Purple Reishi (Ganoderma sinense) is a polypore mushroom that is native to Asia, specifically to China and Japan. It grows on both broadleaf trees and conifers but is very rare and notoriously difficult to find in the wild. Its modern scarcity may be partly due to industrial deforestation and the dramatic loss of biodiversity in some of its native forests, although historically it was never found in any great abundance.
Traditionally it was often used interchangeably with Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). It is for this reason that both species are referred to as ‘Lingzhi‘ in traditional Chinese medicine. They both play a very similar ecological role within the forest and share a broad number of health benefits, but in truth the two species are notably different in a number of ways.
While this mushroom usually exhibits a dark purple hue, it also commonly presents dark brown to almost black colouring. It is typically much darker than Red Reishi, has a less bitter, slightly sweet taste and a different arrangement and concentration of biologically active compounds.
As already mentioned, this species was a rarity throughout history. It therapeutic potency was formidable, yet before it was cultivated the wild mushroom was sparse and foraging it was a challenge. Thankfully, the cultivation of this species has developed into a fine art when done thoroughly and conscientiously.
Purple Reishi can be grown using the same methods as Red Reishi cultivation, but in an attempt to save time and money, many growers will cut corners and yield small, medicinally inferior fruiting bodies. However, if wild-simulated Di Tao practices are adhered to, mushrooms exhibiting the qualities and properties of the finest wild specimens can be produced. To learn more about these practices, read the Methods of Cultivation chapter on our main page about Reishi.
As with Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Purple Reishi contains hundreds of different compounds that collaborate synergistically to produce a collective ‘entourage effect‘. There are many proteins and fatty acids, sterols, polyphenols and trace elements, but the compounds understood to be the most powerful and have a ‘directing’ influence over the medicinal activity, are the fungal polysaccharides and triterpenes.
Comparisons between G. sinense and G. lucidum show that overall, their polysaccharide and especially β-d-glucan content is very similar with no striking differences between the two. Their terpenoid profile however shows considerable variance; G. lucidum possess a significantly larger quantity and variety of triterpenes than G. sinense. This is very interesting because G. sinense was, when available, used interchangeably with G. lucidum throughout history due to offering many of the same potential benefits.
From a scientific standpoint, many of these benefits are attributed to the triterpenes of G. lucidum, such as anti-inflammatory, liver-protective and tumour-inhibiting properties, yet G. sinense contains a comparatively lower percentage of these compounds. This is also why G. sinense tastes nowhere near as bitter as G. lucidum, offering a very mild taste by contrast.
That said, Purple Reishi contains a notable amount of the thoroughly well researched Ganoderic Acid A, and some novel terpenoids have been established from ethanol extractions of the fruiting body. Two lanostane triterpenes unique to this species were discovered in 2007, followed by nine new terpenoids that were isolated in 2011. Amongst these compounds, some exhibited anti-cancer mechanisms and others were influential in regulating liver enzymes responsible for the metabolism of toxins, drugs and their safe elimination from the body.
However, G. sinense contains a more dominant presence of β-d-glucans, in particular the complex, branched polysaccharide GSP-6B, which has shown impressive in vitro immune-modulation activity. Other biologically active polysaccharides named GSA and GSW from G. sinense have been analysed via both in vitro and in vivo research and have revealed anti-tumour properties as well as the ability to regulate macrophage activity and even modulate populations of gut microbiota.
According to the system of Chinese medicine, both Purple and Red Reishi were synonymous with the moniker ‘Lingzhi‘. In this context, ling means ‘divine’ and zhi means ‘mushroom’. Both were regarded as supernatural medicines that confer immortality to those who ingested them. However, despite their shared status there were times when the two species needed to be distinguished from one another, and so the name ‘Zizhi‘ was assigned to Purple Reishi, simply meaning ‘sacred purple mushroom’.
It was listed among the six primary types of Ganoderma in the seminal pharmacopoeia of Chinese medicine; the Shennong Ben Cao Jing. In this text it was regarded as one of truly superior medicines and long term use was understood to “make the body light, prevent senility and prolong life so as to make one an immortal.”
It was prescribed to fortify the circulation of qi within the body, it was deeply restorative and could promote radiant vitality. It was commonly used to treat conditions relating to the kidneys and the sense of hearing, it strengthened the bones, joints and connective tissue, and was understood to protect the user on a subtle, spiritual level.
Purple Reishi was understood throughout the ages to be an exceptional aid in the replenishment of spent vitality and deep rejuvenation of the body and mind after exhaustion, burnout, childbirth, sickness and injury. Our energetic storehouse of vitality is known as ‘Jing‘ in Chinese medicine, and this species of Reishi is ranked at the very top of natural medicines that help to restore this vital essence.
It is a tonic to the kidneys, liver and heart, and was traditionally used as a support for meditation and spiritual practice due to the subtle yet profound effect it was believed to have on stabilising the emotional mind. Purple Reishi is one of the genuine treasures of Taoist herbal medicine, and its rarity only magnified its value.
How is it Different from Red Reishi?
As already mentioned the two species are so similar that they were often used interchangeably or one was substituted in the absence of the other. However, as we have seen there are differences such as the overall profile of active constituents, the taste and obviously the colour/appearance.
While both of these majestic organisms are exceptional, well-rounded tonics, Purple Reishi seems to emphasise a deeper restorative quality than its crimson relative. Throughout history G. sinense was always used in favour of G. lucidum in cases of arthritis, weak bones/joints and damage to cartilage and other connective tissue. It was employed as a preventative of these conditions as well as a treatment for them.
In cases of exhaustion and burnout both species were often used, although again, the deeply regenerative qualities of G. sinense would be preferred, if it was available.
Although Purple Reishi was studied and prescribed for more than 2000 years in China, it has yet to receive the abundance of scientific scrutiny that its counterpart Red Reishi has been subject to. From a purely scientific standpoint there is still so much we don’t know about Purple Reishi. The molecular mechanisms of action for some of the potential health benefits outlined in Chinese herbalism are yet to be clarified. There are a growing number of studies being completed though, most of which have been focusing on the immunological benefits so far.
Enhanced Immune Function
An in vitro study assessing the immune-modulating properties of this fungus was conducted by the American Chemical Society in 2012 by Xiao-Qiang Han et al. Aqueous extracts were observed to stimulate macrophages and other dendritic cells which are the ‘sentinels’ of the immune response. These cells help to locate and neutralise antigens through the process of ‘phagocytosis’, where the immune cell literally engulfs the antigen.
Dendritic cells like these are also responsible for releasing cytokines; signalling proteins that raise the alarm by delivering messages to other immune cells and tissues within the body. This same study found that unique polysaccharides from this mushroom could significantly induce the release of IL-1β – a family of cytokines that act as master regulators of inflammation and control a variety of innate immune processes within the body.
Improved efficiency in the activity of Tumor-Necrosis-Factor (TNF) was also observed. TNF is another type of cytokine released by white blood cells that mobilises the immune system in response to the presence of infection. This research shines a light on the potential of G. sinense to recruit immune cells and help to coordinate a healthy immune response on a number of different levels.
At the time of writing, the overwhelming majority of cancer research into G. sinense has been either in vitro, in vivo or a combination of both, but human clinical trials are yet to be completed. The results so far suggest that it may be useful as an adjuvant medicine to offset some of the harmful side effects of conventional treatment.
A study published in 2018 by Li-Feng Li et al, discovered that orally administered β-d-glucan polysaccharides from Purple Reishi significantly reduced the growth of the 4T1 breast cancer cell line in vivo. These compounds also inhibited carcinogenesis (the formation of malignant cells) and by reducing motility of existing tumours, they could inhibit metastasis (the spreading and migration of malignant tissue).
While the chemical compounds within this mushroom didn’t express any direct cytotoxicity to malignant cells, they did produce tumoricidal effects by mobilising a variety of immune cells. For example, increased macrophage activity actuated a number of signalling pathways involved in the recognition and treatment of disease, such as Toll-Like Receptor 4 (TLR4), Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase (MAPK) and Nuclear Factor Kappa B (NF-kB). These pathways are involved in regulating inflammation, apoptosis (programmed cell death) and recognising infections within the body.
In this same study the effects of Purple Reishi on gut microbiota was assessed. Dysbiosis of gut bacteria is a common side effect of many types of cancer, diabetes and morbid obesity. Two strains of advantageous gut bacteria that become severely impacted a result of these conditions are Firmicutes and Bacteroides. The fungal polysaccharides from Purple Reishi were observed to restore a healthy and balanced community of these bacteria, and also act as a prebiotic to Alistipes – a strain that is understood to play a role in suppressing tumour growth.
A novel sterol called Ganodermaside E was isolated from the sporoderm-broken spores of this species in 2019 by Danhong Lian et al. Alongside numerous other known sterols, cytotoxic and anti-metastatic effects were observed against human lung cancer cells in vitro.
A 2017 study published by Yifei Jiang et al found that polysaccharides from Purple Reishi had anti-tumour, anticytopenia and antioxidant properties. This research also found unique compounds that could detoxify certain poisons of fungal origin.
Furthermore, the aqueous extract of this species was approved as an adjuvant therapeutic drug in China by the State Food & Drug Administration, back in 2010. It is prescribed in the treatment of leukopenia (white blood cell deficiency) and hematopoietic injury (damage to blood cell formation) which can affect the spleen, liver and bone marrow. These conditions are common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
As mentioned above, Purple Reishi has a lower overall volume of triterpenes than its red counterpart, yet there have still been a number of unique, biologically active terpenoids discovered in the fruiting body since 2007. Ganoderic Acid Jc for example, showed inhibitory activity against acute myeloid leukaemia cell lines in vitro.
The effect that Purple Reishi polysaccharide compounds can have on regulating inflammation will also contribute towards its long held reputation as being supportive to the bones, joints and connective tissue.
An in vivo study published in 1998 by F Wan et al, showed that G. sinense had pronounced anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects in cases of rheumatoid arthritis as well as reducing related edema, with no noticeable side effects.
The protective and regenerative effects Purple Reishi could offer to the liver were a common reason for prescribing it throughout the ages, according to traditional Chinese medicine. Scientifically speaking, it is often believed that the triterpenes from Red Reishi are primarily responsible for the many advantages to the liver, and Purple Reishi contains only a limited number of triterpenes in comparison.
There are of course many contributing factors towards the ‘entourage effect’ of this medicine – a phenomenon that can be observed through scientific methods, but not yet clearly understood or easily delineated. While the precise mechanisms of action regarding the liver remain unclear, a novel triterpene called Ganolucidate F was discovered in 2011 and was able to regulate the activity of Cytochrome P450 – a liver enzyme responsible for the metabolism of toxins and drugs and their safe detoxification from the body.
Purple Reishi Products
Like the wild mushroom itself, high quality Purple Reishi products are few and far between. As with Red Reishi it is the fruiting body that offers the most complete source of medicine. The most common form Purple Reishi is found in, is either whole dried fruiting bodies or slices of the fruiting bodies. Traditionally these are used to decoct into a tea, added to soups and broths (and removed prior to consumption) or macerated/slow cooked in wine. Pure grade extract powders are not yet available, although some manufacturers are selling liquid extracts of the fruiting body.
Heralded as the medicinal equal to Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) for two millennia, wild Purple Reishi is rarer than ever due to deforestation, and still difficult to find high quality fruiting bodies through proper cultivation methods. Traditional Chinese medicine – Daoist herbalism in particular – has perceived this mushroom as a ‘supernatural medicine’, rare, sacred and potent.
Red Reishi boasts exponentially more scientific data, partly because it has proven easier to obtain, but research into Purple Reishi is ongoing and offering important medical revelations year after year. We have not yet arrived at a place where eastern and western medical traditions can seamlessly interface, as western medicine – although brilliant in many respects – is still in the juvenile stages of maturity and unable to verify or appreciate many of the subtle components of Asian medicine and the emphasis placed on Nature and its dynamic energetic forces.
From the historic perspective of Chinese medical herbalism, Purple Reishi has more than proven its value, not only as a rejuvenating medicine that can strengthen the joints and sinews of the body, but as a protector from infectious diseases and as a support for the emotional mind and human spirit.
Anima of the forest – subject of folklore; Purple Reishi emits an aura of magic and mystery, and perhaps it always will. We can never understand everything there is to know about such complex organisms, but we can mindfully and conscientiously ally ourselves to them, and flourish all the better for it.