Reishi mushrooms, or Lingzhi mushrooms as they’re known in China, is a rare medicinal fungus that grows on maple trees in humid parts of Asia.
They have a woody, bitter taste so are rarely used in cooking, but has been used in traditional chinese medicine for more than 2,000 yearsto replenish Qi, enhance energy and memory, prevent cancer and heart problems, relieve coughs and asthma and much more, as well as being an important mushroom in the Taoist religion.
The Chinese name, Lingzhi, represents success, well-being, divine power and longevity, with it being regarded as the ‘herb of spiritual potency’.
History in Taoism, Traditional Medicine and Chinese culture
Reishi is an important symbol in the Taoist religion, with them appearing all throughout taoist paintings, carvings, furniture and accessories, with their temples even being called the ‘abode of mushrooms’.
Passages on the benefits of Reishi mushrooms were found in both the first book devoted to herbs and their benefits, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, written 25-220AD, and in China’s first pharmacopoeia, the Ben Cao Gang Mu, written around 500AD. The books detailed how to use Reishi to strengthen cardiac function, prevent ageing, treat dizziness, insomnia, palpitations, shortness of breath and immune support.
Whilst it was a well sort out treatment, the fungus itself is incredibly rare, growing on 2 or 3 out of 10,000 trees, so before it could be cultivated was only available to the richest members of Chinese society, increasing its mysticism with people believing it only grew in the home of immortals.
A sacred adaptogenic mushroom
Reishi is an adaptogen, a group of herbs that help our body adjust to stress. They contain several molecules beneficial for health, like terpenes (also found in cannabis), anti oxidants, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, calcium and magnesium. It's believed its health benefits are caused by thetriterpenoids, polysaccharides and peptidoglycans it contains.
So, what health benefits are associated with Reishi mushrooms?
Improves the immune system
Reishi is most well known as an immune boosting medicinal mushroom, and causes several processes that help us stay well and fight off infection.
Test tube studies have shown that reishi has a positive effect on the genes of white blood cells, which are an important part of our immune system. Some forms of reishi may also alter inflammation pathways in white blood cells, with chronic inflammation associated with chronic pain, arthritis, obesity, asthma, heart disease, bad mental health and even cancer.
One study also found Reishi improved lymphocyte function, a special type of white blood cell which fights infections and cancer, in people in stressful conditions.
Multiple studies have shown reishi may have a beneficial role in preventing and fighting cancer.
Not only does Reishi’s ability to improve white blood cell function fight cancer, but it can also increase the activity of natural killer cells, some of the most effective cancer and infection fighting cells in our body.
A 2003 study found Reishi suppressed cancer cell migration, which makes tumors less likely to spread and less likely to be invasive, with another study finding that a year of treatment with Reishi decreased the amount and size of precancerous lesions in the large bowel, whilst those in the control continued to see them grow.
Researchers have begun to study if Reishi could help with prostate cancer, due to its effects on the hormone testosterone, with one case study finding that Reishi had reversed prostate cancer in one patient.
A study of 4,000 breast cancer survivors found that 59% take Reishi mushrooms, and this was associated with improved social well being.
A meta-analysis of multiple studies confirmed these findings, indicating that the mushroom cannot only help fight cancer, but improve cancer patients quality of life.
However, the authors are sure to emphasise that Reishi should be administered in combination with traditional treatment, rather than replacing it.
Could fight depression and fatigue
Reishi’s effects on the immune system are usually focused on the most, but it has surprising effects on depression and fatigue too. With many studies using Reishi to treat other conditions noting this as an effect.
One study on 132 people with neurasthenia, a poorly researched, poorly treated condition, that's associated with aches, pains, dizziness headaches and irritability found that after 8 weeks of taking Reishi patients reported a 28.3% reduction in fatigue and a 38.7% improvement in well being.
Another study on 48 breast cancer survivors found that after taking Reishi for 4 weeks patients experienced an improvement in physical well being and fatigue, less anxiety, less depression and a better quality of life.
Helps blood sugar control
Several animal studies found that molecules found in Reishi mushrooms can decrease blood sugar, and lower insulin resistance, making it a helpful mushroom for pre-diabetic and diabetic people.
It's also been found to reduce haemoglobin, enhance insulin secretion, and help reduce oxidative stress, which helps prevent diabetic complications.
Some early research in humans backs this up, finding Reishi successfully reduced haemoglobin levels.
Could help you live longer
In 2009, a study in Bio-organic and Medicinal chemistry concluded that the polysaccharides found in Reishi mushrooms had multiple properties linked to a longer life. By boosting the immune system and preventing blood vessel formations that lead to cancerous growths, Reishi could be the key to vitality.
In 2012, a study on rodents found that Reishi supports the production of nerve growth factor, a protein that’s vital for neurological function, with low amounts of nerve growth factor associated with Alzhiemers and Dementia.
As well as speeding up brain function, another study found Reishi stopped seizures in rats.
Can treat Allergic reactions, Hayfever and Asthma
Studies find that Reishi mushrooms have an antihistamine effect, and can improve your body's oxygen supply, key to those suffering from chronic allergic asthma.
Helps sleep and relaxation
Reishi is a long used treatment for those with insomnia, associated with helping the body enter a natural and healthy sleep cycle. Recent studies are starting to indicate why Reishi might be so helpful for sleep.
Part of this effect may be due to Reishi containing triterpenes, which help your nervous system induce relaxation, calm and drowsiness.
As well as this, Reishi interacts with the GABA pathway, which is often referred to as the ‘brakes of the brain’ as it lowers neural activity and promotes sleep. This impact of the GABA neurotransmitter is thought to be the cause for Reishi helping us fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer.
Improves Heart health
A 12 week study of 26 people showed that Reishi mushrooms may increase good HDL cholesterol and decrease triglycerides, which in high amounts can raise the risk of heart attack, stroke and pancreatitis.
Side effects and drug interactions
Very few studies have reported side effects of Reishi mushrooms and it is generally considered safe to take. One study did report slight stomach and digestive distress, if you experience these symptoms, stop taking Reishi mushrooms.
Reishi is thought to interact with a few medications, so if you take any of the following consult your doctor before taking Reishi:
- Blood pressure medication/low blood pressure- as Reishi can lower blood pressure avoid if you already have low blood pressure
- immunosuppressants - Reishi improves the immune system and will therefore counteract immunosuppressant medication
Reishi may also increase the risk of bleeding, due to making antiplatelets more effective. So anyone scheduled for surgery or with bleeding disorders should avoid Reishi mushrooms.
Like the sound of cancer prevention, a stronger immune system, less fatigue, depression and much more all in one mushroom? Then give Reishi a go!
If you want a convenient way to incorporate Reishi into your diet, why not give our new Reishi coffee a go? Not only will you get all the health benefits of Reishi mushrooms, you’ll also benefit from the properties of fellow adaptogen ashwagandha (read our ashwagandha article here), cocoa and MCT coconut oil!
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