What are functional mushrooms?
Functional mushrooms are a classification that pertains to only a handful out of the roughly 2 million variety of fungi that exist. There are between 5-7 mushrooms that fall into this category. Functional mushrooms are those which contain compounds like beta-glucans, antioxidants, unique polysaccharides and other amazing compounds that exist as rarities in nature. Functional mushrooms are purported to have mystical powers by some but are more and more revealing themselves to be superfoods backed by scientific learning.
Functional mushrooms have become ubiquitous in the diets of health-minded people around the world. The explosion of functional mushroom products really began over the last few years as more science about these amazing organisms began to be published in the west. It's clear that we are behind eastern cultures in this amazing area of science as East Asian and Ayurvedic cultures have known about many of the benefits of these mushrooms for millennia. Lion's mane, for example, has long been used by the Japanese Yamabushi mountain monks for it's unique ability to improve focus and productivity during meditation. Siberians have long used Chaga, another of the popular functional mushrooms as a catch-all remedy of sorts which they added to teas.
All of this sounds amazing and the wisdom of these cultures is often proven out by western science but what is the science of functional mushrooms saying? Do functional mushrooms really work? If so, how and should we be implementing them into our daily routines?
To start, let's look more deeply into the legend and science of the most popular and captivating of these amazing mushrooms, Lion's mane.
Lion's mane mushrooms, also known as Hericium erinaceus, are edible fungi that are native to North America, Europe, and Asia. These unusual-looking mushrooms have long, shaggy spines that resemble the mane of a lion, and are often used in cooking for their delicate, seafood-like flavor. Let's look deeper into the benefits of this famous mushroom.
Lion's Mane for the Brain:
One of the most well-known benefits of lion's mane mushroom is its ability to support brain function. Studies have shown that consuming lion's mane mushroom extract or supplements can improve memory and cognitive function in animals and humans. It's thought that the mushroom's active compounds, including hericystin and Erinacine, may play a role in this effect. Along with the cognitive benefit, it has been shown to support the entire nervous system, having been used by some to promote recovery from neurological damage or pain.
Lion's Mane for ADHD:
Only one's healthcare provider can truly help them hone-in on and manage something like ADD or ADHD. Lion's mane is something that people have self-reported as having helped in coping with symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Studies evidence that perhaps this is due to the mushroom extracts unique ability to combat degeneration of myelin, the protective and performance enhancing sheath around the neuron.
The best mushroom for mood:
Some studies have indicated that the enhanced NGF or nerve growth factor we see from lion's mane extract could be useful in helping to enhance mood, stabilizing anxiety and combating depression. Again, only a healthcare provider can help to find such answers to these questions for an individual but the studies are very interesting and promising. These studies and the benefits being observed from them give a sense that of the functional mushrooms, lion's mane could be the best at enhancing or stabilizing mood.
Even after all of that, the potential health benefits of lion's mane mushroom extract don't stop there. We also see unique antioxidants and beta glucans in lions mane that can help with oxidative stress of the cells, aiding in combating inflammation and enhancing immune health.
The Northern regions of the globe can be harsh, inhospitable to life. Winters are long and cold; snow may leave all but the trees hidden beneath it's frozen mass. Summers serve as an opportunity to prepare for the looming freeze which is just around the corner immediately after the first thaw. For a few months resources are abundant. Salmon migrate inland to spawn, berries are abundant, and mushrooms fruit. Then winter is back, introducing a period of want and vulnerability.
Walking through a forest of birch trees (which are often composed of just a single organism), one may not give a glance toward the often large black growths protruding from the trunks like festering wounds. Smaller chaga specimens may appear to be old cuts, as they fill in as a similar rough black substance. Yet to the trained eye, the prized medicinal fungus is easy to recognize. Beneath the rough black outer shell is a squishy, golden-orange core.
Simply pry off a bit of the outer layer, and you'll know if it is chaga because the inside of the 'black gold' isn't replicable by anything other than chaga.
Chaga for Antioxidants:
Chaga mushrooms are the most powerful source of antioxidants in the world - up to 7 times as potent as acai, a popular antioxidant supplement. The impact of this powerful source of antioxidants is impressive. For centuries, chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has been known as an immune booster in Siberia and other regions of Northern Europe. It has been used as a treatment for inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Chaga for Inflammation:
Inflammation is a response from the immune system that is meant to fight disease. In the short term, inflammation is an effective way to do this. In the long-term, inflammation can be harmful and lead to heart disease, arthritis and other chronic inflammatory conditions. Studies suggest chaga extract can positively impact the immune system by reducing long-term inflammation and fighting harmful bacteria and viruses.
Chaga for Immune health:
Our immune system is regulated by cytokines which are specialized proteins that are used by the body to modulate immune response. Some cytokines are beneficial to our immune response while some are potentially harmful. Chaga extract has been shown to help produce beneficial cytokines and stimulates white blood cells which are critical in fighting disease. With these two harmonious functions, chaga mushrooms can play a major role in helping the body fight disease. Studies have also shown that chaga can prevent the production of harmful cytokines. These proteins cause inflammation and their prevalence in excess can cause inflammation to become harmful and potentially become chronic. (Further Reading:link, link, link, link)
Animal and test-tube studies show that chaga can prevent and slow cancer growth. In a study in mice with cancer, chaga supplements resulted in a 60% reduction in tumor size and in a test-tube study, chaga extract prevented the growth of cancer in human liver cells, lung cells, breast cells and prostate and colon cells. (Further Reading: link, link, link, link)
The effect from the antioxidants being studied for cancer therapy in chaga extract is likely due to its ability to eliminate free radicals in the body’s cells. In particular, chaga contains the antioxidant triterpene. Studies have shown that triterpene has the ability to kill cancer cells. (Further Reading: link, link)
Blood sugar has been shown in studies to decrease in subjects taking chaga extracts. This effect can be vital in managing diabetes. In fact, a recent study in obese, diabetic mice observed that chaga extract reduced blood sugar levels and insulin resistance compared to diabetic mice who did not receive the supplement meaning that chaga may help manage diabetes. For example, another study in mice showed around a 30% decrease in blood sugar levels after being given chaga extracts for only 3 weeks. (Further Reading: link, link)
Chaga extract has also been shown to positively impact cholesterol levels, reducing your risk of heart disease. In an eight-week study in rats with high cholesterol, chaga extract reduced “bad” LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing antioxidant levels.
As with anything taken to supplement health, there are potential risks. Talk to your doctor before trying chaga especially if you are on blood thinning medications or have blood thinning or autoimmune disorders.
Benefits of Cordyceps
Cordyceps for Heart Health
Cordyceps for Immune Health
Turkey tail mushroom, also known as Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor, is a type of functional mushroom that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to support gut health many other things. Recent scientific research has begun uncovering the many potential benefits of turkey tail mushroom for stomach and gut health, supporting the microbiome, the gut-brain axis and many other crucial factors that play into our gut and digestive health.
PSK in Turkey Tail
Some of the key active compounds in the turkey tail mushroom is a group of polysaccharides called PSK and PSP. These compounds have been shown to have immunomodulatory properties, meaning they can help the body regulate the immune system and support the body's natural defenses. In particular, PSK has been found to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, helping the body fight oxidation in the cell. This may help to protect the gut and stomach from inflammation and damage.
Turkey Tail for Gut Health
In addition to its immune-supporting properties, turkey tail mushrooms may also have beneficial effects on gut health. This is likely due in part to its prebiotic content. Studies have shown that it can help to increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can improve the overall health and balance of the gut microbiome. This can have a positive impact on digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as helping to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, turkey tail mushrooms have been found to promote the production of short-chain fatty acids(SCFAs) which are beneficial for gut health, specifically butyrate which is known to have anti-inflammatory effects, improve gut barrier function and promote healthy gut microbiota.
Another potential benefit of turkey tail mushroom for stomach and gut health is its ability to help protect against ulcers. Ulcers are sores that develop on the lining of the stomach or small intestine and can be very painful and debilitating. Some research has found that turkey tail mushroom may help to reduce the risk of ulcers by reducing inflammation and promoting the healing of damaged tissue. Furthermore, turkey tail mushroom has been found to have a protective effect on the mucous lining of the stomach and gut, this is particularly important as the mucous layer acts as a barrier against harmful pathogens and irritants, thus promoting a healthy gut.
Turkey tail mushroom may also have anti-cancer properties. Some studies have found that consuming turkey tail mushroom may help to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, including stomach, colorectal, and lung cancer. This may be due to its ability to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. It has been found that turkey tail mushroom can help to improve the immune response against cancer by stimulating the production of natural killer cells (NK cells) which are responsible for identifying and destroying cancer cells. Additionally, turkey tail mushroom has been found to inhibit the growth and spread of cancer cells, this is thought to be due to the presence of beta-glucans which have been found to inhibit the formation of new blood vessels in cancer cells which are crucial for their growth and spread.
Maitake mushrooms, scientifically known as Grifola frondosa, have been revered in traditional Eastern medicine for centuries, and modern scientific research is shedding light on their remarkable health benefits. These mushrooms are characterized by their large, overlapping, and leaf-like caps, and they are often referred to as "hen of the woods" due to their appearance. Maitake mushrooms are highly regarded for their potential to support overall health and well-being, primarily through their immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.
Maitake for Immunity
One of the key benefits of maitake mushrooms is their ability to enhance the immune system. They contain a group of biologically active compounds known as beta-glucans, which stimulate the production of immune cells and improve their functioning. Beta-glucans have been shown to increase the body's defense mechanisms, making it more effective at warding off infections and diseases. This makes maitake mushrooms a valuable addition to the diet, especially during flu seasons or when seeking to bolster the immune system.
Maitake mushrooms are also recognized for their potential in managing blood sugar levels. Research has suggested that they may have a positive impact on insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, making them beneficial for individuals with diabetes or those at risk of developing the condition. Compounds in maitake mushrooms, such as the alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, help slow down the digestion of carbohydrates, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar after meals.
Furthermore, maitake mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, particularly ergothioneine and various vitamins like vitamin C and D. Antioxidants help combat oxidative stress, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and supporting overall cellular health. The presence of ergothioneine, in particular, has been linked to its neuroprotective properties, suggesting that maitake mushrooms may have potential benefits for brain health and cognitive function.
Based on the science we see here, the truth is clear, functional mushrooms are a powerhouse class of mushrooms. The majority of the studies done on functional mushrooms have been specifically conducted using mushroom extracts rather than the dried mushrooms or fresh mushrooms alone. This is because there is significant evidence that the beneficial compounds in these miraculous mushrooms can be trapped within the cell wall of the mushroom and they end up passing through us if we don't extract the compounds. This can be done with hot water and ethanol and a few other mostly similar methods. it seems the best way to absorb the beneficial compounds of functional mushrooms is to take them as an extract.