Mushrooms are one of the oldest organisms on Earth, surviving the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs and establishing their dominance among jungle floors. While they are still slowly emerging in the western hemisphere among health gurus and doctors alike, mushrooms have been present in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for about 3,000-7,000 years.
The oldest reference we have of mushrooms being used is a list of 365 medicinal substances, written by Shennong Bencao Jing in the 29th century BC. In it he references our favorite ganoderma mushroom, more affectionately known as the reishi mushroom! Around 2500 years later in 500 AD, Tao Hongjing wrote an extension of this list, citing even more medicinal mushroom species for their healing abilities. One of the most important documents for TCM is Li Shizen’s legendary work published in 1578, titled Compendium of Materia Medica. This document is a culmination of 26 years of field study and the reading of 800 medical reference books; the whole work comprises 53 different volumes that thoroughly describes around 2000 medicinal substances (of which 20 are medicinal mushrooms) and 11,000 detailed prescriptions.
The cultivation of mushrooms in China has been popular since about 600 AD. The ever-growing demand for mushrooms--to use in medicine and in food-- has led to the perfection of cultivation techniques for over 15 mushroom species.
More recently, two Chinese university professors, Liu Bo and Bau Yun-sun, make a compilation of numerous sources of information on the traditional uses and effects of medicinal mushrooms. Their book, published in 1980, describes more than 120 medicinal mushroom species, includes diseases and conditions that can be treated with the mushroom, and details the mushroom’s use in TCM. Five Chinese scientists also published Icons of Medicinal Fungi From China in 1987, which discusses a total of 272 medicinal mushroom species. As of 2015, researchers have found 850 different mushroom species with medicinal effects.
In TCM they extracted the medicinal effects of the mushroom by boiling them in hot water, creating a kind of tea or soup. Our modern extraction methods can yield up to 3x more active ingredients than this process.
Because of their health benefits, the mushroom industry of China is boomy. In 1977 the country accounted for less than 6% of total mushroom production compared to 2002 when China accounted for more than 70%. A census in 2015 showed that over 35 million workers were primarily employed in the mushroom industry (and this does include the food industry).
Similar to TCM, is the Japanese traditional medicine known as Kampo. Greatly influenced by TCM, Kampo was introduced to the health world sometime in the 7th-9th century AD. It has a stronger emphasis on using medicinal herbs and mushrooms, especially shiitake; in fact, the Japanese emperor Chuai received shiitake mushrooms as a gift from a native tribe.
Another mushroom you might be familiar with that’s popular in Kampo is Maitake. The name means dancing mushroom, which came from the fact that when people found them they danced with joy. This is likely because it was worth its weight in silver for its many reported health benefits.
Considering how long TCM and Kampo have been used in Asia, it’s surprising to see its only recent emergence into the American mind. It’s not surprising though that these cultures have used it so often because mushrooms are cram packed with health benefits. Check out our blog posts on shiitake and maitake to learn more about why these guys are so famous and I hope you enjoyed this blog post! Mush love!