Reishi Mushroom: The Ultimate Medicinal Herb
Reishi mushroom has been utilized for thousands of years for its medicinal qualities. Recently, modern science has begun to study the mushroom in an effort to uncover how it is able to affect the body. Traits that have been attributed to the plant include: calming the spirit and alleviating anxiety, relieving cough and wheeze, improving cardiovascular health, improving digestion, strengthening the immune system, and even extending the lifespan. Because of the range of benefits and the effectiveness of this herb, many researchers are interested in discovering how the constituents elicit such a strong impact on the state of someone’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. The history and classification of reishi is as complex and vast as the effect that the plant has on the human body and has been studied at great length. The following article endeavors to elucidate these complexities from both a Western and Eastern perspective.
Reishi mushroom is usually referred to as ganoderma lucidum in the scientific community – ganoderma is the taxonomic genus encompassing approximately 80 different species of polypore fungi; polypore fungi have pores on the underside of the mushroom. The ganoderma genus of fungi are sometimes known as shelf or bracket fungi. Most of the differences among the common reishi strains in particular are due, directly or indirectly, to geography, and the main three geographical hotspots for reishi growth are Asia, Europe, and North America. Reishi’s geography-based differences arise largely from differences in temperature, light, and humidity – these are the three main factors influencing reishi’s fruiting body morphologically.
Thirty two samples of reishi were collected and analyzed for evolutionary development and diversification; from these samples, 13 different species were determined (Zhou et al., 2015, p. 8). “These 13 species were not strongly supported as a single monophyletic lineage, and were further grouped into three lineages that cannot be defined by their geographic distributions” (Zhou et al., 2015, p. 13). The 13 strains of the mushroom differed in color, growth region, shape, and size (Zhou et al., 2015, p.10). The thirteen types are as follows: Ganoderma curtisii, Ganoderma flexipes, Ganoderma lingzhi, Ganoderma multipileum, Ganoderma resinaceum, Ganoderma sessile, Ganoderma sichuanense and Ganoderma tropicum, Clade B comprised G. lucidum, Ganoderma oregonense and Ganoderma tsugae, and Clade C comprised Ganoderma boninense and Ganoderma zonatum (Zhou et al., 2015, p. 8).
Researchers are beginning to recognize variations using a more scientific approach. For example, Stojković et al. have published a comparative study to determine the chemical and bioactive properties of Ganoderma lucidum from different regions, namely, Serbia and China (2013, p. 42). The researchers noted that Ganoderma lucidum is one of the more sought after medicinal mushrooms in the world and attribute this to its use for promoting longevity while treating the following disorders: “bronchitis, asthma, hypercholesterolemia, hepatopathy, hypertension, arthritis, neurasthenia, hypertension, immunological diseases, gastric ulcers, chronic hepatitis, nephritis and insomnia” (Stojković et al, 2013, p. 42). The findings of this study indicate that the growth habitat plays a major role in influencing the level of certain bioactive ingredients, including phenolics, polysaccharides, triterpenes, sterols, lectins, and proteins (2013, p. 42). A few examples of variations between the two regional samples are higher antioxidant activity from the China samples and more inhibitory potential against breast and cervical cancer from the Serbia samples. Both regions produced samples that contained more unsaturated than saturated fats as well as antibacterial and antifungal activity (at times more so than standard antimicrobial medications) (Stojković et al, 2013, p. 43-45).
The traditional Chinese medicine practitioners typically refer to reishi mushroom by the pinyin name, ling zhi. In this community, ling zhi is categorized based on its color and the medium that it is grown on. The three primary reishi colors are purple, black, and red. Purple reishi is extremely rare and is not available to ordinary consumers. Black reishi (ganoderma sinensis), however, is widely available and useful as an herbal supplement, yet it is not as powerful as red reishi (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 107). The increased health benefits of red reishi has been attributed to the higher polysaccharide content (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 107). Polysaccharides are also known as glycans, which help store energy and support cell structure. The polysaccharides found in reishi can be stored in the liver for later use, and this might partially explain reishi’s use for chronic fatigue syndrome.
Another way to classify reishi is by the way that it is grown. Historically, reishi has grown on the base or stumps of trees. Today, it is not uncommon for most consumers to find reishi that has been harvested from media such as sawdust, rice, or treated wood. Ideally, ling zhi could grow in the wild under organic circumstances or on wood from a duanwood tree from China that has not been treated with any pesticides or chemicals. Teeguarden states that “Duanwood Reishi is more than twice as potent as any other variety of Reishi mushroom available anywhere” and that this form is used for cancer treatments via injection in China and Japan (1998, p. 93-94).
One of the main reasons why practitioners and researchers have been interested in this medicinal mushroom for thousands of years is because of its believed anti-aging properties. Ling zhi appears in many formulas designed to prevent and treat the natural processes that occur in the body as one grows older. In biology, the process of cellular aging is known as senescence, and reishi has proved so exciting as an anti-aging tool for its ability to rejuvenate the body on a cellular level. In accordance with this ancient finding, scientists have conducted many studies on the specific components of the herb that elicit these anti-aging effects and the mechanism by which they work. Steiner points out that reishi mushroom takes a multifaceted approach at preventing aging and extending the lifespan (2013, p. 81). She recognizes that reishi is able to strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of life-shortening conditions and can lead to drastic results, which are beginning to be reflected in mice trials (2013, p. 80-81). “As an example of growing science supporting reishi, researchers using laboratory mice have detailed lifespan extension of 9% to more than 20%—the equivalent of 7 to nearly 16 years in human terms” (2013, p. 80).
As mentioned above, the ability for each specific strain of reishi to provide certain benefits depends on multiple factors and the effect that the environment, medium, and variety have on the bioactive components contained within the plant. Researchers have identified three compounds that are essential to its anti-aging effect. These are: polysaccharides, triterpenes, and ganoderma lucidum peptide (Steiner, 2013, p. 82). Polysaccharides have the ability to prevent abnormal blood vessel formation and boost immune function; these compounds are understood to be anti-cancerous (Steiner, 2013, p. 82). Triterpenes are known to protect the liver and lower blood pressure and cholesterol while lowering the risk for stroke and heart attack by preventing platelet clumping (Steiner, 2013, p. 82). Triterpenes are also antihistaminic and anti-cancerous (Steiner, 2013, p. 82). Lastly, ganoderma lucidum peptide is a protein that acts as a powerful antioxidant but is still not fully understood by science (Steiner, 2013, p. 82).
Another way that reishi extends the lifespan – aside from lowering risk for life-threatening conditions like cancer, stroke, and heart attacks – is by improving the immune function and boosting the body’s antioxidant potential (in addition to being an antioxidant itself). It contains immune-regulating polysaccharides like beta-glucan and over 100 triterpenes with the aforementioned traits (Keville, 2014, p. 3). Reishi mushroom “boosts the immune system by increasing natural killer, macrophages, dendritic, cytokines cells, and T cells to reduce infection and tumor growth and destroy invaders without side effects” (Keville, 2014, p. 3). In fact, reishi is safe for virtually anyone to ingest and does not have any adverse side effects (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 107).
Historically, reishi was catalogued nearly five thousand years ago by Shennong, the divine farmer, who pioneered a still-extant framework for understanding herbal medicine. Though Shennong is believed to have lived this long ago, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, an ancient pharmacopeia, is believed to have been pseudonymously authored in the Eastern Han dynasty of China (25-220 CE). The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing is roughly translated as Shennong’s Herbal Classics. In later supplements to this foundation text, reishi purportedly increased vital energy, improved memory, and improved heart function in addition to calming the mind and helping to alleviate shortness of breath, dizziness, and heart palpitations. According to these findings, reishi is also considered a “superior” herb for its ability to fortify the body and strengthen it against the effects of multiple different diseases. Superior herbs like reishi are noted for their safety and ability to bring the body back into balance. One rung lower, if you will, on the tripartite system that Shennong helped devise, are boosters and tonics, which can support certain systems in the body but might not be suitable for sustained consumption. The third rung of herbs are those more akin to medicines. These are usually taken in smaller doses and over a limited timeframe because, unlike reishi, they have a more specialized application and could pose side effects if taken over longer periods of time. From the perspective of Chinese Medicine, reishi is one of those rare herbs in the same class as ginseng, gynostemma and shizandra in that reishi is said to nourish the three treasures (jing, qi, and shen).
In accordance to many of these findings, ling zhi has been referred to as the mushroom of immortality, according to many ancient texts. It is also believed to stop coughing and wheezing according to Chen et al. (2012, p. 770). Ling zhi enters the Lung channel and is known to transform and dispel phlegm; it is added to other herbs while specifically targeting asthma symptoms. These findings are in congruence with the antihistamine properties discussed by Steiner (2013) as well as other researchers interested in using reishi to treat respiratory and dermatological conditions. Steiner also details the ability of reishi to sharply reduce a wide range of allergy symptoms, including rhinitis and mosquito bites (2013, p. 84). Furthermore, reishi extract can lower airway hyper-responsiveness in the lung bronchi that trigger an asthma attack (Steiner, 2013, p. 84). Babu & Subhasree (2008) also stated these findings and noted that the anti-inflammatory effects reached further than asthma and contact dermatitis insofar as reishi’s anti-inflammatory effects had implications for treating stiff neck and shoulders, conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and rheumatism (p. 109). It appears as though many of reishi’s beneficial effects are actualized by improving the ability of the immune system to react to foreign pathogens in the body.
Critically, another channel that ling zhi enters is the Liver channel (Chen, 2012, p. 770). There is extensive research on the benefits of reishi for liver health. One example of this is the ability of reishi’s polysaccharides to inhibit inflammation in liver cells of someone who has been exposed to certain bacterial infections (Steiner, 2013, p. 85-86). These same polysaccharides are able to help restore the natural liver antioxidant systems back to normal following an infection (Steiner, 2013, p. 85-86). Several studies show that pre-treating animals with reishi spores can protect their livers from harm (or failure) once exposed to toxic metals (in this case, cadmium) (Steiner, 2013, p. 85-86). Some attribute reishi’s effectiveness in treating liver issues to its ability to limit the activity of beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme which becomes elevated in those with liver conditions, such as cirrhosis and jaundice. Other studies have proven that reishi has a positive impact on treating patients in liver failure and individuals with hepatitis (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 109). In tincture form, it has also been shown to inhibit liver damage and promote the regeneration of healthy liver cells (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 109).
In addition to the effects on immune function and liver health, reishi mushroom also has a positive effect on many digestive processes. As most practitioners know, there is a strong correlation between the health of the digestive tract and the overall health of an individual, especially with regard to immune function and maintaining a positive health state. One study researched the potential for reishi mushroom (ganoderma boninense) to inhibit the growth of candida albicans (Daruliza et al, 2012, p. 43). Although candida albicans is a naturally occurring yeast in the gastrointestinal tract, many individuals suffer from an overgrowth of this organism. This condition leads to discomfort and an inability to extracts nutrients from food and can result in further health issues. As mentioned above, reishi mushroom contains several antimicrobial properties and this finding is simply another benefit of this function. Similarly, an alcohol extract of the live mycelium (ganoderma resinaceum) stopped the growth of two strains of the influenza virus and inhibited the grown of staph infection and H. Pylori, which causes stomach ulcers (Keville, 2014, p. 3).
One of the main attributes of ling zhi from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective is its profound impact on calming the shen, nourishing the heart, and calming the spirit. Since most research has been focused on more tangible physiological effects that reishi has on the body, I will use a personal example to support this claim. While home from college over holiday break in 2014, I noticed that the stress from my most recent semester of nursing school was affecting my ability to turn off my mind and relax with my family members. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself with regard to academics and was starting to become anxious, especially in the evening. One night, I felt my heart beating very hard and my mind was racing as I was trying to fall asleep. I told my brother how I was feeling and he asked if I would drink reishi tea even though I had never heard of it and I would most likely hate the taste. I agreed not only because he is a very thorough researcher but also because I was desperate to make the anxiety go away. Within minutes of drinking the not-so-delicious tea, I was able to feel a strong sense of relief and fall asleep very shortly after. Since that moment, I have consistently been able to turn to ling zhi during times of anxiety, insomnia, and general feelings of dis-ease. For me, this herb is a harmless way to course correct and return my mind and body back to a more balanced state.
Though the mental and psychological benefits of taking reishi mushroom require further study from a Western perspective, reishi has been shown to reduce blood pressure in patients who have resistance to ACE-inhibitors. In a double-blind study at the Department of Pathophysiology at Shanghai Medical University in China of 54 individuals with stage II primary hypertension, almost all participants experienced a significant reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (Reichert, 1997). Babu & Subhasree also mention psycho-emotional and neurological benefits of reishi mushroom by referencing several studies and findings (2008, p. 109). Some of these findings include ling zhi’s ability to treat insomnia, psychological conditions, muscle diseases, anorexia (and subsequent debility), neuroses caused by environmental stress, and even Alzheimer’s disease (specifically with patients taking a reishi mycelium product) (Babu & Subhasree, 2008, p. 109).
To summarize, everyone should be taking ling zhi if they are interested in improving their health and immunity and wanting to live a long and healthy life. Reishi mushroom benefits several organ systems that keep the body functioning at optimal levels and helps individuals feel more at ease mentally and spiritually. To this point, etymologically “ling” and “zhi” are Chinese loanwords that translate to divine (ling) and fungus (zhi), respectively. The word divine does seem to crop up a lot when discussing reishi, perhaps because reishi nourishes the shen so well and lends a calm, relaxed state of mind on those taking it. In Chinese Medicine, the body, mind, and spirit are not treated as distinctly as each is treated in Western medicine, insofar as Western medicine addresses spiritual concerns. Reishi, in fact, nourishes the shen (spirit) alongside the body and mind, though shen itself can be translated as spirit or mind and encompasses vitality, memory, mental health, and consciousness itself. Reishi is truly a spiritually nourishing herb and broad-spectrum adaptogen. Reishi does not come with any potential side effects and is now readily available thanks to modern practices. Whether one is suffering from a serious condition like cancer or liver disease or looking to increase the quality and quantity of one’s life, reishi can provide much needed relief for the normal wear and tear that aging will inevitably inflict and provide myriad spiritual benefits along the journey through life.
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Daruliza, K., Fernandez, L., Jegathambigai, R., & Sasidharan, S. (2012). Anti-Candida activity and brine shrimp toxicity assay of Ganoderma boninense. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, (16), 43-48. Retrieved April 10, 2019.
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Zhou, L., Cao, Y., Wu, S., Vlasák, J., Li, D., Li, M., & Dai, Y. (2015). Global diversity of the Ganoderma lucidum complex (Ganodermataceae, Polyporales) inferred from morphology and multilocus phylogeny. Phytochemistry, 114, 7-15. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2014.09.023