The Magic of Mushrooms

By Gwenyth Shears

It is no secret that mushrooms have been used as food and medicine for thousands of years. Thanks to our Asian brothers and sisters centuries ago, mushrooms have made their way into the hearts of many natural healers and the pans of many chefs. Their medicinal magic comes from the polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates made up of sugar molecules) they contain, which support the immune system and fight cancer. This works because the structural molecules of the polysaccharides mimic the molecules in bacterial cell walls. When they enter the body, macrophages are stimulated to attack, cytokines are released, and lymphocytes are called into action. An immune system on high alert is bad news for invading microorganisms, including cancer cells.

Some of the more well-known mushrooms used today are maitake, shiitake, reishi, and cordyceps. Straight from the pages of The Whole-Food Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors (page 102), here is a short description of each:

“Many different mushrooms have been studied and consumed for their medicinal properties. Of the many species of mushrooms, holistic medical practitioners most commonly recommend these:


  • Maitake. Often found at the base of oak trees and esteemed by herbalists all over the world, the maitake mushroom is best known for its ability to stimulate the production of T-cells in the blood.
  • Shiitake. The shiitake mushroom is the most widely recognized medicinal mushroom and is generally used as an immune system booster.
  • Reishi. Used primarily as a tea or tincture because of its woody texture, this mushroom has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years as an immune system enhancer.
  • Cordyceps. The extract from the cordyceps mushroom has proven itself to be effective in fighting various forms of bacteria while increasing physical stamina. The sports world took notice of the possible benefits of cordyceps mushrooms in 1993, when nine women who were taking cordyceps reportedly broke world records at the Chinese National Games.”


Mushrooms can be found on every continent. Wild mushrooms are most abundant in autumn, but because they are widely cultivated by humans, mushrooms are available all year round. When buying fresh mushrooms, avoid those that are slimy, wet, and wrinkled and store them loosely in a paper bag in the refrigerator; they will last for about a week. Dried mushrooms last a lot longer. If they are kept in airtight containers, they can be refrigerated or frozen for six months to a year. Mushrooms can be sautéed, roasted, stir-fried, made into broth or tea, substituted for meat, turned into tapenade, or used in many creative and delicious ways. No matter whether you are using them for food or medicine, it is always a good time to bring a little magic into your life by adding mushrooms to your pantry.

Want to learn more? Here is what we read:

A History of Medicinal Mushrooms – Spirit of Change Magazine

The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, and Joseph Pizzorno, with Laura Pizzorno. 2005. Atria Books. New York, NY

The Whole-Food Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors by Edward Bauman,Ph.D., and Helayne Waldman, Ed.D. 2012. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA