The damp weather around Vancouver makes it a friendly climate for all kinds of edible mushrooms, including morels, porcini, Pacific Golden Chanterelles, slippery Jacks and Chicken of the Woods. If you come across mushrooms while you’re out in the woods, chances are that you don’t think of them as medicine. Warning, wild mushrooms are often toxic, do not pick and eat mushrooms unless you know the species. The Chinese herbal formulary lists a number of awesome fungi as healing herbs. Here’s a rundown on some and their healing properties:
Tremella mushrooms go by a bunch of different names—snow ear fungus, Bei Mu Er (which means White Wood Ear) and Yin Er. Like the moist ground where it grows, these mushrooms moisten and nourish your stomach, which is an organ that’s prone to becoming hot and dry (think heartburn!). It can also be used to treat dry lungs, a dry cough and in the past it was used to treat consumption, which is known today as tuberculosis. Tremella may also be used to nourish systemic dryness, which can cause a sensation of heat in your hands, feet and heart—called heat in the five hearts. You can eat these mushrooms by soaking them for a couple of hours if they’re dried, and then add them to soup.
Shiitake are one of the best known and most commonly eaten mushrooms. They’re frequently found in a wide variety of Asian dishes. Also called Xiang Gu, shiitake mushrooms are used medicinally to build up your energy (called Qi) nourish your blood and treat excess phlegm. Scientists are also exploring the anti-tumor, antibacterial and antiviral effects of Shiitake mushrooms as well as its ability to lower cholesterol.
Reishi is a mushroom that is used in Chinese medicine to replenish your Qi, nourish blood and for its calming effects. It also has the property of transforming phlegm and can be used to relieve a cough or treat asthma. Reishi is also called Ling Zhi in Chinese and is known as the Divine Mushroom of Immortality because it can strengthen your body’s Essence, which is akin to boosting your overall body constitution to promote longevity.
The description of the cordyseps fungus is kind of gross, but the research on its healing properties makes it a valuable part of the Chinese herbal formulary. Also known as Dong Chong Xia Cao or Dong Chong Cao, cordyseps is a fungus that attacks the larvae of certain caterpillars, takes over, replaces the larval tissue and grows long thin stems that sprout outside the original caterpillar’s body. I know, yuck. But! It’s used to treat a sore lower back, achy knees and impotence due to depleted Kidney Yang. In addition it can also boost Yin, especially of the lung, to treat cough and wheezing. And current research has discovered that cordyseps:
- Boosts antioxidants in your body that neutralize molecules that accelerate aging, called free radicals.
- May slow the growth of some cancerous tumors.
- Contains a kind of sugar that actually helps to balance blood sugar in people with diabetes.
- Has been shown to have a beneficial effect on cholesterol by lowering LDL.
- Fights inflammation by suppressing certain proteins in your body that promote inflammation.
So despite its somewhat creepy origins, cordyseps deserves its solid standing among healing fungi. And it can be dried and powdered, making it easy to take.
Poria, or Fu Ling is an edible mushroom, and its sclerotium is a commonly prescribed Chinese herb. A sclerotium is the hard, compact mass at the base of a crop of mushrooms that serves as the mother ship and contains the food reserves for the fungi that grows above ground. The sclerotium of a mushroom can live underground even during severe weather extremes, ensuring that mushrooms will sprout the next time conditions are right. Poria helps drain dampness from your body by easing urination, and is often added to formulas for this purpose and has the added action of calming the mind.
Polyporus is also a fungal sclerotium that treats dampness. It’s called Zhu Ling in Chinese, and is also known as Lumpy Bracket and Umbrella Polypore. It also drains dampness through urination like Poria, but is a cooler herb and somewhat stronger in dealing with damp conditions. Polyporus can be used to treat edema, yeast infections and urinary tract issues, jaundice and diarrhea. Both Poria and Polyporus (Fu Ling and Zhu Ling) are helpful in treating dampness and heat that causes scarce or burning urination.
Many people think of mushrooms as individual organisms that just grow wherever. But in reality, mushrooms are part of something called the mycelium, which are threads of a wider underground fungal network. These threads wrap around and connect to tree roots to exchange and transfer water, minerals and all kinds of nutrients. This underground fungal network is responsible for helping trees stay healthy—and as Chinese herbs, they help people stay healthy, too! If you want more information about how herbal medicine may help you, please contact us.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.