What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?

What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?

You might have noticed that we're big fans of mushrooms here at The Herbtender. In fact, every one of our seven wonderful formulae contain some carefully selected shrooms. In this blog, we'll talk about why mushrooms are so incredible, aside from being a tasty part of your cooked breakfast.

Let's start with an interesting fact...

Did you know that mushrooms are more like animals than plants? Yes, you read that right!

Plants tend to make their own food by photosynthesis - using the sun's energy. Animals, on the other hand, obtain their nutrition by digesting plant and animal material using enzymes produced in the gut. Mushrooms, like animals, secrete digestive enzymes to break down dead plant or animal material and then absorb the breakdown products as food.

Fascinating! But what exactly is a medicinal mushroom?

In many ways, medicinal mushrooms (or functional mushrooms) do exactly what they say on the tin – they are mushrooms that can be used as medicine. Their broad nutrient profile also allows them to be used as supplements (possibly where the recently coined term 'functional mushrooms' comes from).

Mushrooms have a long history of medicinal use worldwide, including in ancient Greece, China, Egypt and North America. Otzi, a man whose 5000-year-old body was found frozen in an alpine glacier, was carrying two medicinal mushrooms when he died. (1, 2)

Throughout the years, medicinal mushrooms have been used to fight infection and reduce inflammation. In Asia, they've been used for centuries in the treatment of cancer. A tradition so strong that in the 1960s, the Japanese conducted several studies confirming mushrooms' ability to extend survival times in several cancers. Since then, several commercial mushroom extracts have been subjected to large-scale clinical trials, and medicinal mushrooms are now used in China and Japan as an approved adjunct to conventional cancer treatment.(3, 4)

While many mushrooms can grow in the UK, we don't have a huge tradition of using them as food or medicine (other than the white button mushroom). It's likely because some of the medicinal mushrooms are more bitter and, therefore, more challenging in terms of taste. But there's also an element of suspicion, with many people wary of mushrooms as potentially dangerous or poisonous.

In the East, mushrooms are regarded as superior herbs and safe to consume without adverse effects - perhaps because the Chinese are more knowledgeable in identifying which are safe to consume and which are poisonous. In China, certain mushrooms were so sought after (and so rare) that they were reserved for use by the royal family alone. (5)

How do mushrooms work as medicine?

Medicinal mushrooms contain several bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides, triterpenes, statins, antibiotics, alkaloids and lectins. The combination of these wonderful phytochemicals give mushrooms their little bit of magic. Some compounds are found in all mushrooms. Others are produced by some mushrooms and not by others. That's why different mushrooms are used for various purposes.

Here's some further information on those bioactive compounds...


Present in the cell walls of all mushrooms, Polysaccharides have been shown to have beneficial effects on our digestive and immune systems, acting as prebiotics and restoring normal immune competency and function. (6, 7)

They include the often-mentioned Beta-glucans (long sugar molecule chains joined by beta linkages), which are shown to reduce harmful cholesterol, improve blood sugar balance, prevent cancer development and spread, and reduce the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. (8, 9)

It is thought that our evolution as a species alongside fungal pathogens has led our immune systems to be primed to react to these cell wall components in the way we do.


These compounds are secondary metabolites produced by the mushroom to ensure its survival. They are significant in terms of their medicinal properties and are found in many mushrooms at varying levels. Those from Reishi have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, hypotensive and sedative actions (10). The terpene components of mushrooms are generally not water soluble but can be extracted in alcohol.


Many mushrooms produce lovastatin, widely prescribed by the medical community to reduce cholesterol levels. Lovastatin is also an anti-fungal and is produced by the mushroom to give it a competitive advantage over other mushrooms in the surrounding area. (11)


Antibiotics are produced by the mushroom to give it an advantage in the world, helping them compete with other species. While we're often familiar with the role of some species (such as Penicillium) in producing antibiotics, many will surprise you. For example, Lion's Mane mushroom produces two antibiotics, one of which is responsible for stimulating nerve growth factor.

So, which should I take?

The good news is that all edible mushrooms are medicinal to some extent because they all contain those lovely fungal polysaccharides. Yes, even our little white button ones from the supermarket!

Adding more mushrooms to your diet (ideally 3-4 times per week) is a simple hack to improve your overall health – normalising immune function and reducing risks of many illnesses and diseases.(12, 13, 57) Martin Powell, a leading UK expert in medicinal mushrooms, recommends always eating cooked mushrooms, as cooking breaks down the cell walls, making them more easily digested.

If you have specific health issues, certain mushrooms will be more appropriate for you than others. To help you with this, we've included a short guide to the four mushrooms we have in our products. If you need further advice or information, we recommend talking to your herbalist or healthcare provider to get more relevant information for you.

Spotlight on the four mushrooms we use in The Herbtender products:

We’re very proud of our mushrooms. They are all organic and carefully sourced by a leading expert in the field of medicinal mushrooms. We use a combination of extracts (water and alcohol) with biomass to ensure you get the highest levels of efficacy with the most active components of each mushroom.


Used in Chinese medicine for centuries, Reishi was known as the 'mushroom of immortality' because of its reputation for strengthening the immune system, improving cognition and prolonging life. Containing polysaccharides, triterpenes and lovastatin, it has a mild adaptogenic effect which tends to build up over time.

Reishi produces more than 140 triterpenoid compounds responsible for many of its health benefits. It has sedative, anti-inflammatory and histamine-reducing effects. (13-18) It is liver protective (19-21) , reduces blood pressure (22-23), is antiviral (24-25) and helps in the treatment of cancer (26-29).

The long history of traditional use of Reishi in the treatment of cancer is attributed, amongst other things, to the immune effect of the polysaccharides as well as the cytotoxic activity of the triterpenes against different cancer cell lines (30-33). In clinical studies, Reishi has been shown to enhance cancer patients' immune status (34-35) and reduce side effects of chemo and radiotherapy when given alongside (36-38).

Reishi has been shown to help with controlling the development of Parkinson's disease, thought to be a result of its very high levels of tyrosinase inhibition in the aqueous extract (39, 40). Reishi has also been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health.

Lion's Mane

That lovely mushroom that so resembles the mane of a lion is proving very popular at the moment, and it's easy to see why.

Known as 'nature's nutrient for the neurons', Lions Mane is renowned for helping with all aspects of nervous system function, including anxiety, depression and insomnia (41-44) - as well as cognition and brain function (45-47). Much of its effect is attributed to the fact that it stimulates production of nerve growth factor in the body.

Traditionally used in Asia for treating gastritis and gastric ulcers, Lion's Mane produces two anti-microbial compounds (the hericenones and the erinacines). These compounds may be responsible for eradicating H. pylori in these cases. (48, 49)


This brightly coloured mushroom has been the subject of much attention for its use in improving exercise tolerance in athletes. According to David Winston, studies confirm that this mushroom enhances aerobic capacity and cellular energy stores, reduces myocardial (heart muscle) oxygen consumption, lowers cholesterol levels, prevents damage to cells caused by free radicals, and normalises immune function (5).

It was traditionally used as a tonic to reduce fatigue, increase vigour, and improve immune function (50). It contains Cordycepin, a nucleoside analogue with antiviral activity (51). It has anti-inflammatory activity and is good for lung and kidney function (52).

Cordyceps boosts natural steroid hormone production, making it useful for fertility but unsuitable for those with hormone-dependent cancers.


Traditionally grown on birch trees, Chaga contains immune-modulatory and anti-inflammatory triterpenes and has a long history of traditional use. It contains a significant range of phenolic compounds responsible for its antioxidant activity. Chaga contains more antioxidants than just about anything else on Earth (1,014 ORAC units per gramme, compared to 165 in Acai berries or 105 in pomegranates).

Traditionally used as an internal digestive cleanser, an alcohol extract of Chaga is licensed to treat stomach and intestinal disorders in Russia (53, 54). Studies have found that Chaga improved gut health markers and microbiome markers in mice with chronic pancreatitis (55).


If you have any questions about the above or anything else The Herbtender related, we'd love to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment below, pop us an email (hello@the-herbtender.com), or send us a DM at @theherbtender!

DISCLAIMER: Please note the information included in this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied upon as health or personal advice. Should you have any questions, please speak with your healthcare practitioner.


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