Ancient Siberian folklore tells of a dark, potent fungus growing off the bark of black birch trees, with the power to promote longevity, boost the body’s immune system, and soothe a range of ailments. Modern science supports many health benefits of this super fungus—known to most as chaga—as well as those of its Eastern cousin, reishi. And thanks to innovative cultivation practices, we can benefit from these natural healers without damaging the sensitive forests in which they grow.
All about medicinal mushrooms
Mushrooms are often haunted by an unfairly insalubrious reputation—but contrary to popular perception, most mushrooms are not toxic or psychoactive. In fact, there are four subcategories of mushroom: poisonous, psychedelic, culinary, and medicinal.
Mycelium is the vegetative structure of fungi. Mycelium is like the root system that gathers and absorbs nutrients, while the “fruiting bodies” of mycelium are what we call mushrooms.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used throughout the history of humankind to treat ailments ranging from cancer to infections. With the backing of modern science, many of these mushrooms have exploded in popularity as natural health supplements. Nowadays, you can find medicinal mushroom extract in the form of capsules, powders, sprays, and even food items.
In the 12th century, Russian czar Vladmir II Monamakh purportedly healed his lip tumour using a concoction made with chaga.
Chaga and reishi—the stars of the mushroom kingdom
Two medicinal mushrooms stand out due to their particularly potent and wide-ranging health benefits: chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). Both chaga and reishi contain a treasure trove of bioactive compounds with antioxidant, anticancer, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
Chaga, warrior from the north
Often referred to as the “king” of medicinal mushrooms, chaga (from the Russian tschaga) is a rare white rot fungus that thrives in the cold climates of North America, northern Europe, and Russia. It’s not traditionally beautiful—chaga grows as a lopsided, charcoal-black parasitical mass off the bark of hardwood trees—but its charred exterior belies incredible healing potential.
Research suggests that chaga is a powerful cancer fighter with the ability to suppress the growth of cancerous cells. With its antibacterial and antiviral properties, it’s also a potent immune system supporter that may help us fight off harmful pathogens without toxic side effects. Chaga may also help reduce inflammation in the body and ease the itch of seasonal allergies.
Shiny red and kidney-shaped, wild reishi grows in tropical or temperate climates on deciduous trees such as maple. Reishi is known as the “mushroom of immortality” in traditional Asian medicine for its antiaging powers. Antibacterial and antiviral, reishi has been prized for its ability to combat fatigue and promote relaxation.
It’s a powerful healer that may help the body recover from brain, liver, and skin injuries. With its anticancer compounds, reishi has also been used to help protect the body during radiation and chemotherapy.
More medicinal mushrooms
The world of mycelium is full of magical fruit—and all offer potentially powerful health benefits. For centuries, the following mushrooms have been used for a variety of health concerns, while today’s scientific researchers continue to unearth more magic.
Mushroom, Botanical name, Potential medicinal uses
cordyceps, Cordyceps sinensis, stimulate the immune system; increase physical endurance; promote antitumour activity
lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, help reduce anxiety and depression
maitake, Grifola frondos, provide critical immune system support
shiitake, Lentinus edodes, strengthen immune function; help maintain healthy cholesterol levels
turkey tail, Coriolus versicolor, promote survival of cancer patients while easing harsh side effects of chemotherapy
Eat, drink—and use mushrooms!
Earthy-tasting and rich, chaga and reishi supplements are creative additions to your pantry.
Combining common herbal ingredients with mushroom mycelium, tea infusions have been used to extract mushroom-y goodness for centuries.
Coffee blended with medicinal mushroom extract gives you an immune system boost along with a caffeine fix.
Dark chocolate infused with the mycelium of organic mushrooms makes for a
Blend mushroom extract powder into your next green smoothie for an extra antioxidant hit.
Add chaga and reishi powder for a punchy addition to these protein-packed treats.
“Medicinal mushrooms have been used throughout the history of humankind to treat ailments ranging from cancer to infections.”
Where your mushroom comes from matters. Medicinal mushrooms’ explosion in popularity means that demand for fungi often outstrips their natural growth, threatening our forests’ delicate ecosystems.
“Large-scale commercial harvesting of wild chaga mushrooms would quickly endanger—and eventually eliminate—native populations,” says Christine Hecktor, associate brand manager at Host Defense, a mushroom supplement company. “Mushroom harvesting that is truly sustainable will leave the majority of the mushroom intact and undisturbed.”
Host Defense supplements use chaga cultivated in a lab from a sample of a wild specimen no wider than the diameter of a pen. This harvesting process preserves the mushroom and the host tree in their natural habitat, while the lab sample continues to grow for decades to come. To protect deciduous trees, reishi is often cultivated for commercial purposes on hardwood logs or woodchips.
Cultivating small samples and reproducing them in the lab allows Host Defense to include nutrient-rich mushroom mycelium—something that can’t be harvested in the wild—in their supplements, increasing the efficacy and potency of their immune-boosting abilities.
Finally, remember that mushrooms are always a product of their environments—and that includes any toxins, pollutants, heavy metals, or pesticides.
“Because mushrooms naturally bioaccumulate substances from their surrounding soil, we recommend a mushroom supplement that is grown organically,” says Hecktor.
A former alive editor, Isabela Vera is a hiking enthusiast, ocean lover, and dog mom from the West Coast now living in Berlin. You can find her on Instagram @isabelajvera.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title “The Healing Power of Chaga and Reishi.”