Before people learned to manufacture over-the-counter drugs, they relied on Mother Nature for their healing needs. Among the many things that Mother Nature provided were medicinal mushrooms. Though the use of medicinal mushrooms seems a crude way of healing by today’s standards, they have worked for the people who used them; this is likely why their use has persisted up to modern times.
When the Europeans discovered America, they brought with them diseases like smallpox. To combat these diseases, the natives relied on an assortment of herbal remedies, among them tree bark, where mushrooms like reishi, chaga, turkey tail, and birch polypore grow. The first three were reputed to have the ability to support the immune system, while the birch polypore had antibacterial properties. Agarikon, now an endangered mushroom, was used by Native Americans and Europeans alike.
Remember Otzi the Iceman, who is considered Europe’s oldest natural mummy? Among his possessions were two medicinal mushrooms: birch polypore and tinder fungus. Scientists believed he used birch polypore to combat intestinal parasites—his intestines contained parasites—while tinder fungus was traditionally used in Europe to heal wounds.
Among the earliest written evidence of the medicinal uses of mushrooms dates back to 65 BC. During that year, Dioscorides, a Greek physician, wrote about the Agarikon mushroom in Materia Medica as a medicine for tuberculosis. Tea made from this fungus was also considered an elixir for prolonging life, caring for lung conditions, alleviating rheumatoid arthritis, and cauterizing wounds, based on a 2001 publication by K. Grzywnowics entitled Medicinal Mushrooms in Polish Folk Medicine.
The Chinese and Japanese have likewise discovered medicinal uses of mushrooms. When you talk about medicinal mushrooms in the East, three names immediately come to mind: reishi, shiitake, and Cordyceps. However, medical research in Japan on these mushrooms began only in the 1960s. This research gained attention in the West through the efforts of Dr. Ikekawa.
Among the earliest documentations of the medicinal uses of mushrooms like the reishi was in the 2,000-year-old book Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic. Likewise, Cordyceps was first described in The Classic Herbal of the Divine Plowman (200 A.D.) as having aphrodisiac properties and the ability to improve athletes’ physical prowess. Lastly, the shiitake mushroom was cultivated as food and immune system support.
Some Medicinal Uses of Mushrooms throughout History