaches, and irritability. Researchers found that taking reishi for 8 weeks reduced fatigue and improved overall wellbeing (13).
Reishi is known to have many cancer-fighting properties. For example, in a study including over 4,000 breast cancer survivors, researchers found that about 59% of the survivors consumed reishi mushrooms (14).
Other studies have suggested that reishi helped decrease the amount and size of tumors in the large intestine (15). And a detailed report of several studies found that reishi improved the quality of life in cancer patients by increasing white blood cell activity (16).
However more research needs to be done to conclude how helpful reishi is at fighting cancer.
Alright, let’s move onto our next superfood mushroom — lion's mane mushroom.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are named as such because they resemble a lion’s mane. They are big, white, shaggy mushrooms that grow on decaying trees throughout the Northern United States and Canada.
They have both culinary and medical uses — and they have a “seafood-like” taste often being compared to crab and lobster.
Lion’s mane mushrooms have bioactive substances that are especially beneficial to your brain, heart, and gut.
Let’s discuss how they can improve your health:
Dementia is caused because your brain’s ability to grow and form new connections declines as you age. But studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms stimulate the growth of new brain cells because of two special compounds: hericenones and erinacines (17).
In fact, in a study conducted on mice, researchers found that lion’s mane both helped improve memory loss (18) and prevent neuronal damage caused by amyloid-beta plaques (19), which accumulate in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers have not yet been able to conduct studies on humans with Alzheimer’s disease.
That said, research does suggest that lion’s mane still improves cognitive function in humans. A study found that consuming 3 grams of lion’s mane mushrooms daily improved mental functioning in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (20). However, these benefits were short-lived and disappeared completely when the participants stopped taking lion’s mane mushrooms.
Still, lion’s mane mushrooms are serious brain food because it supports the production of bioprotein nerve growth factor (NFG) (21) and myelin (an insulation around nerve fibers) (22) — which are essential to overall brain health.
And it may help you battle anxiety and depression because of its anti-inflammatory effects. In a mice study, researchers found it reduced feelings of anxiety and depression (23). Other studies done on animals found that lion’s mane helped regenerate brain cells and improved the functioning of the hippocampus (which is linked to your memory and emotional responses) (24).
Your nervous system controls almost every bodily function because it includes your brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Injuries to your nervous system can sabotage your quality of life — brain or spinal cord injuries usually lead to paralysis or a loss of mental functions that take a long time to fully heal.
But lion’s mane mushrooms might just help you recover more quickly from these types of injuries because it supports nerve repair and growth (25). In fact, in a mice study, researchers found that mice recovered 23-41% faster from nervous system injuries when they were given lion’s mane extract (26).
And it may also help decrease inflammation and minimize stroke-related brain injuries after having a stroke. Another study, this time on rats, found that lion’s mane extract given immediately after suffering a stroke reduced stroke-related brain injury by 44% (27).
Lion’s mane mushrooms are an important staple to your overall digestive health — particularly with protecting against ulcers and easing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Stomach ulcers are no fun. They’re caused by overgrowth of a bacteria called H. pylori and damage to the mucous layer of the stomach (usually because of long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen).
Researchers believe lion’s mane mushrooms help protect against the development of ulcers by both stopping the growth of H. pylori bacteria and protecting your stomach lining from additional damage (28). A study even found that lion’s mane mushrooms were more effective at preventing stomach ulcers from alcohol than traditional acid-lowering drugs — without any of the nasty side effects from these acid-lowering drugs (29).
Lion’s mane can also reduce inflammation and prevent tissue damage in other areas of your intestines — leading researchers to believe it can help with IBD’s like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
In one study, lion’s mane extract helped patients with ulcerative colitis reduce symptoms and improve quality of life in as little as three weeks (30). However, with patients dealing with Crohn’s disease, they found that lion’s mane had no noticeable improvement compared to the placebo group (31).
Lion’s mane mushrooms can also boost your overall immunity and intestinal immune system by protecting your body from germs that enter your gut, mouth or nose.
There are several risk factors that increase your chances of getting heart disease. These include (but aren’t limited to) obesity, high triglycerides, and oxidized cholesterol (the kind that builds up on your artery walls). Lion’s mane mushrooms seem capable of reducing these key risk factors which lowers your chances of getting heart disease.
(Side note: intermittent fasting is another powerful way to reduce these risk factors.)
Studies conducted on mice and rats found that lion’s mane extract helped improve fat metabolism and lower triglyceride levels (32). And to put on my “keto hat” for a second, a study in which rats were fed a high-fat diet and supplementing with lion’s mane extract, they had 27% lower triglyceride levels and lost 42% more weight after 28 days (33).
In test-tube studies, researchers found that lion’s mane extract helped prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the bloodstream (which is responsible for the hardening of your arteries — increasing your chances of heart attack and stroke) (34).
Not to mention, it was discovered that lion’s mane mushrooms contain hericenone B — a compound that decreases blood clots (further lowering your chance of heart attacks and strokes) (35).
The root cause of many modern illnesses (including heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases such as diabetes) is chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
The good news is lion’s mane mushrooms contain powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help reduce the burden these illnesses have on your quality of life.
Lion’s mane mushrooms also seem to be especially effective at battling inflammatory bowel disease, liver damage, and strokes.
Whew! That’s quite an exhaustive list of health benefits. Next, let’s take a look at turkey tail mushrooms.
Turkey tail mushrooms are one of the most popular and most researched medicinal mushrooms today. Like the lion’s mane mushroom, turkey tail mushrooms derive their name thanks to its colors — which resemble a turkey’s tail. The fungus is very common in North America and grows on a variety of fallen logs, tree stumps, and living trees.
Turkey tail mushrooms have been used for centuries to treat various health problems all around the world. But they’re mostly known for their incredible benefits on your immune system.
Let’s review how exactly these mushrooms benefit your immune system.
Most of the medicinal mushrooms on this list provide some sort of anticancer benefits. But none of them are as powerful as turkey tail mushrooms.
For starters, turkey tail mushrooms are jam-packed with antioxidants which help reduce oxidative stress and damage from free radicals. (Remember free radical damage leads to several health conditions, including heart disease and cancer.)
Turkey tail mushrooms contain a massive amount of antioxidants including phenols and flavonoids. Phenols and flavonoids are types of antioxidants that reduce inflammation and promote the release of protective compounds.
Another important compound contained in turkey tail mushrooms is polysaccharopeptide — which are powerful immune-boosting compounds.
Two types of polysaccharopeptides found in turkey tail mushrooms include Krestin (PSK) and Polysaccharide Peptide (PSP).
And they help your immunity in slightly different ways.
PSK, for example, stimulates dendritic cells — which enhance your immunity to toxins and regulate your overall immune response. PSK also activates a special kind of white blood cell called macrophages that help protect your body from certain kinds of bacteria.
Meanwhile, test-tube studies done on PSP found that it increases a certain type of white blood cells called monocytes, which combat infections and boost immunity (38).
But that’s not all.
There’s another polysaccharide found in turkey tail mushrooms called Coriolus versicolor glucan (CVG). And a study conducted on mice with tumors found that CVG dramatically decreased the size of the tumors in the mice (39).
In another similar study, researchers found that turkey tail mushroom extract slowed the spread of cancer cells and improved life expectancy of dogs with hemangiosarcoma (an aggressive type of cancer) (40).
For these reasons, PSP, PSK, and CVG are commonly used as anticancer agents (alongside surgery, chemo, and radiation) in places like Japan and China.
And it’s thought that turkey tail mushrooms also help the efficacy of certain types of cancer treatments.
In a review of 13 different studies where breast cancer, gastric cancer, and colorectal cancer patients were given between 1-3.6 grams of turkey tail mushrooms per day (in addition to conventional treatment methods), researchers found that they experienced a 9% reduction in 5-year mortality rates, compared to chemotherapy alone (41).
Further, a study of 11 women with breast cancer found that women given 6-9 grams of turkey tail mushroom powder per day following radiation treatment had more cancer-fighting cells in their body such as natural killer cells and lymphocytes (42).
What else can turkey tail mushrooms do for your body?
Nutrition experts are becoming more and more aware of the importance of your gut health to your overall health. The reason is that the bacteria in your gut have a direct impact on your immune response.
There’s both healthy and unhealthy gut bacteria. And turkey tail mushrooms contain prebiotics — which help nourish the good kind of bacteria in your gut and reduce the bad kind.
During an 8-week study looking at 24 different people, researchers found that consuming 3,600 mg of PSP (a type of prebiotic) improved healthy gut bacteria while suppressing the growth of harmful types of gut bacteria such as E. coli and Shigella (43).
Another test-tube study found that turkey tail mushroom extract improved the beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus (where higher levels are linked to improved digestion, reduced diarrhea, improved immune system, lower cholesterol levels, and reduced risk of certain types of cancers) while lowering harmful bacteria (44).
For these reasons, turkey tail mushrooms are one of the most effective (and most researched) anticancer mushrooms. Now, let’s take a look at shiitake mushrooms.
Shiitake mushrooms are hands down the most popular kind of mushroom worldwide. (They’re the mushroom you think of when you think of mushrooms!) They have a rich, savory taste and grow in warm and moist climates in Southeast Asia — though they can also be grown in the United States and Canada.
Shiitake mushrooms are used in both food and as a superfood supplement due to its various health benefits. Let’s dive into those health benefits now.
Shiitake mushrooms have three important compounds that help you naturally lower your cholesterol levels. These compounds include eritadenine, sterols, and beta glucans.
Eritadenine stops an enzyme that supports producing cholesterol in your body. Sterols block the absorption of cholesterol in your gut. And beta glucans is a type of fiber that lowers cholesterol. Glucans also support immunity, antioxidant systems, endocrine system, blood sugar and insulin regulation, and fight obesity by helping with increased satiety (leading to reduced food intake). This is because glucans delay nutrition absorption and reduce plasma lipid levels (which increase satiety).
One rat study found that taking shiitake powder prevented an increase of blood pressure in rats who already had high blood pressure levels (45). Another study conducted on rats on a high-fat diet found that shiitake mushrooms developed less fat in their livers, less plaque on their artery walls, and lower cholesterol levels than the group of rats who didn’t eat mushrooms (46).
Shiitake mushrooms improve your immunity because of the glucans (a type of polysaccharides) contained in them. This is especially important as you age and your immune system naturally declines.
In fact, a mouse study found that supplementing with shiitake helped reverse age-related immune function decline (47).
If you remember from earlier in this post, polysaccharides have an anticancer effect. One type of polysaccharides found in shiitake mushrooms is called lentinan — which helps fight tumors (48) and can stop the growth and spread of leukemia cells (49).
In addition to these health benefits, shiitake has an impressive nutritional profile. For example, it's the 4th best source of copper in the world. They also have high biotin content — which helps with various skin issues.
Shiitake mushrooms also have high antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. The antimicrobial properties specifically can help with gingivitis and other diseases caused by microbial biofilm or buildup.
They also contain many of the same amino acids as meat and are the only natural plant sources of vitamin D.
Alright, let’s take a look at the final superfood mushroom on this list — cordyceps mushrooms.
Cordyceps are a parasitic fungi that grows on the larvae of insects. Once they attack their hosts, they grow long, slender stems that grow outside their host’s body.
They’ve become more popularly used in health supplements because of their various benefits. Let's dissect some of their health benefits.
Cordyceps help boost your workout performance by producing ATP — which delivers energy to your muscles. Researchers believe this helps improve the way your body uses oxygen — leading to improved exercise and athletic performance as well as enhancing muscle recovery after strenuous workouts.
In one study looking at healthy adults, researchers found that cordyceps improved VO2 max (a measurement used to derive fitness level) by 7% after taking 3 grams of cordyceps per day for 6 weeks (50). And another study found that VO2 max had increased by 11% in younger adults, compared to the placebo (51).
Elderly people have used cordyceps to reduce fatigue, boost strength, and boost libido. Researchers believe this, and other anti-aging properties, is due to the high antioxidant properties found in cordyceps.
Several studies in mice found that cordyceps increased antioxidants in mice, which led to improved memory and sexual function (52).
Researchers believe cordyceps could be an effective way to reduce tumors and cancer in human bodies.
In several test-tube studies, researchers found that cordyceps have stopped the growth of many types of human cancer cells, including lung (55), colon (56), skin (56), and liver (57) cancers. Another study done on mice, found that cordyceps help reduce tumors in lymphoma, melanoma and lung cancer (58).
And they may help ease (and even reverse) some of the side effects from various cancer treatments. One of the side effects of cancer treatments is leukopenia (which is different from the cancer leukemia). Leukopenia is where your number of white blood cells decreases, increasing the risk of infection.
Researchers found that cordyceps reversed leukopenia in mice after radiation and treatments (59).
Further, cordyceps are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent cancer (60).
Cordyceps have a special sugar that could help aid diabetes. Diabetes occurs when your body can not produce or respond to insulin, which transports sugar glucose to your cells for energy. This sugar glucose gets trapped in your blood — which can lead to serious health problems.
However, cordyceps could help you maintain healthy blood sugar levels by mimicking insulin to your body. In several studies done on diabetic mice, researchers found that cordyceps helped lower blood sugar levels (61).
Cordyceps may also protect against kidney disease, which is one of the leading causes of diabetes. In a review of 22 studies (including 1,746 people with chronic kidney disease), researchers found that taking cordyceps improved kidney function (62). But more research will have to be done to know the full impact cordyceps has on your kidneys.
In China, cordyceps are approved for the treatment of arrhythmia — a disease where your heartbeat is either too fast, too slow, or otherwise irregular.
In rats with heart injuries from chronic kidney disease, researchers found that cordyceps significantly reduced heart injuries (63). It’s thought that heart injuries from chronic kidney disease increase the risk of heart failure.
Researchers chalked this improvement up to adenosine — a naturally occurring compound in cordyceps that supports heart health.
Also, cordyceps decrease LDL cholesterol (the bad kind that can increase your chances of hear disease) in animals (64).
Researchers found that cordyceps also decrease triglyceride levels in mice — which are linked to a higher risk of heart disease (65).
Here are a few products to try that contain mushrooms: