Your guide to reishi mushrooms
I like to think of it almost as a multiple herb (similar to a multiple vitamin), meaning it does so many things, working at such a fundamental level, that it transcends the use of many other medicinal substances,” says Terry Willard PhD, Clinical Herbalist, considered one of the leading experts on reishi since he co-authored Reishi Mushroom in 1990 (Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd).
“It was documented in Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching (Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica 56 B.C.), where it is described as having the most extensive and effective healing powers,” he says on his blog. High praise indeed for a humble mushroom, but don’t be deceived: this polypore mushroom is considered an elite substance for the pursuit of radiant health, longevity and spiritual bliss.
Today one of the most revered herbs in Asia, the reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), was once considered a greater treasure than any jewel. Called ling zhi in Chinese, it was out of the reach of common people because of its jewel-like status (and price) but today is available to anyone in pursuit of good health and spiritual wellbeing, despite its perceived cost. With its 3000-year history of use and folklore that would give the Brothers Grimm a run for their money, Western scientists continue to conduct research that supports the large body of exciting anecdotal evidence that makes this mushroom one of the most interesting discoveries in the West today.
Burgeoning research that spans all body systems, encouraging results since the 1980s and new studies every year continue to excite the scientific community while promoting a new respect for plant medicine, including super fungi. One of reishi’s best accolades is its ability to improve the functioning of the immune system whether it’s deficient or excessive (as in autoimmune conditions). It contains a number of compounds that have been connected with certain effects: ganoderic acids inhibit histamine release (useful for allergies) and improve oxygen utilisation and liver function while also being potent antioxidant free-radical scavengers; polysaccharides attack microbial invaders such as viruses, bacteria and yeast, as well as cancer cells, while leaving healthy ones alone; and beta-1,3-glucan helps regulate and stabilise blood sugar levels while also displaying anti-tumour properties.
These are powerful effects for a substance considered safe and non-toxic, a claim many familiar Western medicines would be hard-pressed to make. The results are also giving renewed hope for the treatment of many of the conditions and diseases that have characterised the past few decades: HIV/AIDS, cancers (including reducing side-effects during chemotherapy and radiation therapy), autoimmune diseases, liver and prostate problems, allergies, ulcers, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, high cholesterol, bronchitis, diabetes, rhinitis, palpitations, fibromyalgia, old age and coronary heart disease — the list goes on.
Equally interesting is reishi’s effect on stress and other nervous system disorders, such as depression, insomnia and anxiety. “We can sum up reishi’s use by saying it is an adaptogen; a substance that aids the body in resistance against a wide range of physical, biological and environmental stresses,” says Terry.
Despite extensive research, reishi is still something of a mystery; over 200 nutrients and compounds work together in synergy, baffling Western minds obsessed with identifying each component part and its effect on the whole.
“What [researchers] have found is that reishi harmonises the functions of the nervous, cardiac, endocrine and immune systems, having different effects according to the needs of the individual,” says Jonathan L. Raymond, herbalist and Ayurvedic therapist at Project Envie in Montreal, Canada. “The capacity of going one way or the other in herbalism is called amphoteric, referring to an amphora’s handles, which allows it to serve in opposite directions.”
Jonathan prizes reishi above other herbs primarily because of its capacity to alter the immune system response in allergies as well as autoimmune diseases. “I would say there [is enough] research to prove the efficacy of reishi in its various areas of action,” he emphasises, for those who might not believe in the power of a mushroom to achieve such great healing effects.
While most in our science-based Western cultures might be hard-pressed to put any faith in a super fungus, for thousands of years it has been universally believed in Asia to prolong life and enhance intelligence and wisdom. Traditional, Taoist and Chinese belief describes its activity in terms of jing, qi and shen, otherwise known as “the three treasures”.
“Reishi regulates the energy (qi) available to a person, which we can compare to a flame. It will prevent it from burning too low or too high, spending your candle (the jing) too quickly. The glow of the flame (the shen) improves as the body functions harmonise, and health flourishes,” explains Jonathan.
Its effect on the mind has also been documented in early texts in the region. “Ganoderma lucidum was praised for its effect of increasing memory and preventing forgetfulness in old age, reported in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Agriculture God’s Canon of Materia Medica), Volume 1, as early as 456–536 AD,” reports Terry in his blog, hinting at just how far behind we are. Even Chinese folklore gives reishi legendary status, describing the hardships and struggles of sons, daughter, brothers, sisters and lovers as they adventured to find the celestial garden from where they would bring back the “Elixir of Immortality” that would save their loved ones from the grip of death.
Known also as the Elixir of Immortality and the Herb of Spiritual Potency by spiritual seeks and followers of the Taoist tradition alike, reishi has been consistently claimed to promote calmness, centredness, balance, inner awareness and inner strength. Today, in Asia, it is still believed to help calm the mind, ease tension, strengthen the nerves, strengthen memory, sharpen concentration, improve focus, build willpower and, as a result, help cultivate wisdom.
Still, taking reishi is only the starting point, according to Jonathan, who says that the individual determines the effects it is likely to have on a spiritual level: “People who take reishi experience increased clarity of mind and perceptions in general, but any specific spiritual effect will highly depend on the individual’s disposition. [As part of my training] I had to choose a plant to take exclusively for a month and record my experience. I found that [reishi] clarified my mind somehow and that it made communication with others more natural and unimpaired by emotional blockages.”
As usual, the proof is in the pudding, says Jonathan, and its effects are without limit: “As far as the spiritual attainment is concerned, you have to experience for yourself the clarity of perception it may help you achieve.”
Reishi is accessible and easy to take. Available as an oil, tonic, capsules, powder or even instant coffee, reishi is now as easy to buy as any other supplement, but don’t be deceived into thinking you can just pop one a day; it does not work like that, advises Jonathan. “Reishi is taken in periods of one to two months at a time, [either] once or twice a year, and sometimes more in serious cases.”
And in what form should it be taken? “People may take it in pills, but I prefer them to boil the mushroom itself and drink its decoction twice a day, even if the taste is not very pleasant. I prefer the whole mushroom over standardised extracts because the mushroom by itself will always be more balanced in its effect. That is my belief as a herbalist but it is backed by the latest European research; the best clinical results are obtained through whole extracts.”
Because of its non-toxic nature, Reishi is considered safe, even for the young or during pregnancy, although in a few cases it is avoided as a precautionary measure, confirms Jonathan. “It’s better not to combine it with blood-thinning medication, for theoretical reasons. We also prefer not to prescribe reishi during the acute phase of an infectious disease, as it may slow down the immune response, although this remains to be verified. Reishi is definitely better in the prevention of infectious disease rather than for its treatment.”
Aside from that, only an allergy to mushrooms can prevent you from trying it. “Even then, most people allergic to ‘lower’ fungi are OK with reishi,” he adds. As with all herbal medicine, it is recommended that you take it only under the guidance of a qualified herbal practitioner.
Effective, gentle and easy to take, reishi is on the way to establishing itself as a medicine of the future, one that cultivates equilibrium on the physical, mental and emotional planes. It’s also opening a doorway to a deeper respect for nature’s pharmacy.
“If you or I want to be healthy (whether it’s our digestion, our reproduction, our skin or anything), we have to assume greater responsibility for our wellness. One of the best ways to do that is to be familiar with and to use on a regular basis plant medicines,” said Chris Kilham, known as the Medicine Hunter on Healing Quest, broadcast on the PBS network in the US. Never a truer word was spoken.
More great herbs
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidium) is the most revered herbal substance in Asia, ranking alongside:
Ginseng — Revered as an adaptogen, this root, Panax ginseng, is an energy tonic that regulates the energy system. It helps our bodies to adapt to all kinds of stress, improving endurance and resilience as well as boosting respiratory and digestive systems.
Rhodiola — A popular herb in eastern European and Asian medicine, this plant root has been drunk by Russians as an energy booster for centuries. Also an adaptogen, it is used for nervous system disorders such as a depression and even altitude sickness.
Cordyceps — More expensive than the other super fungi on account of its rarity, this plant is used to reduce stress, strengthen bones and lower cholesterol. Considered in Asia to be a powerful tonic for athletes, it is believed to improve performance and strengthen muscle capability.
Super fungi are gaining superstar status in the West as they become more easily available in restaurants and Asian produce stores, as well as in our own kitchens:
Shiitake — Used medicinally by the Chinese for more than 6000 years, its active compounds (lentinan and eritadenine) help to power up the immune system and fight infection and disease while also boasting anti-cancer properties and the ability to lower HDL, the “bad” cholesterol.
Maitake — Also immune-enhancing and containing anti-cancer properties, maitake is said to help with weight loss and in reducing blood sugar levels. Ongoing studies show that its primary compounds (beta-D-glucans) may activate white blood cells and stimulate their production in the bone marrow.
Oyster — This mushroom looks, smells and tastes like an oyster and finds its place in many Japanese and Chinese dishes, but it is also used for reducing cholesterol, absorbing fat and boosting immunity.
Reishi fast facts