The Ancient Superfood Way More People Should Be Eating

Mushrooms are crazy, man. They can kill you in incredibly gruesome, painful ways that involve bloody diarrhea and liver failure; they can unravel the stitches that hold reality together when their psilocybin meets your neurotransmitters; and, if you eat reishi mushrooms for decades, they can extend your lifespan to rival "those of the Immortal Fairies," according to a 16th-century Chinese text by Li Shih-chen. No word on whether he was shrooming when he wrote that.

Anyway, if you want to become an immortal fairy (and really, who doesn't?), or if you just want to kill cancer cells, lower cholesterol levels, stave off Alzheimer's disease, and curb allergies, read on for why you should get yourself some reishi mushrooms.

What is reishi? Is that like reiki?

Reiki is a way you can send a person life energy by laying your hands on them and looking at a secret power symbol. Reishi is a life-sustaining mushroom that was given to humans by Osiris, ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife and goatees. See? Nothing alike.

Anyway, reishi mushrooms have roots in Eastern Asia, where Chinese, Korean, and Japanese royalty, herbalists, and spiritual practitioners have used the antioxidant-rich fungi for more than 2,000 years to increase longevity, boost immune function, and treat illnesses.

Also known as lingzhi (Chinese for "spirit plant"), reishi are pretty rare in the wild, growing in humid conditions on plum, maple, chestnut, oak, and hemlock trees. Fortunately, humans have learned how to cultivate the "10,000-year mushroom," so you don't have to find a spiritual guru to get reishi -- you can just order it on Amazon.

About those benefits, though -- reishi may help prevent cancer

The sugar molecules in reishi mushrooms stimulate the immune system, giving a kick in the pants to immune cells like T-cells and macrophages, whose job it is to attack cancer and other foreign cells. This is a good preventative measure, but some cancer patients also use reishi to keep their cancer in remission.

Reishi mushrooms could make allergies and asthma easier to deal with

Reishi mushrooms seem to have an antihistamine effect, just like pseudoephedrine, but without being a core ingredient of trucker speed. A small study -- very small -- showed people with hay fever were playing football and mowing the grass after a few weeks on the 'shroom. Pretty cool.

Reishi aids the heart

A cup of mushroom hot chocolate a day (yum) keeps the cardiologists away. It's good for high blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as circulation.

Which is really just a newfangled way to say what good old Li Shih-chen knew back in the 1500s: "[Reishi] positively affects the life-energy, or Qi of the heart, repairing the chest area and benefiting those with a knotted and tight chest," he wrote in the Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu. So if your chest is all knotted and tight, get yourself some reishi, stat.

It could also help keep your brain in good shape

Yet more proof that ancient Chinese philosophers understood way more about human nature and the body than we do today: The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was written more than 1,500 years ago and contains countless nuggets of wisdom, including, "[Reishi] is useful for increasing thinking faculty and preventing forgetfulness. [It can] refresh the body and mind, delay aging and enable one to live long. It stabilizes one's mental condition."

Sounds like a pretty apt description of an Alzheimer's treatment, written millennia before anyone knew what a beta-amyloid plaque is, don't you think? And of course, these OGs of medicine were onto something -- modern studies show reishi may play a role in preventing the synaptic degeneration that causes Alzheimer's. Obviously that's a long way away from an Alzheimer's cure, but it can't hurt to order another round of reishi hot chocolate.

How to consume reishi

Reishi mushrooms have a woody, bitter taste, so you're better off consuming them brewed in a tea than sauteed in a stir-fry. There's a plethora of supplements, tinctures, teas, and even a coffee on the market.

If you have liver trouble, immune system issues, insomnia, or any of the myriad other conditions reishi helps alleviate, it's worth a try. It's good for basically any illness that may befall you, though it should go without saying that we have modern doctors for a reason, and they probably shouldn't be ignored in favor of a mushroom. Though if reishi's health benefits hold up, the fact that all those ancient Asian kings aren't still alive today is a bit surprising. Or ARE they...

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Missy Wilkinson thinks Keanu Reeves could be a reishi-swilling immortal. Follow her on Twitter @missy_wilkinson