By now, we’ve discovered that SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne coronavirus disease transmitted by exposure to infectious respiratory droplets. We are learning that COVID can sometimes become a persistent infection like many other viruses. This issue occurs when a virus lingers in specific cells long after illness, causing symptoms that interfere with daily life and occasionally even causing disability.
Our new post-pandemic knowledge is that certain risk factors make a person more likely to develop prolonged symptoms. The good news is that some medicinal mushrooms can be excellent allies for speeding up recovery.
Long COVID has been established as new or continuing symptoms that last more than four weeks after illness. Symptoms can include chronic fatigue, post-exertional malaise, fever, respiratory, neurological, and digestive dysfunction, joint or muscle pain, rash, and changes in the menstrual cycle.
Currently, there is no single test to confirm a diagnosis of long covid. Still, doctors may collect various information, including a physical exam, stress test, and lab tests, to arrive at a conclusion.
Because the virus most commonly infects lung tissue, many people with enduring illness report experiencing pulmonary symptoms like shortness of breath, persistent cough, and chest pain. Some other common symptoms include brain fog, heart palpitations, and changes in mood.
As of January 2023, 11% of people who had COVID also experienced long covid symptoms.
Typical patients are generally in their 40’s, and 60-70% are women. A hormonal component may make women more susceptible to the severe immune response linked with prolonged illness.
Doctors are seeing some patterns emerge regarding the common risk factors for COVID “long-haulers”:
The one thing each of these risk factors has in common is inflammation. For instance, those who have either developed severe inflammation due to COVID or those with an underlying inflammatory condition made worse by COVID. Our bodies produce antibodies to deal with pathogens or injuries, creating inflammation.
This process is a good thing in measured doses and part of the healing process. When this mechanism goes haywire, it is called a cytokine storm. It is estimated that today 50% of worldwide deaths are connected to chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmunity. Ultimately, a significant part of our population is at risk for developing long covid.
While the science is constantly evolving, researchers have come up with a few educated guesses about what processes may lead to the progression of long-term symptoms in some people:
Medicinal mushrooms are well known for their anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, and antiviral activities. In fact, famed mycologist Paul Stamets named his line of mushroom-based supplements Host Defense because mushrooms do an incredible job defending us (the host) against foreign invaders when we consume them.
Studies use several kinds of mushrooms to fight off infections such as COVID. These mushrooms have been used medicinally to ward off anything from herpes to cancer. When used as a regular dietary supplement or treatment, these mushrooms can boost and protect immune cells while warding off viral infections. They are especially effective when used as adjuvant therapy for covid-19 patients who are already receiving treatments for their disease.
Members of online communities like Reddit have taken notice of the extraordinary benefits of these medicinal mushrooms.
Check out this anecdotal report from someone who found that taking a formulation containing Reishi and Cordyceps helped their COVID recovery.
If ever a mushroom was perfectly suited for people coping with long covid, it would have to be reishi.
Early on, indigenous cultures recognized that polypore mushrooms were remarkably good at preventing and curing infections internally and externally. Because they are too tough to eat, native peoples would boil them to make a medicinal mushroom extract. Unlike some healing plants whose active ingredients are diminished by heat, a mushroom’s active compounds are only made more digestible when we cook them. One exception is Vitamin C, which is reduced in the cooking process.
Reishi usually grows on the trunks of dead or dying trees. In doing so, it feeds itself, brings vitality to those who consume it, and recycles the deceased tree materials back into the soil, creating building blocks for new life. Could this be what some cultures refer to as reincarnation?
Among its more than 400 nutrients, Reishi’s bioactive triterpenes can stop viruses in their tracks. These compounds are helpful at any stage of infection because how sick we get depends on how much SARS-CoV-2 we have floating around in our body (aka viral load). Clinical trials have also shown that triterpenes can be as effective as systemic corticosteroids like prednisone in calming inflammatory responses – without adverse side effects (1). Additionally, the antioxidants in Reishi have antiviral properties and help protect our cells from free radical damage.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this mushroom is considered a “three treasure” herb that harmonizes Jing (life force), Qi (energy), and Shen (spirit). It has traditionally been used to open the heart and calm the mind. In more scientific terms, Reishi can reduce blood pressure and our risk of heart disease while supporting pulmonary health and mood.
Most studies affirming its health benefits have used dosages between 2-9g over a period of three to four months.
Himalayan healers refer to this ancient myco-medicine as “winter worm, summer grass” for its changing appearance during different seasons. The wild-harvested version of cordyceps is a rare, parasitic fungus that stems from a caterpillar’s head and can go for up to $25,000 per pound. Today, most cordyceps supplements are grown in a lab under controlled conditions, producing a clean, consistent, and potent product without breaking the bank.
Ayurvedic medicine classifies cordyceps as a rasayana herb, which translates to “The Path of Essence.” Indeed, cordyceps has a long list of health benefits, with the most relevant of those being: antioxidant and antiviral effects, blood pressure regulation, immune modulation, and heart and pulmonary advantages. Cordyceps is also an adaptogen that balances the nervous system and builds our resilience to stress.
While clinical studies are currently lacking, scientists have found that minimal amounts of the bioactive compound Cordycepin prevent viral replication by binding to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and disabling it (2). Cordyceps also has a powerful calming effect and protects our lungs from the severe harm caused by more extreme cases of COVID. Try experimenting with just a single capsule of 500mg.
Those experiencing digestion, mood, and brain function symptoms may benefit from including lion’s mane in their toolbox of possible therapies. In addition to its affinity for the brain and anti-inflammatory properties, lion’s mane has been shown to balance gut bacteria — where 70% of our immune system lives.
While there is no current standard dosage established for gut health, one animal study on the gastroprotective effects of LM used between 100-200mg/kg per day of a protein isolated from Lion’s Mane called HEP3 (that’s about 7.5-15g for a 150-pound person), over a two-week period.
To strengthen immunity, protect the heart and lungs, and calm inflammation, look for supplements made from the 100% fruiting body of these medicinal mushrooms. More specifically, those that list a high percentage of beta-glucans (and triterpenes/triterpenoids in Reishi).
The benefits of taking mushrooms are cumulative for general health, and most people take them daily over long periods. For long covid, however, higher dosages are recommended over a shorter time (weeks to months) to help accelerate recovery. This treatment can get a little pricey, but remember; you won’t have to do this forever.
Here are some pro tips if you are on a budget:
Since the beginning of humankind, we have been living and evolving alongside fungi and viruses like coronaviruses. Just like pathogens, fungi can be our friend or foe. When we’re faced with a virus like COVID that we just can’t seem to kick on our own, certain edible mushrooms can be incredibly beneficial. These specific mushrooms rely on animals to eat them so they can reproduce, making our collective survival intertwined.
Because clinical trials can be so costly and there is not much financial incentive to patent a whole plant or mushroom, it is often helpful to lean on the thousands of years of “research and development” that has been poured into folk medicine. Combining this deep wisdom with the available clinical studies can help us come to an informed decision about which of these natural products could be right for us.
Editor’s Note: This was originally published on February 21, 2023. It was reviewed and republished upon news of Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s small pilot trial of whether single-dose psychedelic treatments can alleviate Long COVID symptoms.