Reishi: Benefits, Uses, and History

It’s hard not to be intrigued by something that’s known as the “mushroom of immortality”. That’s a fairly big boast from such a normal seeming fungus. But while it may not grant everlasting life, reishi, the purported mushroom of immortality, has been a mainstay of Eastern medicine for over 2,000 years.

Reishi, known to the Chinese as Ling Zhi, has long been popular for its healing properties. Known by the scientific name Ganoderma lingzhi, the benefits of reishi are among the best known of any medicinal mushrooms. Linked to an improved immune system as well as overall wellness, there are many reasons to consider reishi.

If you’re interested in introducing reishi to your routine, this guide can tell you everything you need to know about this popular mushroom. While immortality may be beyond reach, it could still potentially lead to an improvement in your health.

What is reishi?

With a large red cap fanning in a distinctive curved shape from hardwood stumps, the reishi is a visually appealing form of fungus. It’s been found growing across Europe, Asia, and North America, but is perhaps best known in China. In Asia, reishi has a long observed history as a medicinal mushroom. 

Reishi is a form of polypore, or bracket, fungus. It belongs to the genus Ganoderma, a mushroom with over 80 species, many of which are used in Asian medicine. While the distinctive cap is the most common variation, in some conditions the reishi grows without the cap, instead resembling antlers.

Despite growing widespread across the globe, reishi remains an elusive mushroom. It favors warmer climates, but can be found from the tropical to the temperate. Preferring to grow in deciduous trees, it particularly likes the wood of the maple. However, out of 10,000 mature trees, the reishi can only be found on roughly 2 to 3. For that reason, it’s regularly cultivated. Cultivated reishi can grow even on sawdust. 

For centuries, reishi has been consumed to benefit health. In Taoism, reishi has been ingested to boost the Qi, strengthen the center, and sharpen wit. It’s associated with several Taoist deities.

Even in the West, reishi is a commonly found supplement that’s used to boost the immune system and improve wellness. The effect it may have on cancer is also being studied, as are other potential benefits.

What are the benefits of reishi?

Within the reishi mushroom there are several molecules that are suspected to lead to health benefits. Reishi contains polysaccharides, particularly beta-glucans, triterpenoids, and peptidoglycans. Due to the long usage of reishi, it’s one of the most widely studied of the medicinal mushrooms. Therefore, certain benefits of the mushroom have been documented.

While Chinese medicine may have used the reishi to supplement the Qi, we can see that it does have benefits for the human immune system. The immune system is a vital part of a healthy body, as it fights off infections and illnesses. As we age, our immune system begins to deteriorate, but this can also be brought on by a number of other factors, including lifestyle.

Reishi can give the immune system some extra support, to improve function.

Reishi has been shown to increase the activity of a type of white blood cell known as a natural killer cell. These cells are effectively designed to fight off infections that occur in the body. Another study has shown that ingesting reishi can increase the function of white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are known for their infection and cancer fighting properties.

For the most part, these effects have been observed in those who are already ill. Reishi doesn’t produce the same level of immunity boosting in those who are healthy. However, in a test where athletes in stressful situations were given reishi, they also reported an increase in lymphocyte function.

While it may not have the same effect on those who are already healthy, reishi can still be beneficial for the immune system.

Another benefit of reishi is the effect that it has on the mind. Some choose to consume reishi to fight fatigue and depression, as well as alleviate anxiety and stress. Conditions such as stress can sometimes seem to be an unavoidable part of life, but heavy or consistent stress can have a serious negative effect on the function of the body. Beyond this, stress simply degrades the quality of life. Studies have shown that taking a reishi supplement can help produce a healthy stress response. It’s also been shown to reduce fatigue, and even ease symptoms of depression.

The effect of reishi on cancer is a benefit that’s being investigated. This is due to the effect that reishi has on white blood cells in the immune system. These cells are a vital part of fighting off cancer, and reishi can potentially increase their function.

Studies have shown that the effect reishi has on the hormone testosterone may be able to fight prostate cancer. There are also studies that link reishi to the prevention of colorectal cancer. In the long intestine, cancerous tumors have decreased in size and amount in tests using reishi.

While these are the most studied benefits of reishi, others report that taking reishi has improved their heart health, improved energy, and even has anti-aging properties. 

Unfortunately, there’s no proof that reishi has led to immortality for anyone. The mushroom of immortality may be an exaggeration, but there is definitely evidence that reishi can benefit the body.

What are the uses of reishi?

Reishi is used to boost the immune system, improve mental health, and as a support for general wellness. One of its major uses is among cancer patients, as it can promote a healthy function of natural killer white blood cells.

As reishi is so difficult to find in the wild, it’s often cultivated for medicinal use. Reishi can be successfully grown on hardwood logs, wood chips, and even sawdust. Once it’s fully grown, reishi is harvested and dried. From here, it’s often turned into powders and capsules.

In traditional folk medicine, reishi was often brewed into a sort of tea. The fungus has a naturally bitter taste, which makes it not particularly pleasant to eat. Instead, reishi would be thinly sliced or pulverized. This would then be brewed in boiling water and left to simmer for upwards of two hours. The end result would be a dark and bitter drink. The process might then be repeated for a greater concentration.

Nowadays, the common choice is to consume reishi through capsules or powders. These are much easier to fit into a daily lifestyle, and are significantly more pleasant to consume. Capsules can be taken on their own or alongside other supplements. These may be formulated to target the immune system, or to remove stress. 

Reishi can also be purchased in teas. While traditional reishi tea was incredibly bitter and unpleasant, these teas tend to have a more earthy flavor. The anxiety relieving effects of the reishi can be supported by the calming effect a mug of hot tea often has on the body and the mind. It can also be founded alongside cocoa, where the earthy tastes complement the sweetness of chocolate.

Powder forms of reishi are another popular way to incorporate reishi into an everyday lifestyle. These can be blended up into smoothies or alongside protein drinks. Commonly, these reishi supplements are taken as a wellness booster.

The combined effects of strengthening the immune system and alleviating stress is what makes reishi so popular. It can also potentially reduce fatigue, which is why many take reishi as part of their morning routine.

Another primary use is cancer treatment. While reishi isn’t a replacement for other forms of cancer care, it can be used alongside. Cancer patients may choose to consume reishi to improve the function of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Cancer patients may also appreciate the healthy stress response that’s associated with reishi.

Reishi is mostly used as an alternative treatment, but the results are mixed. Reishi is often combined with other forms of powdered mushrooms or herbs. This is done to enhance one specific property of the fungus. 

The mushroom itself can be consumed, but there are a few disadvantages to this. The main one is the taste. As mentioned, reishi has a strong bitter flavoring that very few find enjoyable. Even though it is an edible fungus, it isn’t a particularly nice one.

The mushrooms are also much harder to source, and anyone interested would need to seek out specialist stores (and potentially head to China). Finally, it’s much harder to control the dosage when consuming the whole mushroom. All things considered, a supplement is an easier choice.

The dosage amount of reishi will depend on what form you’re taking it in. Different supplements will contain a higher concentration than others. Always read the label before taking a supplement to make sure it’s safe for your consumption, and you’re using it correctly.

Potential side effects of reishi

One of the main issues with reishi is the confusion over what type is being consumed. Reishi is a species of the genus Ganoderma, one of roughly 80. Due to similarities in naming, supplements with less regulation may contain other forms of Ganoderma. While this is unlikely to be harmful, it does mean you aren’t always getting what you paid for. Be careful to only buy from trusted sellers.

Side effects of taking reishi are minor, although it has been linked in some cases to liver problems. Side effects can be an upset stomach or mild nausea. Always be careful when taking a new supplement, especially if for those taking other medications. Consult with your doctor if you’re unsure.

Anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding is recommended to avoid reishi. Also, those with low blood pressure, those with blood disorders, or anyone about to undergo surgery.

What is the history of reishi?

If you found yourself in China during the Eastern Han Dynasty, to locate reishi (known as Ling Zhi in China) you may have had to ask an immortal for guidance. This mushroom was supposed to revive the dead and grant immortality, and if consumed regularly a person’s health would be so great they may live forever.

Reishi has long been known for its healing properties, and was especially revered in Taoism. Due to the supposed life-giving benefits, reishi was often depicted alongside the Gods in art forms.

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, pictures of the reishi could be found adorning the walls. The same can be seen in the majestic Summer Palace. The reishi, with its association with longevity, soon became a symbol of luck that many wished to associate themselves with.

One of the primary reasons for consuming reishi was in promoting the Qi. The Qi refers to the life force that can be found in every person. Qi is considered in Taoism to be the force that guides the world itself. Qi is described as running through us all, and a healthy and balanced Qi leads to a better life. By eating reishi, the negative vapors of earth were absorbed, leaving behind the heavenly.

Reishi does not grow abundantly. Despite preferring to grow on mature hardwoods, only a small amount of suitable trees will ever have reishi growing across them. That meant for a long time reishi was only in the realm of the rich. 

Undoubtedly, rumors of its effect drew curiosity. It’s hard not to be intrigued by something known as the “mushroom of immortality”. Over time, reishi began to grow in popularity across the world. Modern cultivation techniques have meant that reishi is now more abundant than ever. No longer only harvested by those lucky enough to find it, now reishi can be grown for the sole purpose of medicinal use.

As the effects of reishi become well known, it’s now a widespread medicinal mushroom. Supplements and powders can be found across health stores, and are used by people in both Eastern and Western countries.