Reishi Mushroom – The Great Protector – it’s a lofty title, but one that has been earned through more than two thousand years of documented medical application and many decades of scientific research. As a treasured natural medicine, this species is nothing short of impressive. So make yourself a cup of mushroom tea, get comfortable, and let’s explore the fascinating story of Reishi Mushroom.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is actually one of the most famous and well researched mushrooms in the entire fungal kingdom. The name ‘Reishi’ is actually Japanese and means ‘Mushroom of Immortality’ or ‘Auspicious Mushroom’. However it is deeply established as a medicine in China, where it goes by the name ‘Ling Zhi‘, which translates as ‘Herb of Spiritual Potency’.
Reishi is one of the premier adaptogenic medicines and has been revered as sacred to indigenous healing traditions of Asia for millennia. Documented use dates back approximately 2000 years ago when it was first mentioned in the Chinese herbal medicine classic, the ‘Shennong Bencaojing‘, or the ‘Pharmacopeia of the Heavenly Husbandsman’.
During this time Reishi was not cultivated, so wild specimens were incredibly valuable and were generally consumed by royalty and those considered to be ‘of noble descent’. It was used as a longevity tonic, support for the mind and catalyst of spiritual practice. Wild Reishi is not an aggressive or prolific species and so the rarity only added to its value.
There are a number of different varieties of Ling zhi that were described in the Shennong Bencaojing, each displaying various colours and medicinal uses. There were six varieties listed (red, yellow, blue/green, purple, black & white), which we know understand to be different species of the Ganoderma genus. It was the red variety however (Ganoderma lucidum), that was regarded as the most potent and therapeutically diverse of them all. The Shennong Bencaojing states that:
“Taken over a long period of time, the agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened to those of the Immortal Fairies.”
Ling Zhi was regarded as a talisman for transcendent health and good fortune, and was often depicted as such in traditional Chinese artwork:
Steward of the Forest
Reishi mushroom is a polypore fungus that grows as a bracket on the lower part of tree trunks – in particular certain species of hardwood trees and softwood conifers. In its native habitat it is both parasitic and saprophytic – this means it can infect living trees and over time cause a fungal infection that ultimately leads to the death of the tree.
Once dead, the mushroom then transitions from a parasite to a saprophyte, meaning that it begins to rapidly decompose the dead wood by consuming the lignin fibres that provide cellular structure. Because of this, the tree breaks down very quickly and dense, solid matter is reduced to fine, nutrient-rich humus that enriches the rhizoshpere of the forest, benefitting all species of microorganism, plant and animal, whether directly or indirectly.
This way, Reishi helps to regulate the forest immune system by returning organic matter to the soil and often reducing the threat of injured and diseased trees in the process. Reishi is a steward of the forest that sits atop the hierarchy of its own kingdom – it synthesises many anti-fungal compounds so that other competing species of mushroom are unable to destabilise its presence within the biome. This is one of the many reasons that Reishi possesses such remarkable therapeutic potential, because it harnesses the capacity to eradicate many infections, not only of fungal origin but also viral and bacterial.
Reishi may even hold the key to remediating colony collapse disorder that is decimating bee pollination, biodiversity, and of course agricultural food production. Due to unsafe and unsustainable farming methods, bees have become immunologically weaker and are disappearing at an alarming rate due to parasitic varroa mites that cause viral infections such as the Deformed Wing Virus and the Lake Sinai Virus. Bees have also been observed foraging water from wild Ganoderma fruiting bodies and from exposed mycelium in damaged or fallen trees.
A 2018 study published by mycologist Paul Stamets et al revealed that extracts of certain Ganoderma species administered to infected bees caused a 79-fold reduction in Deformed Wing Virus and a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai Virus compared to control colonies. This speaks volumes about the antiviral potential of the Ganoderma genus.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
For millennia, the six species of Ganoderma mushroom known to Chinese medicine have been classed as ‘superior tonic medicines’. All of them are known to increase vitality and promote longevity, yet each variety fills a specific niche.
- The blue/green Reishi (Qing Zhi) nourishes the liver and as a result can improve the health of the eyes and the sense of sight.
- The yellow variety (Huang Zhi) strengthens the spleen qi, gastric function and oral health.
- The white Reishi (Bai Zhi) boosts qi in the lungs, improves respiratory function and promotes good nasal health.
- Black Reishi (Hei Zhi) fortifies the kidney qi, regulates function of the urinary bladder and sharpens the sense of hearing.
- The purple variety (Zi Zhi) strengthens the bones, joints, muscles and connective tissues, and protects the mind and spirit.
- While each species had its own speciality, it was the red Reishi (Ling Zhi) that was understood to be the most broad and comprehensive medicine of all. It can strengthen the heart and entire cardiovascular system, balance the emotional mind and improve cognition. It was used to protect from pathological forces outside of the body (strengthen immunity) and as a medicine for the respiratory system, as well as a nourishing tonic for the liver and kidneys. The Shennong Bencaojing states that red Reishi has a strong bitter taste with a neutral, slightly warm nature.
It was revered as a superior medicine because it could support a functional balance between the polarised energies of yin and yang, but also because it could build and replenish our vital essence (Jing), regulate the animating force of the body and mind (Qi) and allow the healthy spiritual expression of this healthy body/mind (Shen). This is why it was called the ‘Herb of Spiritual Potency’. Traditionally Reishi was used to increase longevity and improve quality of life.
In opposition to the modern tendency to routinely prescribe medicines according to specific symptoms and conditions, traditional Chinese herbalism utilised Reishi as a medicine for restoring the body and mind on the most fundamental level. By promoting systemic harmony, sickness and the signs of imbalance would recede as overall resilience and vitality increased.
Reishi the Adaptogen
An adaptogen is a natural substance that modulates the metabolism in order to improve our ability to adapt to various kinds of stress. Stress can have many causes and it can affect us on many levels – stress impacts the function of the gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular & immune systems, changes the delicate balance of hormones and the behaviour of the nervous system.
An adaptogen is a rare class of medicines that can help to regulate all of these metabolic components, thereby helping us to adapt to stressful circumstances, and high quality Reishi is ranked as one of the best adaptogens in the world.
Homeostasis is the term we use to define the body & mind when there is a dynamic state of balance between all of these various elements. It’s when everything is functioning harmoniously and radiant health is the result. Adaptogens are simply helping us to respond to stress more efficiently so that we can minimise any collateral damage and return to a healthy state of equilibrium more easily.
Our fight-or-flight response is a very important part of how we respond to stress and a little bit of stress regularly is good – it could even be considered healthy. However, prolonged chronic stress can be very debilitating & cause us to burnout. When we encounter a stressful event, the two physical elements of our metabolism that are immediately involved are the endocrine system & the nervous system.
One of the main ways the body manages stress is through the inter-related functions of the HPA axis (the feedback mechanism between the hypothalamus, pituitary & adrenal glands) and the SAS system (the communication network between the sympathetic nervous system & the adrenal glands).
When we’re stimulated by stress, nerves within the limbic system of the brain activate the hypothalamus to secrete corticotropin-releasing hormone, which signals the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropin hormone. This triggers the adrenals to release stress hormones such as cortisol.
The hypothalamus also activates the sympathetic nervous system which further stimulates the adrenals by making them release adrenaline & noradrenaline into the bloodstream. This combined activity of the HPA axis is what creates the well known fight-or-flight response, which largely determines how we respond to stress.
This whole process requires a lot of energy which is why chronic stress can cause states of fatigue & burnout, because such a large volume of nutrients is being burned for fuel in a short space of time. Long term stress can also produce an excess of free radicals that damage the mitochondria (the engines of our cells). From the perspective of modern medicine, this is why we can feel drained & depleted when we have endured extended periods of stress.
So how does Reishi mushroom play into this? Well, Reishi helps to regulate the activity of the HPA axis; it helps to restore the adrenal glands and positively influence the cardiovascular, nervous & immune systems towards a state of homeostasis. It has a bi-directional effect on many parts of the metabolism.
For example, the immune system can be stimulated in cases of immune-deficiency, but also pacified in cases of hypersensitivity & autoimmunity. This is why Reishi has proven so useful in the treatment of allergies, viral infections and inflammation and as a natural adjuvant when treating various types of cancer.
With two thousand years of recorded use in Asia, Reishi is also one of the most thoroughly researched medicinal mushrooms through the lens of contemporary science. Decades of both in vitro and in vivo studies have gradually corroborated much of the ancient healing wisdom surrounding this species, while many new discoveries have also been made, which includes the adaptogenic mechanisms within the body that Reishi can directly influence.
This research has allowed us to understand the internal chemical structure of this mushroom and to develop advanced cultivation and extraction methods – techniques that pay homage to traditional wisdom while maximising purity and potency. The electron microscope has shown us that there are many important chemical compounds synthesised within the living fruiting body, spores and the fungal mycelia, and collectively they are responsible for a wide range of Reishi’s healing benefits.
Bio-active compounds include proteins, trace elements, sterols, polyphenols, polysaccharides and triterpenes amongst others. Currently more than 100 fungal polysaccharides have been isolated from the fruiting body, many of which are important beta-D-glucans – these constituents are significantly responsible for the beneficial influence this mushroom has on immune cells such as macrophages, lymphocytes and cytokines.
At the time of writing, more than 130 different triterpenoid compounds have been found throughout Reishi fruiting bodies, spores and mycelia, with over 140 triterpene subtypes as well, which include a large assortment of unique Ganoderic acids. These triterpenes have shown remarkable therapeutic properties; antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-allergy, cytotoxic towards malignant cells, hepatoprotective and regulatory towards many cardiovascular functions.
Analysing individual compounds enables us to understand the structure of this fungus and to some degree how it functions as a medicine. However, during treatment and clinical trials, the results can be observed while the mechanism of action within the body is not always clearly understood.
Therefore it seems that the hundreds of different compounds in this mushroom generally function as a collective whole, with complex interdependent relationships that can not be understood through scientific reductionism. This is known as the ‘entourage effect’, where the entire organism and its respective parts conspire to produce the results we observe rather than attributing these results to a single compound, isolating it and then manufacturing a drug from it.
Enhanced Immune Function
The adaptogenic nature of Reishi means it is a ‘biological response modifier’. This means that it mediates the host response, or in more simple terms, it can produce different effects in different people.
For example, in a dose-dependent manner those with depressed immune function will experience a therapeutic stimulation of immune cell activity, while other people with a hyperactive immune system (autoimmunity) can experience a pacifying of certain white blood cells that are dysfunctional and attacking healthy tissue. This means that Reishi has a bi-directional effect on the immune system, potentially causing stimulation of pacification depending on the unique needs of the individual.
Ongoing research is still in the process of uncovering exactly how this is possible, but we do know that Reishi extracts have a modulatory influence on the production and activity of lymphocytes, macrophages and the various cytokines they release.
Reishi’s can also help to treat a number of different allergies. By modulating the complex relationship between histamine and pro-inflammatory cytokines, it can reduce the symptoms of allergy and as already mentioned, help to reset the immune-hypersensitivity of an allergic or autoimmune response.
Reishi is also used in the treatment of viral infections – dual-extracts have shown inhibitory effects towards Hepatitis B and the Herpes Simplex Virus. In 1994, Dr Byong Kak Kim et al conducted virology research at the Pharmaceutical College at Seoul National University in South Korea. In these studies they discovered that extracts of Reishi not only inhibited the replication of the HIV virus in vitro, but also managed to restore the health and function of lymphocytes that had become infected with the virus.
One expanding area of research is the impact Reishi can have on many different types of cancer. While human clinical trials are still gaining momentum, a growing number of in vitro and in vivo studies have been showing that aside from enhancing immune function, Reishi can inhibit the proliferation of malignant cancer cell lines by inducing apoptosis (self destruction of the cell), cause anti-angiogenesis (restrict the blood supply that feeds malignant cells) and increase Natural Killer Cell activity which can eliminate many abnormal or malignant cells.
Laboratory testing has shown promising results in the treatment of prostate, endometrial, ovarian, breast, lung, and colon cancers, as well as leukaemia. While the results are often clear, the mechanism of action is not always fully understood and requires further experimentation.
As already stated, the majority of testing has so far been laboratory-based, and the human clinical trials that have taken place have mostly confirmed Reishi’s chemo-protective function; its ability to sensitise malignant cells to chemotherapy and radiation treatment while helping to protect the integrity off healthy cells and minimise the systemic damage, nausea and exhaustion that accompanies this conventional approach. This is why Reishi extracts are often used as an adjuvant cancer medicine rather than a single approach to treatment.
The high antioxidant content of this mushroom plays a significant role in its hepatoprotective effects. Both Reishi polysaccharides and especially triterpenes have been shown through numerous studies to stimulate the natural restoration processes of the liver.
Some studies have revealed that Reishi extracts can offer considerable benefit in cases of chronic hepatitis B, where the liver becomes inflamed and scarred, eventually leading to cirrhosis. Reishi is effective here firstly because of its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, but also because of the complex mechanisms of liver regeneration that it stimulates.
Various constituents from this species have been tested within these parameters, such as Ganoderic Acid A which performed extremely well in the treatment of fatty liver disease. By inhibiting associated enzymes such as alanine aminotransferase, aspartate transferase and beta-glucoronidase (all biomarkers for liver damage when elevated), as well as regulating levels of serum bilirubin, triglycerides and cholesterol, Ganoderic Acid A was shown to significantly attenuate causal factors associated with fatty liver disease.
Cardiovascular Health & Diabetes
Two main factors in understanding Reishi’s potential cardiovascular benefits are that it is able to regulate blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels. It is particularly active in cases of elevated blood pressure/cholesterol, helping to reduce both to within a safe and ‘normal’ range. It still isn’t fully understood exactly how this works, but many of the fungal triterpenes are believed to play a predominant role.
One human clinical trial conducted by J Tao and K Y Feng in China, found that hot water extracts of Reishi inhibited platelet aggregation in patients with atherosclerotic diseases.
Diabetic cardiomyopathy (DCM) has also responded positively to Reishi. DCM is a disorder of the heart muscle in people with diabetes, where the heart becomes inefficient at circulating blood throughout the body. This condition arises from the dysfunction of the mTOR signalling pathway – a regulator of the metabolic state of our cells. Reishi extracts have proven to modulate the mTOR pathway, helping to regulate cellular metabolism and inhibit the development of DCM.
Hot water extracts of Reishi can also increase insulin sensitivity and in doing so help to reduce serum glucose levels. Extracts can help to regulate certain enzymes related to the metabolic process of gluconeogenesis, helping to restore a healthy blood sugar balance and consequently reducing oxidative damage. The research into Reishi as a potential medicine for heart disease and diabetes type 2 is ongoing.
Not unlike the Cordyceps mushroom, Reishi is able to increase the oxygen-absorbing capacity of the alveoli at the end of the bronchioles. Its anti-inflammatory properties can be of particular use in cases of asthma and chronic bronchitis.
One study from 2015 discovered that Ganoderic Acid C1 had an anti-inflammatory effect against TNF-a associated asthma. TNF-a is a pro-inflammatory cytokine that constricts the airways during an asthmatic episode, and Ganoderic Acid C1 achieved these results by suppressing activity of AP1, MAPK and NF-kB – all of which are pro-inflammatory signalling pathways inherent to this illness.
This ability to dilate the airways and improve alveolar gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide also contributes heavily to the anti-fatigue benefits of this mushroom. The more efficient oxygenation of the blood and removal of carbon dioxide promotes the manufacture of Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP (the energy used by our cells). This reduces tiredness and increases focus and stamina. Naturally, this also corresponds to the influence Reishi can have on our cognitive function…
Cognitive Enhancement & Nerve Regeneration
Two studies were published in 2020, one focusing on the therapeutic potential of Reishi triterpenes in the treatment of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and the other looking at hot water extracts (rich in beta-glucans & polyphenols) and their role in ameliorating the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation to the brain and body.
These two studies – both a combination of in vivo and in vitro research – showed that Reishi can act as a homeostatic regulator of neuro-endocrine, cardiovascular and immune systems as well as modulating gene expression.
Both studies focused primarily on the function of the limbic system – a mechanism within the brain that deals with emotion and memory. More specifically these tests analysed the activity off the hippocampus – a complex brain structure within the frontal lobe that is central to the healthy functioning of the limbic system. Hippocampal activity becomes impaired and begins to degenerate in cases of Alzheimer’s disease and oxygen deprivation.
The studies found that in a dose-dependent manner, Reishi extracts are able to inhibit deterioration and ultimately the destruction of nerve cells within the hippocampus as well as repairing and recovering the structural integrity of damaged neurons. This increases synaptic transmission and the corresponding cognition that accompanies a high functioning limbic system. For a complete breakdown of these benefits, read The Neuro-Protective Properties of Reishi Mushroom.
There are now an enormity of Reishi products available, from whole dried fruiting bodies to slices, powders, extracts, tinctures, oils, formulated tea and coffee and even chocolates. Some of these are more of a novelty than legitimately medicinal, but even the more ‘serious’ products are routinely poor quality with a huge emphasis on marketing and minimal effort applied to the actual product. The supplement industry can be incredibly misleading, and unfortunately most of the Reishi products available are a far cry from what we are expecting.
There are many stages to creating a superior, effective Reishi product. If quality and effectiveness are priorities, completing these stages will ensure an excellent result. Most producers are more concerned with creating the cheapest possible product with the maximum return on investment though. As long as it carries the name ‘Reishi’ it will be associated with everything we have discussed so far right? Sadly this is a common assumption, but if we are to see beyond the marketing and discern exactly what constitutes a great product, we must understand the stages involved in production, from start to finish.
The biologically active chemicals in Reishi do not develop properly until the mycelium reaches the reproduction stage of its life cycle and the fruiting body emerges to propagate the next generation. The fruiting body is what has always been used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the overwhelming majority of scientific research. The mycelium itself is of limited therapeutic value but the fruiting body, if grown properly, is the ultimate source of this diverse medicine.
At the pinnacle of the reproduction phase, the fruiting body sporulates – it releases spores that will germinate and create the next generation of mycelium. The spores are also highly medicinal, although they primarily contain triterpenes more than any other compounds. Triterpenes are oily which is why they are not water-soluble. Like un-extracted mushroom powder, the spores are also of little value unless they are cracked open under extreme pressure or through ultrasonic frequencies fracturing the sporoderm (the cell wall of the spore).
Methods of Cultivation
Wild specimens of Reishi can be excellent quality, but they can also make low potency medicines as well. This is because the growing environment is all-important. If a wild mushroom is growing in a pristine location, free from contamination and supported with rich biodiversity, then the medicine will be very good.
However, the countless variables involved can vary immensely in a wild setting. Many native ecosystems are routinely contaminated by industry or by insect infestations that burrow into the mushroom and lay their eggs. Therefore the provenance is absolutely fundamental to the purity and effectiveness of the medicine. The quality of wild Reishi (or any wild medicine) can range from sublime to awful, precisely because of these variables.
Thankfully, cultivation methods have evolved a great deal throughout the last century. It is now possible to grow Reishi in such a manner that it mimics the very best quality wild specimens, in a controlled environment where the variables are closely monitored and only the most therapeutically potent strains are used. This means that the quality and medicinal efficacy of each batch is consistent and reliable.
- Currently there are four main ways that Reishi is cultivated:
- Large Log Cultivation: This is done using sections of tree trunk from species that Reishi grows on in the wild – typically fir trees. The trees should be at least three decades old before harvesting for Reishi growth and have come from mountain elevations of at least 1500 meters. The logs should be approximately 30cm in diameter, inoculated with Reishi spawn and then immersed within humus-rich soil. This way the mushroom mycelium will have an abundance of nutrients to feed upon, and produce larger, therapeutically more potent fruiting bodies.
- Small log cultivation: This method uses small branches rather than sections of the trunk. The branches are often from younger trees and offer limited nutrients to the developing fungi. This produces much smaller fruiting bodies that have a shorter growth cycle, making them much quicker and cheaper to produce, but also less medicinally useful.
- Grow Bag Cultivation: Plastic bags and/or bottles are filled with wood chips, saw dust or the fibrous pulp from corn, sugar cane or sorghum production. This substrate is inoculated and small fruit bodies are produced, but due to the limited nutrients the potency is questionable and the triterpene level is especially low. This is an even cheaper and faster method than small log cultivation, so the majority of Reishi fruiting body extracts, powders or dried mushrooms on the market are produced this way. This is also why most products do not show percentages for triterpenes, because there are hardly any.
- Liquid Fermentation: The fourth cultivation method is through liquid fermentation of the mycelia. This involves submerging the mycelia in a liquid substrate which is important for certain species that have unique and important compounds in the mycelia alone such as Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) or Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis). It is easy to control all of the variables and to guarantee no contamination or excipients in the finished product, but the mycelia are unable to mature into the fruiting stage in this environment. As already mentioned, the medicinally important constituents in Reishi don’t develop fully until the fruiting body emerges, which is why the highest concentration of these compounds is found within the fruiting body and the spores that it produces. Fruiting body development takes time though, so this is the quickest and cheapest cultivation method overall, but with the lowest therapeutic value.
Di Tao Cultivation
The only way that large log cultivation can be improved upon is Di Tao cultivation. In specific mountain regions of the north east and south east of China, Reishi has been wild-harvested for medicinal purposes for millennia, and has been cultivated for longer than anywhere else in the world. At high elevations, far from the contamination of industry and civilisation, such places are known to produce the best quality Reishi in the world. It is for this reason that these areas have been legally protected for centuries.
‘Di Tao’ literally means ‘authentic method’ or ‘from the source’. Di Tao cannot be imitated, simply because it is unique to its geographical location. Ideally, Di Tao cultivated Reishi would be wild-simulated, meaning that it is grown from a wild strain that is medicinally very potent, but also grown in conditions that simulate its native, wild environment.
This means cultivating the mushrooms in the same pristine mountain forests that wild Reishi grows in. This way, the fungi are grown on the same wood from the same forest, immersed in exactly the same soil, the same symbiotic micro-organisms are present, the weather is the same, the same water irrigates the cultivated mushrooms as it does the wild specimens etc. As the mushrooms mature and their medicinal potency is climaxing they are harvested, and the finest quality fruiting bodies are selected to sporulate the subsequent generation.
Crop rotation is also important – Reishi should not be grown in the same place for more than two years, after which point the area needs to be naturally replenished with nutritious mulch and allowed to recover. In Di Tao cultivation there a number of growing locations so that when one of them is allowed to rest and regenerate, it can do so for many years before hosting another generation of Reishi cultivation. Not only does this ensure the richest possible growing environment, but it also promotes local biodiversity – the whole process should not take more from the land than it gives back.
Extracting the Fruiting Body
Fungal cells are called ‘hyphae’ and their cell walls are structured from a tough, fibrous polysaccharide known as ‘chitin’. Chitin is also what the exoskeletons of many crustaceans and insects are made from, as well as the beaks of cephalopods like the octopus and squid. This is why consuming mushrooms raw – as food or as a powder – is not ideal. Imagine eating and properly digesting crab shells… not so easy!
This is because most humans are considerably deficient in chitinase – the enzyme responsible for breaking down and digesting chitin. When we consume most mushrooms raw, the nutritional and medicinal compounds are essentially imprisoned within the chitin, passing right through us and out the other end with minimal (or no) benefit.
Chitin can be broken down through exposure to sufficient heat though, which is why cooking mushrooms is what makes the nutrients imprisoned within the cell walls bioavailable and therapeutically beneficial. Likewise, if we extract mushroom material into a liquid solvent and apply heat, we can liberate the medicinal substances from the fibre and access the benefits they provide.
The complete range of compounds in Reishi are soluble in two different liquid solvents: hot water and strong alcohol, such as ethanol. The polysaccharides/beta-glucans and polyphenols are all water-soluble, while the wide range of triterpenes are generally all alcohol-soluble. This means that a dual-extract needs to be performed – the mushroom must be extracted into both hot water and ethanol to yield everything of medicinal value.
Reishi Extract Powder
Once the mature fruiting body has been harvested, it should be washed to clear any residual impurities, then dried, and finally pulverised into a fine grain powder. This creates maximum surface area and the extraction will be exponentially stronger as a result.
The mushroom powder then needs to be added to purified water. The volume of water will depend on the volume of powder, but the hot water decoction should be completed inside a pressurised container, simmering below 100°c. The pressurised environment is necessary in order to inhibit the denaturing of the water-soluble compounds being extracted. Once completed, the water extract should be filtered from the powder and more water should be added for another decoction. In total, this process should be carried out three separate times and finally combined.
Next, with the filtrate from the hot water extraction removed, the powder must be macerated in ethanol and again, this process must be completed and repeated three times. Once all alcohol-soluble compounds have been captured by the ethanol, the filtrate is once again separated from the mushroom material.
We now have two different liquid extracts containing everything of medicinal value from the original mushroom. The liquids (water and ethanol) are both precipitated from the extracts so that all of the nutrients and beneficial compounds are contained within the rich, concentrated solid substance that remains.
The next stage involves transforming this concentrate into a very fine, dry powder, which requires spray-freeze-drying. Low temperature drying is ideal because it preserves the structure and potency of the extract. Once totally dry, the extract is again filtered through a very fine mesh sieve.
Before the extract is sealed in airtight containers ready for sale, a sample should be taken for testing; testing firstly to ensure there are no contaminants, and secondly for the presence of the biologically active compounds that should have been captured via the extraction procedures.
Are All Extract Powders Made This Way?
If the aforementioned steps of cultivation and extraction are followed, the resulting extract is likely to be excellent quality, but the overwhelming majority of products on the market are not made this way. As it’s low cost and so much quicker, most fruiting body products are cultivated with grow bags full of wood pulp rather than on large, submerged logs, and very few are grown organically. Even fewer adhere to the principles of Di Tao.
Most Reishi powders that are sold are not even extracts; they are just dried fruiting bodies that have been ground into powder. Not only are they very low in nutrients and beneficial compounds, but the chitinous cell walls of the mushroom are still intact. Without decocting it into a tea, making a tincture or doing both, powder like this has very low therapeutic utility.
Of the genuine extract powders, most are not dual-extracts but are simply hot water extracts alone. They may contain some of the beneficial polysaccharides and polyphenols, but none of the important triterpenoid compounds will be present. These extracts are often produced from Reishi cultivated on small logs or in grow bags, which are already low in triterpenes.
Many of the dual-extracts on the market are created in a single step process that combines hot water and ethanol together rather than performing these two extractions separately. Not only is this a poor, inefficient way of obtaining these compounds, but the single step process means that much of the medicine is discarded. This is wasteful and yields a mediocre product at best, but it is quick and cheap from start to finish. More emphasis is placed on marketing while the product itself is the lowest priority. This constitutes a large percentage of the Reishi products on the market.
As the mushroom supplement industry rapidly expands, very few of the existing brands are willing to test their Reishi powder for the biologically active compounds we have discussed. In many cases, if the products were tested the results would probably be underwhelming due to the lack of diligence in cultivation and extraction. Testing for polysaccharides (especially beta-glucans) and for polyphenols and triterpenes is how we know how good an extract powder really is.
Some extract powders are now tested for polysaccharides which is an improvement upon no testing at all, but this is still insufficient and largely misleading. Firstly, if the mushrooms are cultivated on grain, this can influence the polysaccharide content of the extract. Perhaps even more important is the presence of fillers and excipients like dextrose and maltodextrin, which are added as free-flowing agents to stop the powder from clumping together.
If the extract is created and stored properly, these additives are largely unnecessary, but we need to be aware that they are also simple polysaccharides. Sure, their inclusion may stop some minor lumps from forming in the powder, but it also creates a ‘false positive’ reading.
Polysaccharides from mushrooms – beta-glucans 1>3 and 1>6 for example – are wildly different to excipients like dextrose. Dextrose is a simple sugar with a sweet flavour and no medicinal properties. Reishi-specific beta-glucans on the other hand are complex, branched, long chain polysaccharides with a vast assortment of impressive benefits. The combination of these complex beta-glucans and especially the triterpenes, result in an intensely bitter extract. A very simple test is: if it isn’t extremely bitter, it definitely isn’t any good.
When choosing a Reishi extract powder we need to make sure of these things:
- It is cultivated on large wooden logs
- It is Certified Organic (Di Tao if possible)
- It is a multi-step dual-extract (extracts repeated & performed separately)
- It is spray-freeze dried
- There are no excipients/fillers/additives
- It is tested for contaminants/pathogens
- It is tested for important compounds (beta-glucans, triterpenes, polyphenols etc)
- It is a rich, dark brown colour
- It has an intense bitter taste
Tinctures are concentrated extracts made by macerating the mushroom powder in ethanol and then decocting in hot water separately. Thus is a method that has been practiced for a very long time in traditional medical systems. It is actually very similar to the first stages of creating the extract powder, but after the liquid extracts have been combined they are not spray dried.
Rather than repeating the ethanol extraction, it can be performed only once, but should take between 6 to 8 weeks to complete. The potency of the extract is measured by a concentration ratio. For example, a 1:2 ratio is very strong and indicates that the extract is made from one part mushroom material to two parts liquid. Alternatively it can be weaker, such as a 1:4 extract where one part mushroom material is macerated in four parts liquid. As the dried powder is measured by weight and the liquid is measured by volume, a 1:2 ratio would typically consist of 500g of dried mushroom to every litre of ethanol.
Once strained the remaining mushroom powder is decocted in purified hot water, inside a pressurised container so that the extracted water-soluble compounds remain intact and bioavailable. This step should take 3 hours and can be strained and repeated until everything of medicinal value has been captured.
However, as the water heats up its volume will reduce. The alcohol volume of ethanol is usually about 96%, and if the abv (alcohol-by-volume) of the finished extract is going to be 40% for example, then the combination of water to alcohol extracts should be approximately 60%-40% respectively.
Once the two extracts are combined they are filtered and sealed in airtight bottle, preferably glass that is impermeable to ultraviolet light. This way, the integrity of the extract is protected, resulting in a more durable potency.
Reishi Spore Oil
Reishi spore oil is a relatively new product as it was not possible to extract the oil until the last couple of decades. It is the most expensive of all the Reishi products because it is so resource intensive and time-consuming to produce. It takes roughly 100kg of dried fruiting bodies to yield a single kilo of spores, and it takes 20kg of cell-broken spores to produce a single kilo of spore oil.It can be an incredibly potent extract if created thoroughly, and conscientious cultivation/manufacture can also make this a totally sustainable product.
The spore oil is incredibly rich in ganoderic acids and other triterpenes. Triterpenes themselves have an oily nature which is why extract powders can not contain the highest possible concentration of them. In the spore oil however, these terpenoid compounds are in there chosen environment, so the spore oil can contain up to 8 times more triterpenes than a dual-extract powder. Due to the medium of oil though, this extract does not contain a substantial quantity of beta-glucans as they are of course water-soluble.
The high potency of spore oil makes it very suitable for those in need of the specific benefits of Reishi triterpenes though, in particular the anti-inflammatory, antiviral, liver-protective, chemo-protective and neuro-protective properties.
As with all extracts though, spore oil can either be produced with integrity, placing full emphasis on the quality of the finished product, or it can be made by cutting corners, resulting in a low grade oil that does not showcase the full potential of this concentrated medicine.
When creating the spore oil, the microscopic sporoderm is first broken. This can be achieved by emitting ultrasonic frequencies in a refrigerated environment, which agitates the sporoderm while the low temperature ensures the oil remains intact. The oil is then extracted using the Supercritical CO2 extraction method. This is a very safe and consistently effective way to extract the medicinal compounds required, while leaving all of the cell structure behind.
The extraction chamber is filled with cell-broken spores and carbon dioxide gas. The temperature and pressure are adjusted so that the gas enters what is known as a ‘supercritical state’. At 31.1°C and 1071 psi, the gas has properties of both gas and liquid. The ‘supercritical liquid’ is able to literally pass through the spore material and capture and dissolve the medicinal compounds/oil.
The supercritical liquid then enters a decompression chamber where the CO2 and the spore oil are separated – the pure CO2 gas ascends and re-enters its original tank and can be re-used, making this a very sustainable process. Meanwhile, the newly extracted spore oil is collected and ready for use.
As long as this process is followed stringently, and the spores have been collected from the highest quality fruiting bodies, the resulting oil will be a rich source of medicine. However, some spore oil products have been found to contain additives such as other oils, to have turned rancid and even contaminated with mushroom mycelium. Oil additives are simply to ‘thin out’ the product, make it stretch further and act as a preservative. Any contaminants or rancidity will simply be down to poor hygiene and containment.
The dominant presence of triterpenes should result in a bitter tasting oil which crystallises easily in low temperatures. Products that don’t taste bitter and remain as a liquid even in cold temperatures are often blended with carrier oils, so the quality is correspondingly poorer.
When held to the highest standards though, Reishi spore oil can be a formidable medicine. Aside from the wealth of research into the benefits of triterpenes from this species, in vivo research has concluded that orally ingested spore oil reduced genetic expression associated with heart failure. From a number of different standpoints, the spore oil exhibited significant cardio-protective capabilities.
Other in vitro and in vivo studies determined the spore oil (from cell-broken spores extracted via the Supercritical CO2 method) held genuine potential as an anti-tumour agent. Triterpenes found within the oil (Ganoderic Acid T in particular) markedly inhibited the proliferation of a highly metastatic lung cancer cell line by apoptosis induction and cell cycle arrest. A separate study found that the spore oil inhibited the growth of MDA-MB-231 breast tumor cells in vivo by inducing apoptosis.
The Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China recommends 6 to 12 g reishi extract daily. However, it doesn’t state which form the mushroom is taken (extract powder, tincture, spore oil or whole dried mushroom). Some clinical trials of hot water extracts have settled on 5.4g as a daily average for healthy individuals, but again, this is only one form of Reishi (and not a dual-extract). General recommendations like these can often be unclear and confusing.
Extracts can be various strengths and the more concentrated an extract is, the lower the standard dose will need to be. Nyishar Reishi Paragon for example, is a high potency dual-extract powder with a significant percentage of active compounds and therefore doesn’t require a large dose; between 2 and 4 capsules (600mg – 1.2g) per day is ample for health maintenance purposes. A larger dose is of course safe and indeed necessary if specific health challenges are being addressed, but increasing the dose incrementally is always advised and should be done under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
Tinctures made at a maximum concentration of 1:2 can be taken by holding the liquid in the mouth for 60 to 90 seconds before swallowing. The standard daily dose ranges between one and two full droppers (30 – 60 drops). One again, the dosage can be adjusted according to personal needs, but should be done gently and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Reishi spore oil is of course incredibly concentrated and also does not require a large dose, especially if used for maintaining health. A daily dose of between 500mg – 1g is the basic range, although again, if circumstances demand it the dosage can be increased incrementally, as part of a strategy designed by a healthcare advisor.
One 2016 in vivo study examining the anti-tumour effects of Reishi spore oil on rodents, found maximum inhibitory rates when administering between 1.2g and 4g per kilo of body weight daily. This is an enormous dose and the subjects were of course rodents and not humans, but no toxicity was observed. Although this dose is not generally recommended at all, the point here is that it is quite safe to gently increase the dose beyond 500mg – 1g per day if necessary.
While not very common, there are occasionally reports of side effects and certainly some possible contraindications to be aware of when using Reishi products, so let’s have a look at that…
Contraindications & Side Effects
As an adaptogen with 2000 years of recorded use, Reishi mushroom is generally recognised as very safe and suitable for most people. In the majority of cases it is typically safe to consume this mushroom regularly as an extract powder, tea, tincture or spore oil, even at high doses.
However, some possible side effects have been reported in people that are dosing within a normal range between 1.5g and 9g of dried powder daily. However, it has not been specified if this is just dried powder (un-extracted), single-extract powder (hot water extract), dual-extract powder, nor were the cultivation methods elucidated.
The actual quality of Reishi being consumed at that dose has not been reported at all, which as we have seen is crucially important. Most Reishi products available are of very low quality after all, which could be a strong contributing factor towards any side effects. Any pre-existing conditions in people reporting these side effects are also unclear. That said, at the aforementioned doses some individuals have claimed to experience a dry mouth/nose, indigestion and a mild skin rash.
Contraindications are also mostly precautionary as there is not an abundance of information available in regards to Reishi seriously interfering with pharmaceutical medication. Nonetheless it is important to be aware that if you are prescribed drugs for blood pressure (high or low), are taking diabetic/blood sugar medication or are using immune-suppressant drugs, anticoagulants (blood thinners) and/or recently received an organ transplant, there is a possibility that a high potency Reishi extract could interfere with the medication.
Visually beautiful, steeped in folklore and a superior natural medicine documented for two millennia – Reishi mushroom is, in no uncertain terms, legendary. Chinese medicine and other healing traditions from Asia and Europe have understood with growing complexity that this fungus can recalibrate the human organism. It can positively influence imbalances of body and mind, guiding the patient towards a state of systemic equilibrium.
All of the contemporary scientific research regarding Ganoderma lucidum is very detailed and concerned primarily with occurrences on the molecular level; the bioactive chemicals Reishi is comprised of and how it affects humans and animals on a cellular level. This knowledge is imperative if we are to appreciate the full capacity of this species in modern times.
However, these findings mean very little if they are not framed within a larger, holistic context. Across a much larger time frame we can understand that many scientific discoveries are gradually corroborating much of the ancient wisdom that was medically established so long ago. Traditional medicinal systems were more concerned with the dynamic forces of nature and developing medical principles that could be adhered to, helping patients and practitioners to exist harmoniously within their native ecosystem.
By its nature, indigenous medicine was not reductionist but more focused on transcending the perceived separation between the body, mind, subtle energies of the organism and the influence of the surrounding environment. This is why Reishi was categorised as a truly superior tonic medicine so long ago, because it was understood to facilitate homeostatic balance – a process of the body/mind that becomes destabilised from poor living habits, stress and an unsupportive environment.
Reishi has an observable effect on the molecular level of course, although traditional wisdom perceived this not as a direct action, but as a natural consequence of collectively shifting the human organism towards a state of complete health.
For example, when we read studies that talk about Ganoderic Acids inhibiting liver degeneration, we can also appreciate that this mushroom was registered in the Shennong Bancaojing herbal pharmacopoeia as a nourishing tonic to the liver over 2000 years ago, a long, long time before the electron microscope enabled us to witness the existence of Ganoderic Acids.
It is not just a single triterpene that is responsible for benefitting the liver, but a complex interdependence between the hundreds of pharmacologically active constituents produced within the whole fruiting body. This ‘entourage effect’ is clear to observe but as of yet, science is unable to clearly delineate or replicate it.
As we have seen however, all of the historic claims and current medical research mean very little if we ignore the wisdom surrounding natural cultivation and optimal extraction methods. It is folly to conflate the potential benefits of Reishi with low grade, low cost, poorly extracted products. Unfortunately this is the majority of Reishi supplements on the market today, where over-emphasised marketing is used as a mask for mediocre and therapeutically useless products to hide behind. It is more merchandise than medicine.
If we want to experience the health-promoting qualities of Reishi mushroom, we must appreciate exactly how this medicine is produced, from cultivation to industrial extraction. This majestic species is able to prevent and positively respond to many diseases of modern civilisation, but only if diligence is applied and quality is the absolute priority.