As the public grows increasingly health-conscious, mushrooms have moved into more grocery carts than ever. People use them to replace meat in their meals, add earthy, umami flavor to dishes, and inject nutrition into their diets. (Mushrooms are one of the only naturally occurring food sources of vitamin D.) The New York Times even named them “Ingredient of the Year” in 2022. But the power of mushrooms extends far beyond veggie burgers and stir-fries.

Mushrooms as medicine

Mushrooms have been used for millennia to improve longevity and treat everything from viral infections to cancer. In fact, in Asia, medicinal mushrooms—mushrooms used as medicine—are a cornerstone of many cancer treatment regimens: They’re used to help boost the effectiveness and ease the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

The notion that fungi could be used to cure disease doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you consider that penicillin, an antibiotic that has saved 200 million lives since its discovery in 1928, is derived from the Penicillium fungus. Some popular cholesterol-­lowering drugs, like lovastatin (Mevacor) and simvastatin (FloLipid, Zocor), come from fungi, too.

Mushroom species like turkey tail, reishi, cordyceps, maitake, and shiitake contain bioactive components that exert anti-inflammatory, antiviral (including anti-COVID), antibacterial, anticancer, and antioxidant effects on the body.

The medicinal magic of mushrooms lies in naturally occurring carbohydrates called beta-glucans (β-glucans). These plant compounds support the immune system by activating T-cells and natural killer cells, which are critical in defending against viral infections and cancer. Some β-glucans work by downregulating, or suppressing, certain components of the immune system to help reduce inflammation. These effects are so potent that researchers are now exploring ways to use β-glucans to improve the efficacy of COVID vaccination, to add prevention actions or support the treatment of COVID itself. One study showed that shiitake mushroom extract may have the power to dampen the cytokine storm that causes acute respiratory distress syndrome in some COVID patients.

With that in mind, here are some key ways that medicinal mushrooms, also known as mycomedicinals, help the body heal.


Turkey tail mushrooms, named for their beautiful fan shape that resembles a turkey’s tail, are one of the most recognized mushroom species used in cancer treatment. When scientists extract β-glucans from turkey tail mushrooms, they can isolate an active compound called polysaccharide K (PSK). PSK has been approved as an adjuvant cancer treatment in Japan, meaning it has been used alongside or after surgery, chemotherapy, or another primary treatment to support their anticancer effects, ease the side effects of treatment, and prevent recurrence. While PSK is no longer available, other extracts of turkey tail are widely available. Thousands of Japanese patients with cancer of the breast, lung, stomach, colorectum, and more have continued to use turkey tail extract to help treat their cancer.

Turkey tail mushrooms aren’t the only cancer-fighting fungi. Reishi mushrooms are often used to treat colorectal cancer, or any cancer that has spread to the liver. Energizing cordyceps mushrooms help counteract cancer-­related fatigue. Chinese and Japanese patients fighting dozens of types of cancer, including lung, gastric, cervical, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have traditionally tapped the antitumor properties of shiitakes to enhance the effects of chemo and radiation and improve overall quality of life.

In a 2023 Cureus review of nine medicinal mushroom cancer studies, researchers concluded that shiitake, turkey tail, and scaly wood mushrooms may even help to prevent the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes (called metastasis) and may improve overall survival rates.


Some clinical studies suggest Lion’s mane mushrooms—which resemble shaggy white pom-poms—may improve memory, processing speed, and other cognition elements. This may be attributable to anti-inflammatory, brain-protective compounds called hericenones and erinacines. This chemical duo crosses the blood-brain barrier, triggering the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which help the brain protect itself against inflammation and facilitate the production of new brain cells. Both BDNF and NGF naturally decline with age, contributing to age-related memory loss, so taking steps to augment levels may help shield cognition.

Medicinal mushrooms may indirectly protect memory by acting as prebiotics: plant-based dietary compounds that enhance bacterial diversity in the gut, increasing the number and types of good-for-you bugs residing there. Other prebiotic foods include onion, peas, asparagus, cabbage, and almonds.

Microbial diversity influences cognition via the gut-brain axis, a two-way communication highway linking the brain and gut. Like BDNF and NGF, microbial diversity shifts with age, allowing inflammatory bacteria to proliferate, and inflammation is the enemy of healthy cognition. Consuming a mushroom-rich diet can reduce the presence of inflammatory bacterial species such as Bacteroides while boosting memory-protective species like Lactobacillus.


Eating mushrooms every day may keep anxiety and depression away. According to data collected from nearly 25,000 adults in the 2005–2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, regular mushroom eaters enjoyed lower rates of depression. This may be due to the presence of anxiety-reducing vitamin B12, NGF, or various antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Mushrooms’ prebiotic effects may also come into play, as gut health is powerfully linked with mental health. The gut is lined with neurons and is called “the second brain” for this reason.


Eating mushrooms every day may keep anxiety and depression away. According to data collected from nearly 25,000 adults, regular mushroom eaters enjoyed lower rates of depression.


Speaking of the gut, β-glucans amplify the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), compounds that work in the gut to regulate levels of mood-protective neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

Some medicinal mushrooms fall into a special category called adaptogens. Adaptogens are plants, roots, and herbs that help the body adapt to chronic stress—the type of daily worry and tension that leave so many people’s nervous systems stuck in the fight-or-flight position. Adaptogens gently help flip that switch, stabilizing mood, easing anxiety, and improving overall resilience to stress. One of the most reliable adaptogens is a mushroom called cordyceps. As a bonus, cordyceps has been shown to improve exercise performance in adults ages 50 to 75.

Getting started

If using mushrooms to support your health sounds intriguing, your first step is to find a functional or integrative medicine practitioner with experience in their use. Visit the following websites to locate a nearby practitioner:

Your provider will educate you on the mushroom types most aligned with your health goals. They’ll also explain the various forms. While turkey tail, reishi, shiitake, and other species are available whole and dried, you’ll usually need a more concentrated form, such as tinctures, liquid extracts, capsules, or teas to ingest the amount necessary to impact health.

Mushrooms are not a quick fix. You’ll need to take them daily for about six to eight weeks before noticing the effects, and then stay on them long-term. Cordyceps is an exception—many people see a difference in stress levels within one week of use.

Let your provider know if you take any medications. Contraindications are rare, but some medicinal mushrooms may intensify the effects of mainstream drugs. For instance, if you have diabetes and take medicine to lower your blood sugar, reishi mushrooms may cause your blood sugar to drop too low. Individuals with autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis should also be cautious: The immune-enhancing effect of medicinal mushrooms may work against you, not for you.

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