Ling Zhi: Mushroom of Mortality

“Ling Zhi is bitter and balanced. It mainly treats binding in the chest, boosts the heart qi, supplements the center, sharpens the wits, facilitates the movement of the joints, fortifies the sinews and bones, augments the essence qi, and causes people not to forget. Protracted taking makes the body light, prevents senility, and prolongs life so as to make one an immortal/enlightened. Its other name is Dan Zhi. It grows in mountains and valleys.” ~Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing

Ling Zhi (灵芝, língzhī, “Spirit Mushroom”) is a saprophytic fungus that grows primarily on the base and stumps of decaying hardwoods. Since its prevalence in forests is uncommon, most Ling Zhi today is cultivated on logs and sawdust, which also results in a higher standardized quality. In Japan, Ling Zhi is known as reishi (霊芝). According to the Pharmacopeia of the People’s Republic of China, there are two closely related, recognized Chinese herbal species, Ganoderma lucidum, whose shell is yellowish to reddish-brown in color and Ganoderma sinensis, which is purplish-black.

Ling Zhi is one of the most recognized Chinese herbal medicines, both in appearance and in its many significant medicinal properties. It has been used for thousands of years to enhance health, clear mind and spirit, and to promote longevity. This extraordinary medicinal mushroom is also one of the most extensively researched traditional herbal medicines. Despite this knowledge, there often remains confusion within the TCM community as to when and how to utilize this extraordinary gift of nature.

Reishi Mushrooms Ling Zhi

According to the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica by Bensky, Clavey and Ströger, Ling Zhi is sweet and neutral, and enters the Heart, Lung and Liver channels. Its traditional functions include Calming the Spirit, augmenting the Heart qi, tonifying Heart Blood and Lung qi, transforming phlegm, and stopping cough and wheezing. Yet, even with these important traditional functions, it is difficult to identify a single herbal formula that includes Ling Zhi. For this, and other reasons, both student and practitioner are often challenged to clearly understand how and when to use this important medicinal fungus.

I believe the reason for this is a misunderstanding of how Ling Zhi actually works. Essentially, Ling Zhi's effects are subtle, its therapeutic results take time to show themselves, and its primary action is to strengthen and promote optimal health. Ling Zhi's most profound quality is in maintaining health and preventing illness over the span of one's life.

The best way to understand the medicinal uses of Ling Zhi is to review current medical research. For an exhaustive investigation of Ling Zhi, please see the final link at the bottom of this article. Upon close investigation, one simple conclusion is that Ganoderma primarily regulates physiological homeostasis and the functioning of the immune system. In TCM terms, it tonifies and regulates the Qi, Blood, and the Zang Fu organs, and strengthens and balances both the Wei and Zheng Qi. In the book Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd edition, the authors list the following primary biomedical uses of Ganoderma lucidum: immunomodulation, antioxidant activation, and the treatment of viral and bacterial infection, diabetes mellitus (and prevention), and liver and gastric damage.

In the Journal of Aging and Disease from December 2017, an article outlines the medicinal effects of Ganoderma lucidum to include lifespan elongation, immunomodulatory activity, antioxidant activity, anti-neurodegeneration activity, and the promotion of neuronal differentiation.

The journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, October 2018 issue featured, "Ganoderma: A Cancer Immunotherapy Review". The article discusses Ganoderma's use in treating lung and liver cancer, melanoma, leukemia, and colon cancer. The article also discusses the major pathways of cancer immunotherapy of Ganoderma in immune cells. This is an excellent review of the current benefits of Ling Zhi in cancer treatment and prevention.

Although Ganoderma is 90% water, its constituents also include proteins, fats, fiber, and vitamins/minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, iron, zinc, copper, and calcium. There are several bioactive molecules, including water-soluble polysaccharides, steroids, phenols, nucleotides, terpenoids, and amino acids. Of all its components, its specific polysaccharides and triterpenes are the most physiologically potent, and can be extracted from the mushroom’s spores, mycelia, and fruit body. In fact, the spores are considered the most bioactive component of Ganoderma, although the external shell of the spores must be removed to access the essential oils within because, otherwise, they are indigestible.

In my clinical experience, I have found Ling Zhi to be an indispensable part of my herbal medicine practice. The primary way in which Ling Zhi can be used is to enhance the proper, discrete action of the immune and endocrine systems, and to regulate the body's ability to monitor and repair the negative effects of aging. In addition to focused TCM herbal medicine treatments based on careful TCM differential diagnosis, here are some of the main clinical applications for Ling Zhi:

  1. Complimentary therapy in patients undergoing active cancer treatment
  2. The prevention of various cancers and degenerative diseases
  3. Complimentary therapy in diseases associated with excessive or deficient immune system response
  4. Chronic viral conditions
  5. Enhancing and regulating overall immune system activity
  6. Longevity support

Ling Zhi may be taken as a whole herb with a dosage of 1-9 g per day in a “soup”, tea, or “coffee”, depending on the advice of a trained practitioner who has assessed the age, condition, and overall health of the patient. Often, tablets or capsules are the most convenient form for patients to use, as preparation of the whole herb can be time consuming. There are also extract powders, tinctures, and spore oils available. This herb can also be added for extra nourishment in the preparation of food-based soups or stews.

Cautions: Use with caution in patients with excess conditions. Ling Zhi is mildly drying, so long-term use may cause dryness of the nose, sinus, mouth, throat, and stomach. Traditional sources recommend utilizing Bai Mu Er (Tremella fuciformus) in combination with Ling Zhi as this herb nourishes the yin and fluids of the stomach and lung. Patients with bleeding disorders or those taking anticoagulant/antiplatelet medications should carefully discuss Ganoderma supplementation with their physicians, since Ganoderma can engender an accentuation of the blood thinning effect. In addition, individuals taking antidiabetic or antihypertensive medications should exercise caution and consult their physician.

Mark W. Frost, MSTCM, L.Ac.
Chair, Herbal Medicine Department
American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine
San Francisco, CA

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