Medicinal Mushrooms – Wild Winter Adaptogens

I spend many of my days off in the wet autumn months bushwhacking through damp, old growth forests foraging for mushrooms. Although I find more culinary mushrooms such as chanterelles, lobsters and cauliflower mushrooms, I do also come across the odd species of medicinal fungi, such as turkey tail, artist conk, or lion’s mane (which, in all fairness, serves as both medicinal and culinary). 

This year in particular, I came across an abundance of turkey tail mushrooms. After they spent a few weeks in a linen bag in my fridge, I finally decided to utilize them. I purchased some wild chaga (which doesn’t grow on Vancouver Island due to lack of native birch), combined them with my wild harvested turkey tail and west coast reishi, and left to decoct in my slow cooker. You can simmer these hard, woody mushrooms for a couple hours on your stovetop to fully extract the water-soluble constituents, but I prefer to leave them in my slow cooker on low over the course of several days, taking mugs full to drink, and topping off the brew with more water as I go.

A flush of wild turkey tails (trametes versicolor)

This simple mushroom tea is a powerful adaptogenic tonic. Adaptogens increase the function of all systems on a cellular level, and upregulate the production of ATP, the energy that cells require to function. This makes them beneficial for energy and performance, stress resilience, and cognitive function. Beyond their adaptogenic properties, these mushrooms have constituents unique to Kingdom Fungi. Polysaachirides and triterpenes are amongst the more commonly known, which have a positive interaction with the gut microbiome and modulate the immune system.

Specific medicinal mushrooms have their own unique properties. Although Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been using medicinal mushrooms for centuries, western medicine is just beginning to study and recognize the benefits of these fungi. 

Reishi is best known for its stress-reducing and anti anxiety properties. This herb is a great tonic for the nervous system, and promotes stress resilience, deep relaxation and grounding. Additionally, it is well known for its immune supportive polysaccharides. TCM often refers to reishi as the Queen of medicinal mushrooms for its yin tonifying properties and wide range of uses. 

Chaga is often used as a coffee substitute, promoting stimulant-free, calm energy and offering a mild, woody flavor. Chaga is a general tonic, encouraging building and nourishment to the cells, and provides balance within different systems of the body. Chaga is well known as one of the highest antioxidant rich foods, with a high density of polyphenolic compounds. Though there is anecdote of use in TCM, I’ve not been able to find chaga references in the classical texts. It has been proposed to be a yin tonic, with bitter and slightly warming properties.

Turkey tail is most commonly utilized as an immune supportive mushroom. It is considered a modulator rather than a stimulant, making it beneficial to take long term to tonify and build the immune system and create balance within that system. Turkey tail is one of the best studied medicinal mushrooms in the west, having been studied for its anti cancer and anti tumour mechanisms, and has proven particularly useful taken in high doses for treatment of breast cancer. Polysaccharides are responsible for stimulating the production of natural killer cells, monocytes, and dendritic cells, three specific types of innate immune cells.

I like to make strong infusions with medicinal mushrooms, then strain the tea and lay out the used mushrooms on a plate in the windowsill. The mushrooms will dry and absorb additional vitamin D from the sun. Due to their density, these mushrooms can often be dried and reused for tea making. 

In addition to teas, medicinal mushrooms make great tinctures (alcohol extractions) and powders. Different constituents are extracted when using water vs. alcohol, so depending on the properties that you are taking the mushrooms for, you may prefer one method over the other, or a combination of the two. Powders can be incorporated into teas, coffee, and smoothies, whereas tinctures are best taken directly into the mouth (or diluted in a small amount of water if need be). 

I find wild mushrooms to be nourishing beyond their nutrient density and biochemical components – the ritual and playfulness of foraging in the forest creates a deep reverence for the medicine, and grounds and nourishes the mind and spirit.

Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.

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