Wild Mushrooms for Edible Medicine

Categories: Articles, Nutritional Information, Western Medicine

Food as Medicine: Wild Mushrooms in Your Supermarket

I have to admit, my job as a natural-medicine writer comes with some pretty cool perks. Just the other day, I got a carton full of gourmet mushrooms from a Japanese company that’s now cultivating three wild
mushroom varieties at its new, fully organic facility in San Marcos, California.

The mushrooms included maitake, king trumpet, brown beech, and white beech. They arrived, fresh and firm, in cellophane, portion-size packages, from Hokto Kinoko, a supplier that sells directly to Whole Foods and other grocery stores.

I used the shipment to concoct a mushroom entree that wowed my husband and son. Little did they know they were chowing down on a meal loaded with cancer-fighting, cholesterol- and glucose-lowering,
immune-enhancing, and antiplaque properties. Here’s a rundown of each variety we tested.


Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
This mushroom has a rich earthy flavor and a delicate texture; it’s delectable sauteed or stir-fried. Medical researchers have been investigating its benefits since at least the 1960s, and herbalists I know recommend it to strengthen the immune system, especially as a supplement taken during cold and flu season.

My go-to herbalist, author and American Herbalist Guild member David Winston of Broadway, New Jersey, says in his book, Herbal Therapy and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach, that animal and test-tube studies are convincing enough to recommend eating maitake regularly as part of a treatment plan for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and even hepatitis B. (Placebo-controlled studies in people have yet to be conducted.)

A 4-ounce, 30-calorie serving packs a whopping 1,250 IU of vitamin D (which you’re probably not getting enough of), and a bit of fiber, plus it’s a good source of niacin. Now that I know I can find maitake at a market near me, and because it no longer costs a king’s ransom, I’ll be tossing it into my shopping cart a few times a

King trumpet (Pleurotus eryngii)
This larger mushroom with a meaty white stem and beige cap was also in my sample package. A species of oyster mushroom, known in Japan as eringi, it made a yummy addition to the sautee I cooked up. Like other
mushrooms, it’s loaded with antioxidants and is amazingly low in calories (20 per 4 ounces).

White and brown beech mushrooms (Hypsizygus marmoreus)
These cute little ‘shrooms come bunched together but can be easily separated to toss into the pan.  Flavorwise, they have the typical mushroomy flavor, and I love the eye appeal of the tiny little caps.

A Japanese study conducted last year concluded that mice fed with maitake, king trumpet, or beech mushrooms had lower levels of atherosclerosis, the inflammatory process that causes plaque deposits to build up in arteries, than mice fed regular diets. The mushroom diets lowered the mice’s triglyceride levels, the blood fat that contributes to atherosclerosis (or what my grandma called hardening of the
arteries). Of the three mushrooms tested, the tiny beech mushroom offered the strongest artery protection.

A tip for longer life: Sub mushrooms for meat
I’ve always enjoyed eating mushrooms, including more exotic but familiar varieties like crimini, portobello, and shiitake (which all have similar benefits to wild mushrooms) and I especially love how they add
a meaty texture and flavor that lets you reduce the amount of animal protein you might ordinarily toss into a stir-fry or sautee. Now, a new study makes that an even more compelling reason to cook with these

You may have seen headlines last week about the study conducted by National Cancer Institute, which examined lifestyle questionnaires submitted by 500,000 people who were then tracked for 10 years. The researchers concluded that people who ate the most red and processed meat had higher death rates from
cancer and heart disease than people who ate less red meat.

Armed with that news, I’m making mushrooms more of a main ingredient from now on, starting with some of these delicious recipes. And as it warms up outside, I’m going to experiment with them on the grill.  king trumpet kababs, anyone?


Cordyceps: A Magic Mushroom Energy Enhancer

I’m submitting this week’s blog in the knick of time, after being stricken with a severe case of I’ll-do-it-later for the better part of the week. Lacking the inspiration to write, I posted a status on Facebook this morning: Sara is seeking an herbal cure for terminal procrastination.

My friends (and editors, oops!) began responding: Now there’s a post I would definitely read.   And then it hit me: Cordyceps, perhaps the weirdest natural remedy I’ve ever tried, may be just that; or at least
the closest thing to it.


Getty Images

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), for the uninitiated, is the strangest yet most instantly effective energy-booster I’ve ever tried, aside from a nice brisk walk on an early spring morning. Not related to anything herbal, cordyceps is actually a fungal parasite that grows out of the top of a Lepidoptera moth caterpillar’s head. Yep, I know. Sounds really gross. Stick with me.

These caterpillars live naturally in mountainous areas of Tibet and southern China but now are cultivated commercially, which is a good thing. First, because it became so rare and expensive that cordyceps
gatherers were wrecking delicate Himalayan ecosystems with their aggressive mushroom hunting. And, notes leading mushroom expert Paul Stamets in MycoMedicinals, his treatise on mushrooms, wild-grown cordyceps can be contaminated with mold, bacteria, and even lead.

Although state-of-the-scientific art randomized clinical trials haven’t been conducted on the effects of cordyceps on the human body here in the West, the fungus has been used in Traditional Chinese
Medicine since the 1700s.

Test tube and animal studies have shown that the fungus has anti-tumor properties, specifically against leukemia cells, notes Stamets. Animal studies also show its ability to stimulate the immune
response, and herbalists use it to improve kidney function for people who have chronic kidney problems.

But back to using cordyceps as an energy enhancer: At the Chinese National Games in 1993, a team of women runners shattered nine world records and said they took cordyceps as part of their training program.
According to Stamets, marathon runners use cordyceps and one runner once told him privately that he cut 25 minutes off his time in the Boston Marathon, and ended up finishing in the top 10, as a result of
taking cordyceps.

Oh, one more thing: cordyceps has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, at least in China, where it’s been used to treat impotence and to boost libido.

The cultivated cordyceps from Stamet’s company, Fungi Perfecti, is a good product to try, as is New Chapter’s cordycep capsules, available at health food stores.

Follow label instructions and don’t exceed recommended dosage unless you’re working with an herbalist. According to herbalist David Winston in his book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, taking excess amounts of cordyceps can cause headaches and anxiety.

Maybe if I can get my hands on some cordyceps, my upcoming blogs won’t be so daunting. Stay tuned: Next week I think I’ll write more about mushrooms; the yummy kind that don’t grow out of a caterpillar’s head.