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Your At-a-Glance Guide to Nature's Greatest Medicinal Food: Mushrooms

Though not necessarily visually stunning like certain fruits, the humble mushroom deserves major accolades. Mushrooms are among the most medicinal of all foods; no matter what the disease, chances are that there is a mushroom that can help prevent or treat it.

Neither vegetable nor fruit, the mushroom is a fungus -- an organism that grows without seeds, leaves, flower or even roots. It's estimated that there are 38,000 species of mushrooms, cultivated and in the wild, and most are excellent sources of protein, fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium and minerals. About 50 of the species are poisonous.

Then there are the medicinal mushrooms, comprising another 50 species. These nutritional powerhouses have been found to:

  • Protect heart health
  • Lower the risk of cancer
  • Boost immune function
  • Reduce high cholesterol
  • Fight off viruses, bacteria and fungi
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Combat allergies
  • Help balance blood sugar levels
  • Support the body's detoxification mechanisms
  • Help fight blood clots

Their nutritional prowess has been known for centuries. Ancient Egyptians and Asians used mushrooms to create a sacred longevity tonic, and the 5,000-year-old "Ice Man" found in Europe was found with dried mushrooms in his medicine kit.

Want to start adding some healthy mushrooms to your diet? Here's your go-to guide for the best of the best of this fabulous fungus.

1. Maitake

Medicinal Benefits: "Maitake is one of nature's richest sources of beta-glucans ... which are among, or even may be, the most potent natural immune forces ever discovered," wrote Harry Preuss, M.D., a physiology professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine in his book "Maitake Magic." By stimulating the immune system, it has shown promise in fighting breast, prostate, lung, liver and brain cancers.

Maitake mushrooms are also rich in ergothioneine, a potent compound produced by fungi that has strong antioxidant properties and provide cellular protection within the human body. They're anti-viral and may also reduce blood pressure and blood sugar. One study also found that they may be useful in fighting HIV.

Flavor/Cooking: Maitake mushrooms can be used in any recipe in place of (or along with) white button mushrooms.

Lore: Maitake means "hen of the woods." It was named for its appearance--it resembles the fanned out tail feathers of a hen. And, because they can grow to be over 50 pounds, they're sometimes called the "King of Mushrooms."

2. Reishi

Medicinal Benefits: According to animal studies, reishi mushrooms improve immune function, inhibit the growth of some malignant tumors and are a natural anti-inflammatory agent.

Flavor/Cooking: Reishi mushrooms have a bitter taste but can be used in small quantities in soups or mixed with other foods. They're also used for teas and dietary supplements.

Lore: The Chinese Reishi goddess was named after the reishi mushroom. She was thought to bring health, life and eternal youth to worshippers.

3. Shitake

Medicinal Benefits: An active compound in shitakes called lentinan has been found to boost the immune system. In fact, studies have found this compound to be even more effective than prescription drugs for treating flu and other viruses, and it may improve the immune systems of people with HIV. Other benefits of this powerful mushroom include cancer protection and lower cholesterol levels.

Flavor/Cooking: Shitake mushrooms have a rich, smoky flavor. Use them in soups, casseroles, egg dishes, sauces and more.

Lore: In China, shitake mushrooms have been used medicinally for over 6,000 years.

4. Crimini

Medicinal Benefits: This mushroom favorite has a host of healthy attributes, including:

  • Anti-cancer

  • Rich in nutrients such as selenium, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, copper, niacinm, potassium and phosphorous

  • Excellent source of zinc, which is great for the immune system

Flavor/Cooking: Crimini mushrooms have a richer flavor than white button mushrooms but can be used in all the same types of recipes.

Lore: Crimini is a coffee-colored button mushroom.

5. Portobello

Medicinal Benefits: A Portobello mushroom has more potassium than a banana. Foods rich in potassium help maintain normal heart rhythm, balance fluids, and protect muscle and nerve function. Potassium-rich, low-sodium foods may also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They're also rich in the antioxidant ergothioneine.

Flavor/Cooking: Portobello mushrooms can be used in place of meat in sandwiches, lasagna, stews and more.

Lore: Portobello mushrooms are actually large crimini mushrooms.

6. White Button Mushroom

Medicinal Benefits: Food scientists at Penn State found that white button mushrooms have 12 times more of the antioxidant ergothioneine than wheat germ and four times more than chicken liver (both of which were previously thought to be the best food sources of the antioxidant).

Flavor/Cooking: The mild flavor of white button mushrooms makes them a favorite for all food dishes--breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lore: Americans eat more white button mushrooms than any other type of mushroom.

7. Turkey Tail

Medicinal Benefits: Preliminary data suggest that this mushroom may be a potent cancer fighter. It's already used to treat cancer in Asia.

Flavor/Cooking: Turkey tail mushrooms are too tough to eat fresh, but you can boil the mushrooms and drink the broth.

Lore: The turkey tail mushroom was given its name because it resembles - you might have guessed it -- a turkey tail.

8. Oyster

Medicinal Benefits: Oyster mushrooms have the following properties:

  • Anti-cancer

  • Immune enhancer

  • Anti-inflammatory

  • Anti-viral

  • Help with cholesterol control

Flavor/Cooking: Oyster mushrooms have a mild, seafood-like taste. Use them in stews, sautés, or combined with other vegetables and meats.

Lore: Some people believe the oyster mushroom was named for its faint seafood flavor. Others say they were named for their shell-like appearance.

9. Cordyceps

Medicinal Benefits: These mushrooms are:

  • Anti-tumor

  • Immune boosting

  • Anti-fungal

Flavor/Cooking: Cordyceps have a licorice-like flavor and can be used in all types of cooking.

Lore: It doesn't exactly make them sound appetizing (though they can be), but cordyceps grow on moth larvae, until their fine threads eventually penetrate the larvae, killing and mummifying it.

10. Enoki

Medicinal Benefits: These mushrooms can fight liver disease and gastroenteric ulcers. Plus, they're:

  • Anti-tumor

  • Antibiotic

  • Good for the immune system

Flavor/Cooking: Enoki mushrooms are crunchy and mildly fruity, without the earthy flavor of other mushrooms. Eat them raw as a healthy snack or use them as a topping on salads, soups, stews and stir-fries.

Lore: Enoki mushrooms grow on the stumps of the Chinese enoki tree.

Recommended Reading

The World's 7 Most Potent Disease-Fighting Spices

The Remarkable Anti-Toxin, Cancer-Fighting Power of Cruciferous Vegetables


USA Weekend: Marvelous Mushrooms

Science Daily: Mushrooms a Top Source for One Antioxidant

The World's Healthiest Foods

Men's Fitness: Fungi for Fun Guys

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