Medicinal mushrooms are indeed magical superfoods. Used for their healing properties in the East as far back as 200 A.D., the fungi were classified in the superior category of herbs. Various mushrooms were consumed and applied to increase life span, prevent illness, improve cognitive function, treat infertility, offer fortitude, and bestow bravery. Some of the most popular mushrooms today, like reishi, snow, maitake, wood ear, and chaga, have long been used in skincare and supplements with roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This article offers insight into the origins of these fine functional fungi and the benefits of incorporating each of them into skincare.
The Origins of the Reishi Mushroom
The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lingzhi) was first discovered by Chinese healers more than 2,000 years ago in the Changbai Mountains. This northern mountain range – which translates to “Perpetually-White Mountain Region” – is widely known for its frigid conditions, but the base of the mountain is home to a large temperate hardwood forest where the rare reishi mushroom flourishes.
Ancient Chinese texts refer to the mushroom as an elixir of immortality and note secret locations where the fungus was thought to grow. Healers believed that the reishi mushroom had potent anti-aging properties, and it has long been used as a talisman of luck, healing, and wellness in Chinese culture.
The reishi mushroom is still commonly used by physicians across Asia to treat a wide range of maladies and health concerns, and use among Western physicians and healers is growing.
In Skincare, the Reishi Mushroom:
- Boosts Skin Cell Turnover: Efficient skin cell turnover is one of the precursors to a healthy and youthful complexion. Through this process, dead skin cells are shed and young, healthy cells rise to the skin’s surface. However, skin cell turnover slows with age. With the reishi mushroom’s regenerative properties, it can improve the skin’s overall texture and brightness.
- Deeply Hydrates: Reishi mushrooms contain a high concentration of polysaccharides, which are beneficial sugars that are responsible for the skin’s natural ability to hydrate and retain water. By maintaining healthy hydration levels, this fungus supports the skin’s protective lipid barrier, which is necessary to keep in essential moisture and keep out potential irritants that trigger inflammation and premature aging.
- Possesses Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Environmental stress from pollution, blue light, and UV rays expose the skin to free radicals which damage its structural proteins, trigger inflammation, and cause it to age prematurely. With its adaptogenic properties, the reishi mushroom regulates levels of the stress hormone cortisol and helps reduce inflammation. Additionally, its antioxidant capacity helps shield the skin from the drying and aging effects of free radical damage, keeping your complexion young and healthy.
The Origins of the Snow Mushroom
Snow mushrooms (Tremella fuciformis) are native to subtropical and tropical regions around the world including Brazil, Taiwan, China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Cultivation of these mushrooms began around 1914 in China with new cultivation techniques beginning in 1968, leading to the mass production of the variety and the ability to export the mushroom in dried form worldwide. Today snow mushrooms are found fresh at local markets or in dried form in Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and North America.
Snow mushrooms are used as a beauty product by women in China and Japan. When eaten, some believe that the mushrooms will contribute to a long and unblemished life. Snow mushrooms contain an enzyme that improves moisture retention in the skin which may help with the reduction of wrinkles.
In Skincare, the Snow Mushroom:
- Hydrates, Brightens, and Heals: The snow mushroom helps to not only hydrate the skin, but also aids in the maintenance of the skin moisture barrier. With over 18 kinds of amino acids, the snow mushroom has also proved to be beneficial in cell growth, which has made it a prime ingredient in wound healing. The vitamin D present in this fungus also makes it great for healing acne lesions for a hydrated and healed complexion.
- Aids in Natural Collagen Production: Snow mushrooms also aid in the natural production of collagen, a structural protein that gives skin density and volume. Its antioxidant properties neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals and promote healthy skin cell renewal. This helps to maintain the skin’s existing stores of collagen and delays the visible signs of aging.
The Origins of the Maitake Mushroom
In Europe and the United States, the maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is commonly called “Hen of the Woods,” since its frond-like growths resemble the feathers of a fluffed chicken. The mushroom grows wild in parts of Japan, China, and North America. It sprouts at the bottom of Oak, Elm, and Maple trees and can be cultivated at home, though it typically won’t grow as well as it does in the wild. You can usually find the mushroom during the autumn months.
The Japanese pioneered the Maitake mushroom’s cultivation, being known in Japan as “The
Dancing Mushroom.” According to a Japanese legend, a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters met on a mountain trail, where they discovered maitake mushrooms emerging from the forest floor. Rejoicing at their discovery of this mushroom, they danced to celebrate.
This mushroom possesses adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens assist the body in fighting against any type of mental or physical difficulty. They also work to regulate systems of the body that have become unbalanced. While this mushroom can be used in recipes for taste alone, it’s considered to be a medicinal mushroom.
In Skincare, the Maitake Mushroom:
- Possesses Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Properties: Components of maitake mushrooms have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects that work to support the immune system and reduce inflammation. This can help alleviate symptoms of allergic reactions and inflammatory conditions, such as acne.
- Improves Elasticity and Stimulates Skin Cell Growth: Reductions in oxidative stress can reduce the degenerative effects of aging. Loss of skin elasticity, also known as elastosis, is a natural part of the aging process. Environmental factors and harmful products can speed up the process. Elements of the maitake mushroom have been proven to slow the elastosis and stimulate skin cell growth for a radiant and youthful complexion.
The Origins of the Wood Ear Mushroom
Found on the bark of elder trees, the wood ear mushroom (Auricularia auricula-judae) is a fungus that, while growing, looks like a delicate brown ear. This type of mushroom is popular in Chinese cuisine and is known for its crunchy texture and ability to soak in flavors. It’s commonly found in hot and sour soup, as well as Chinese stir-fry and mu shu pork.
In the West, the wood ear mushroom was used in folk medicine as recently as the 19th century for complaints including sore throats, sore eyes, and jaundice, as well as an astringent. Today, the wood ear mushroom is commonly used in Chinese medicine, while being used in Ghana as a blood tonic. Modern research into possible medical applications has concluded that the wood ear mushroom has antitumor, hypoglycemic, anticoagulant and cholesterol-lowering properties.
In Skincare, the Wood Ear Mushroom:
- Possesses Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Due to the high polysaccharide content in wood ear mushrooms, they’re known to have several benefits, such as reducing inflammation. Studies published in 2018 showed the wood ear mushroom was able to inhibit the development and spread of inflammation and could therefore be a potential treatment for inflammation-related diseases including heart disease, obesity, and tumors.
- Reduces Oxidative Stress: Wood ear mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants, which can reduce oxidative stress. An accumulation of oxidative stress can cause numerous health complications. Typically, oxidative stress damages cells, proteins, and DNA and is visible in externally manifested symptoms like wrinkles and blemished skin.
The Origins of the Chaga Mushroom
The chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is also known as “Cinder Conk” or “Black Mass,” which accurately describes its appearance. The chaga mushroom feeds on birch trees and is native to the forests of Europe, Russia, North America, and various cold northern climates, where birch is the primary tree species. For hundreds of years, the chaga mushroom has been wild-harvested and utilized by the people of northern Europe and Russia.
Chaga mushrooms have historically been used as a traditional medicine in Russia and other Northern European countries, mainly to boost immunity and overall health. It has also been used to treat diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease. Traditionally, the fungus was grated into a fine powder and brewed as an herbal tea. Today, it is not only available as a tea but also as a supplement and is featured in an array of skincare products.
The growing cycle of Chaga begins when a fruiting body of a higher fungi species enters a wound of a mature tree, forming a large hardened mycelial mass (the conk) that will continue to grow until it is harvested or falls to the forest floor. Chaga is unique among mushrooms as it is rare to see the fruiting body in nature, with the hardened mycelial mass holding the herbal value.
In Skincare, the Chaga Mushroom:
- Protects Against the Sun: Chaga has one of the highest forms of melanin and pigment content due to its dark exterior and burnt caramel colored interior. The melanin found within the chaga, whether it’s in skincare cream or tea form, can provide some level of protection from the sun and UV rays. Chaga mushrooms can also help reduce dark sunspots on the skin.
- Assists in Skin Regeneration: Due to the presence of Betulonic Acid, which is an anti-inflammatory, chaga mushrooms can help your skin regenerate its cells. This regeneration is crucial for healing, especially if you have scarring or any other type of skin wound. Betulonic Acid also helps stimulate collagen production which is extremely beneficial for the skin and its elasticity. Additionally, it can be extremely helpful for anyone suffering from skin conditions such as acne, allergic reactions, bug bites, rashes, dermatitis, psoriasis, itching, rosacea, and eczema.
- Possesses Anti-Inflammatory Properties Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), which can be found within the chaga mushroom, reduces levels of oxidative stress, making it a very effective anti-inflammatory. The SOD works together with Betulonic Acid to reduce inflammation when consumed and when applied topically. Betulonic Acid also works to regulate sebum secreted from the skin. This helps inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria.
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