Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is one of the most studied and most widely used medicinal mushrooms in the world. This powerhouse fungi, known as “the mushroom of immortality” and the “ten thousand year mushroom”, has shown a lot of promise for its nutritional and healing benefits to the human body.
Called Lingzhi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Reishi has been used as a life-supporting tonic for thousands of years. The Chinese have long used it for overall health and longevity, to strengthen Qi or “life force”, and nourish the blood. Although more in-depth human testing is needed, the many potential medicinal properties of Ganoderma have sparked a lot of well-deserved attention in the Western world.
Habitat, identification, and biology
Reishi is a polypore mushroom, meaning that it has tiny pores on its underside instead of gills. Polypores play an important role in nutrient cycling and carbon dioxide production in forest ecosystems. They are saprotrophs, meaning they feed off the organic matter of decaying trees while working to break down the wood.
Reishi typically grow in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions where deciduous hardwood trees grow in abundance. They prefer oak and maple trees and produce annually from spring through fall. Although they are mostly found growing wild in tropical regions of Asia, one study found 13 distinct species in the United States. The variety that is commonly wild-harvested and used in the States is G. tsugae, a Reishi species which grows on hemlock trees.
The name Ganoderma literally translates to “shiny skin”, referring to the lacquer-like varnish on Reishi’s caps. The caps are typically kidney-shaped, but in certain growing conditions can also produce antler-like growth. They’re known for their characteristic concentric rings of brick red and burnt orange.
History of Reishi mushroom
Reish has been used as medicine for over 2,000 years in China and Japan. Believed to be one of the most powerful medicinal herbs in the world, it’s been used as a heal-all in the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The name Lingzhi represents spiritual potency, immortality, and divine power.
We can trace its use as far back as the Han dynasty, where it was used by Taoist priests and Chinese healers in the Changbai Mountains. Held in high esteem, it was used by monks for focused meditation and by healers to achieve a long and healthy life. Because wild Reishi’s growth habit was far from abundant, it was considered extremely rare. Therefore, it was only used by nobility for many years.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that a Japanese man named Shigeaki Mori found a way to cultivate Ganoderma more effectively. Mori spent 15 years developing a cultivation system using the wild spores until he found a solution for people to more affordably and reliably produce Reishi.
Today, it’s widely cultivated on hardwood sawdust, logs, and wood chips. This is great news, as an increase in mushroom farming has helped to slow the decimation of our slow-growing fungi friends. Buying Reishi that’s cultivated versus wild-harvested is important to allow wild Reishi to continue to flourish.
Medicinal uses of Reishi
In the past few years, Reishi has earned its space in the spotlight as a medicinal superhero. Extracts of the fruiting bodies are used in herbal remedies, capsules, and even coffee blends. The proposed benefits of this wonder herb span from anti-aging all the way to anti-cancer.
There are three phytochemicals isolated from Ganoderma lucidum that studies mainly focus on: polysaccharides (mainly beta-glucans), sterols, and triterpenes. Each has its own unique properties and benefits. These compounds are also extracted with different methods – some by hot water extraction and others by alcohol extraction. For this reason, it is widely believed that a dual-extraction is the best way to get the most out of this potent plant.
Among its many functions, Reishi is most well-known for supporting a healthy immune system. The beta-glucans cause healthy cell growth and turnover. Reishi has also been found to cause immune system cells to be more active. Studies have shown that Reishi can affect the genes in white blood cells and increase the activity of natural killer cells, which fight infections.
According to lab studies, these compounds may also help stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. In addition, researchers have found Reishi mushroom extract to enhance the immune function of cancer patients. The anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties of this medicinal plant have had promising results on mice in lab tests. However, more human research is needed in the future.
Less publicized but no less impactful are the cardioprotective effects of Ganoderma. Consuming Reishi can reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, and slow blood clotting. A 12-week study showed that Reishi increased “good” HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides. It may even have mild anti-diabetic effects, as it can reduce insulin resistance and lower glucose levels.
Stress & sleep
Reishi is considered an adaptogen, which means it helps our bodies adapt to stress. It’s best used as a tonic, meaning that small doses over longer periods of time are most effective. It has sedative properties that can improve sleep quality. Reishi works to support the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system) and therefore many people choose to take Reishi before bedtime to help get a good night’s sleep.
Sourcing Reishi mushroom
With all of these amazing healing properties, many manufacturers have jumped on the Reishi bandwagon, creating capsules, powders, and other supplements. However, quality can vary widely. When you’re buying mushroom supplements, pay attention to where the company sources their products. Check on the location the mushrooms are grown, and consider any lack of transparency there to be a red flag.
You also want to be sure that the product is made using fruiting bodies rather than mycelium to make use of the medicinal properties. Lastly, consider organically grown Reishi – mushrooms that are contaminated with pesticides or laden with heavy metals will surely counteract the benefits you’re hoping to reap.
Not only is Reishi a medicinal superfood, it also has some great nutritional benefits. Consuming this mushroom as a regular part of one’s diet will provide necessary nutrients and a hefty supply of crude protein.
Reishi is a good source of antioxidants, minerals, potassium, and protein. It contains B-complex vitamins and amino acids. These benefits make it particularly great for vegans, as good sources of protein and B vitamins can be more difficult to find in a vegan diet. Reishi also boasts considerable amounts of vitamin D, which further helps to boost the immune system.
Cooking with Reishi
All of this considered, how do you make Reishi part of your diet? As a tough, leathery fungus that’s extremely bitter in taste, it’s not a food you eat raw. Besides that, you’d miss a lot of the benefits if you consumed it that way. The chitin (tough, fibrous cell walls) must be broken down so that the human body can absorb it properly.
Before consumption, Ganoderma must be decocted, extracted, or powdered. Making a decoction, or a slow-simmered tea, is a popular way to reap the benefits of Reishi. Generally speaking, the longer you simmer the dried mushroom, the more you break down the tough chitin.
The tea, tincture, or powder can also be added to many things. Try it with other bitter flavors like chocolate and coffee, or balance it out with sweet and rich flavors like coconut milk and nut butters. It makes a delightful at-home latte, mixes well into desserts and raw treats, and can be added to smoothies.