As the days begin to get shorter and the temperature begins to drop, our blood thickens and moves inward like the sap in trees to nourish and warm our vital organs. And, with any extreme change in the environment around us, the cold weather will certainly challenge our immune system. Due to the cold weather, imbalances due to the cold or dampness are common such as the common cold or the flu.
There are quite a few herbs to have in your natural medicine chest for the winter-time such as diaphoretic herbs (elderflower, bee balm), expectorant herbs (red clover, wild lettuce), anti-microbial herbs (usnea, garlic), immuno-stimulants (echinacea, prickly ash), and immuno-modulators (astragalus, ashwagandha). I will focus on immuno-modulators in this short column, specifically medicinal mushrooms (and some of them are edible as well).
Medicinal mushrooms love to grow in cool weather, namely the fall and spring months. These are great months to tromp in the woods with a thorough guide-book or with a person knowledgeable in identifying mushrooms. I’d like to emphasize that identifying mushrooms requires more skill than identifying plants, mostly because there are greater mistakes you could make with mushrooms. And, those mistakes would be very risky (think Emergency Room). Herbs and the plant kingdom are a bit gentler when it comes to misguided identification.
However, medicinal mushrooms tend to mostly be in a class of mushrooms called polypore mushrooms which are rich in medicinal polysaccharides. Instead of gills on the underside, they have a fine network of small pores (hence the name polypore). Unlike foraging for edible mushrooms, medicinal mushrooms are typically quite obvious and recognizable with well-illustrated guidebooks. Integrating medicinal mushrooms into your natural medicine cabinet and kitchen is quite easy once you get the hang of it. With that said, there are numerous sources for purchasing medicinal mushrooms that I will mention at the end of the article.
Before I launch into some of my favorite local and exotic medicinal mushrooms, let me break down (oh what a great fungal pun) some basic information about them and their role as immuno-modulators. In herbal medicine, immune-modulators refer to a class of herbs that have a long traditional use for working deeply on and building up immune function. As opposed to immuno-stimulants, they are used for longer periods of time to restore and support immune function, specifically the innate immune system.
Immuno-modulators are typically not heating or stimulating, having a neutral energetic so that people with different constitution types can benefit from them. These herbs are used therapeutically by people with auto-immune disorders, allergies, and other imbalances where immune function is compromised. Some of my favorite immuno-modulators are reishi (mushroom), schizandra (berry), and astragalus (root). As you can see, immune-modulators are not just medicinal mushrooms.
Let’s go back to mushrooms, then. Medicinal mushrooms not only serve as support for the immune system, they are host to powerful antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, blood sugar balancing, and are a safe adjunct therapy for cancer patients (and even can be used during chemotherapy treatment). They also can be a great herbal therapy for dogs with similar immune function issues.
The naturalist and whole systems side of me likes to think of the role that mushrooms play in our ecosystem and how that applies to our physical body. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms, appearing in the right conditions from a vast network of mycelium strands in the forest floor, are the great decomposers. Basically, they transform fallen trees and other materials back into rich soil for new life to grow. With that in mind, I find that medicinal mushrooms are excellent adjunct therapies for chronic, degenerative diseases.
Although all medicinal mushrooms are very similar in their actions on the body, they each have particular attributes that make them shine in their own unique ways. I will focus on just three medicinal mushrooms that you can find locally and one that you can grow quite easily at home:
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) loves to grow from the decaying roots of (typically) hardwood trees. They have an affinity for oak, ash and sweet gum. However, I have also seen them on invasive species of tree like mimosa around Mississippi. Their shiny, tawny amber cap and brilliant crimson stem give them away. Reishi is a tonic medicinal with an affinity for the liver, lungs and respiratory system, and heart. It is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to restore “shen” or spirit to the heart after one has suffered trauma. It is also a bitter herb, supporting overall digestive function via the physiological response in the body due to bitter receptors on the tongue. Those with respiratory issues around chemical sensitivities, animal and pollen allergies, and hay fever will find reishi useful as well. Take it as a double-extracted tincture, decoction, or in powdered form. Reishi is one of my favorite herbs of all time and is not called “The Mushroom of Immortality” in China for nothing.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) grows at the base of hardwood trees, especially beech. It is creamy white and looks like a dangling cluster of whiskers or icicles, hence the common name Lion’s Mane. It is more likely that you will find this mushroom in the late summer and fall than in spring-time. It is both an edible and a medicinal mushroom, with a sea-food like flavor. This mushroom is an all-star herb for regenerating nerve tissue, especially the myelin sheath around the nerves. It will protect the nervous system and increase cognition. For those with nerve damage, neuro-degenerative diseases, or even those who have suffered from a stroke, this is a great medicinal to look into more.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is a shelf mushroom that has a couple of look-alikes, so be aware of that. Its cap is colored by multiple bands of shades of brown and cream, alluding to its name Turkey Tail. Turkey tail is one of the most studied mushrooms we have. It is most commonly used as an adjunct therapy for breast cancer in stages I-III. It is also being researched and utilized with various pathogenic infections such as streptococcus pneumonia and E. coli.
There are many ways to introduce medicinal mushrooms into your daily life: double-extracted tinctures, decoctions or powders. Typically, medicinal mushrooms are simmered (decocted) for a minimum of 2 hours to utilize the polysaccharides and extract their medicinal potency. The meaty tasting mushrooms are a great addition to soup stocks and bone broths, such as shitake, maitake, and lion’s mane. You can also make a hearty mushroom stock and freeze it in cubes to use later in various dishes.
You can order mushrooms in tincture, pill or powder form from Fungi Perfecti, Mountain Rose Herbs, Mushroom Harvest, Pacific Botanicals, Mushroom Mountain, and certain medicinal mushroom preparations from my local apothecary, Sweet Gum Springs Apothecary (I typically always carry a double-extraction of reishi mushroom, lucidim species).