Wood Ear Mushroom for Daily Use: The TCM Approach to Yin Er


Before I launch into a detailed discussion of all the lovely health benefits of using the wild mushroom known in English as Wood Ear (Latin name: Tremella fuciformis), I want to talk a little bit about the Chinese name.  The Chinese term is Yin Er, which literally translates as Silver Ear.  It is worth noting that the word “Yin/” or silver, in this context, is a homophone for a different “Yin/” which is the Yin from Yin-Yang.

Yin as Relates to Wood Ear Mushroom in TCM

Yin-Yang theory forms the foundation of Chinese Medicine, and understanding the symbolism of Yin-Yang helps us to understand how herbs are categorized and used, as well as how health conditions are understood and treated.  Yin refers to the feminine aspect of the universe, and is often represented as the dark side of the moon.  Yin is associated with things that are dark, heavy, secretive, damp and cold.  Yang refers to the masculine aspect of the universe, and is represented as the shining sun.  Yang is associated with things that  are bright, airy, clear, dry and hot.

Mushrooms grow in areas that are dark and damp, and thus mushrooms are often rich with Yin energy and are used to treat Yin-deficient conditions.  Wood Ear is an excellent example of this.  Wood Ear nourishes Stomach Yin and Lung Yin, and generates fluids broadly throughout all tissues.

Unlike many other mushrooms in the materia medica, Wood Ear is used predominantly in food rather than in decoctions and pills.  We often use the term “food-grade herb” to indicate that it is weaker or less potent medicinally.  I do not think this is entirely true.  In the case of Wood Ear, it is a reasonably tasty mushroom that when added to soups, stews and stir fries has greater impact because it is consumed as a food.  This is also an extremely safe mushroom that can be consumed in large quantities without danger.  As far as I can determine from the sources I know, there has not been a recorded case of an allergic reaction to Wood Ear, though of course it is always possible. Given its widespread use, the absence of any recorded cases of allergic response is meaningful and supports the idea that this is a very safe mushroom.

Wood Ear Mushroom and Lungs: Dry Cough, Smoker’s Cough

Traditionally, Wood Ear was used to treat “consumption-like” illnesses, what we now refer to in the Western cannon as tuberculosis.  While we are fortunate to live in a time when TB is rare (though, sadly, not completely gone), conditions of dry cough due to Lung Yin deficiency still occur.  Lung Yin becomes deficient most often in our culture due to excessive smoking, either of tobacco or cannabis.  This is very serious.  If you are working with a patient who has Lung Yin deficiency as a result of smoking, you can give them all the herbs you want, but the underlying condition will remain a problem unless they shift that habit.  Cannabis can more easily change to a non-smoke based use (tinctures, topicals, edibles, etc.), but tobacco can be more difficult.  If you are working with a patient who is struggling with a nicotine addiction, supporting them with Lung Yin tonics is very helpful, but the ultimate goal must be to move away from exposing their lungs to smoke.

COVID Long Haulers and Ideas for Rebuilding Lungs

Wood Ear is often combined with other food-grade herbs to make potent nourishing foods.  One of my favorites is sour jujube fruits, which I personally think is absolutely delicious.  Traditionally, Wood Ear together with sour jujubes and lean pork are made into a soup to help a person who is recovering from a long illness.  While more remains to be learned on this subject, I think that COVID-19 “long haulers” may well fall into this category.  If your patient is not someone who can eat pork, substituting bone broth or miso broth will also produce great benefits.

One odd recipe I stumbled upon combines Wood Ear with pseudostellaria root (Pseudostellaria heterophylla) and rock sugar to create a beverage for treating palpitations and shortness of breath.  I haven’t tried it myself, and I bet it would taste very weird, but the logic behind the beverage is clear.  Combing the Lung Yin nourishing aspect of the Wood Ear with the Spleen-nourishing sweetness of rock sugar, blended with the gentle Qi and Yin tonic of the pseudostellaria root, and you’ve got a real pick-me-up.  Adding sugar to anything makes it more palatable, so even though all three of these ingredients have fairly mild effects, most people won’t mind consuming them in large amounts, if that is appropriate.

Using Wood Ear Mushroom for Severe Yin Deficiency

When dealing with patients who are severely deficient, rundown or exhausted, especially after a long illness or prolonged stress, resist the urge to use strong tonics.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but a person who extremely depleted cannot absorb nutrition or medicine very well.  If you throw too many strong substances at them, their body could easily shut down and their health could get worse.  Thus starting with gentle tonics may get you bigger and better effects than pulling out your heavy-hitters.

How do you know if your patient is severely deficient?  Honestly, it tends to be pretty obvious.  These folks are pale, weak, listless.  There is no sparkle in their eyes, they have no energy to do much.  They get out of breath walking up stairs.  They get tired just thinking about a thing they have to do.  Their tongue is pale, their pulse is weak, and you may be overcome by a desire to tuck a blanky in around them and send them to bed with a hot water bottle.  Starting these folks off with nourishing soups rich in Wood Ear, jujubes, longan fruit, bone broths, maybe some lily bulb and see what happens.  Don’t be surprised if you start seeing improvement quite quickly, in as soon as three days (if you can get the soup into them all three days).  And the patient will tell you: when a formula or a food is right, patients will start to crave it.  Those weird flavors that we might otherwise find unappetizing will seem absolutely delicious to them.  They will look forward to their soup or their tea.  This is the sign that you are on the right track!

Wildcrafting Wood Ear Mushroom

Wood Ear is interesting not only for its medicinal properties, but also because it actually grows wild here in Oregon.  I had an instructor in my acupuncture program who actively wild-crafted her own Wood Ear to ensure she had a good supply of the highest quality.  If you are interested in wild-crafting mushrooms, Wood Ear is a good choice.

Wood Ear is not an ingredient in any standard Chinese herbal formulas, but if you are creating a custom formula, feel free to add it as an assistant herb.  It would not serve as a chief herb.

As with all mushrooms, correct identification is key.  Unless you are an experienced mycologist yourself, buying from a reputable source is the best way to ensure you are getting exactly the mushroom you want.  To the untrained eye, many mushrooms look quite similar.

Cautions for Wood Ear Mushroom

None known. This is an extremely safe mushroom that can be consumed in large quantities without danger.  As far as I can determine from the sources I know, there has not been a recorded case of an allergic reaction to Wood Ear, though of course it is always possible. Consider carefully before using with patients who exhibit an extreme excess of Yin, especially in the Lung channel.

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