Mushrooms are much more than a tasty pizza topping; they are a major health food. In fact, certain mushroom species have significant healing properties that have been used widely across cultures and continents. Sometimes called “functional mushrooms,” these species have very unique benefits, which may target cancer, liver disease, and Alzheimer’s, among others.
For thousands of years, functional mushrooms have been part of medical systems such as:
- Ancient Ayurveda
- Traditional Chinese medicine
- Tibetan medicine
- Ancient Russian folk medicine
- Northern European traditional medicine
The fungi are now experiencing a surge in Western medicine as scientists begin to take note of their multipurpose nutrients.
In This Article:
What Are Functional Mushrooms?
Functional mushrooms, for our purposes, are species that appear to possess unique health benefits and have medicinal uses in the body. Some of these mushrooms have been used regionally for up to 5,000 years and continue to be central to certain medicinal practices.
Mushrooms have historically been used to:
- Reduce fatigue
- Increase energy
- Boost alertness and mental function
- Limit stress
- Strengthen immunity
Only recently, however, has a growing body of research been devoted to supporting these anecdotal benefits with scientific proof. New work is exploring whether these mushrooms can enhance health even further through both prevention and treatment—mixing the old with the new, so to speak.
Ancient medicinal practices like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are rooted in prevention and are therefore proactive, whereas Western medicine is rooted in treatment, thereby making it reactive. Preliminary results are pointing to preventive qualities for the immune system, as well as against cancer.
Potential Health Benefits of Functional Mushrooms
The potential benefits of functional mushrooms comprise an ever-growing list that gets increasingly impressive as more studies are done.
Although the research is largely still in its infancy, lab, animal, and human tests have all showed promise thus far. As these species are further researched and more knowledge about their capabilities is acquired, the list of benefits will likely clarify.
So far, there are studies showing that functional mushrooms may:
- Increase energy
- Battle fatigue (even chronic fatigue syndrome)
- Act as anti-aging agents
- Act as anti-inflammatory agents
- Boost immunity
- Protect cells from oxidative stress and maintain DNA integrity (cancer protection)
- Boost liver health
- Offer protection from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Improve brain function
- Reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease
- Promote better endurance
- Reduce the risk of infection (cold, flu, bronchitis, upper respiratory infections, urinary tract infection)
- Improve insulin response and lower the risk for type 2 diabetes
- Reduce/treat depression and anxiety
- Stop tumor growth and cancer metastasis
- Battle insomnia or sleep trouble
- Reduce stress
That’s quite a list, and the benefits derive from the four mushrooms we’ll be looking at today: cordyceps, reishi, lion’s mane, and chaga.
What Makes These Mushrooms Unique?
Although each one of the species listed above is unique and useful in its own way, functional mushrooms do share some special qualities.
Polysaccharides, for example, play an important role in overall health and are found in high amounts in cordyceps, reishi, lion’s mane, and chaga. These are complex carbohydrates (some non-digestible fibers) that help provide energy while also helping maintain cell structure. They are also thought to stimulate the immune system by promoting healthy gut bacteria.
Their role in immunity and inflammation also inhibits the effects of invaders. Therefore, they could potentially help battle or prevent infection, and support healthy blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels, supple skin, and more.
Polysaccharides are likely the mechanism behind these medicinal mushrooms’ many health benefits. However, variations between them allow each variety to offer a little something different, as active compounds differentiate.
4 Functional and Medicinal Mushrooms
Cordyceps have been used for 2,000 to 5,000 years in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine, and TCM. They grow in high elevations—5,800 feet and up—in the Sikkim Mountains, part of the Himalayas, and are a unique caterpillar and fungus combination.
The Cordyceps sinensis is formed when a fungus grows around the larvae of a caterpillar. It then germinates, kills, and mummifies the little caterpillar, and out of the mummy grows a brown stalk where the beneficial compounds are found.
The stalk looks similar to an apple stalk but grows to about the length of a match.
Therapeutic benefits of cordyceps were originally discovered when farmers noticed their effects on animals. After feeding, they noted more energized behavior, greater endurance, and less fatigue. Since then, they have been used on humans to prevent and treat a number of conditions.
Currently, there is research associating cordyceps benefits with:
- Anti-aging: Cordyceps may help protect telomeres—the protective ends of chromosomes that reside in the nucleus of each cell. The length of telomeres is closely associated with Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer risk.
- Greater endurance
- Improved liver function
- Lower cholesterol
- Prevention and treatment of infections like coughs, colds, and bronchitis.
Cordyceps use is safe for most populations except for pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with existing autoimmune diseases, or those on specific medications.
Known as lingzhi in Chinese and also called the “king of mushrooms,” the reishi mushroom and its benefits have been central to TCM for around 2,000 years. Native to China, Japan, and Korea, reishi was and is still used to battle the negative impacts of stress.
It’s classified as an adaptogen like cordyceps, meaning it helps the body absorb stressors.
Some of the ways it could battle stress is by:
- Acting as an anti-inflammatory
- Battling fatigue
- Boosting or maintaining energy
- Protecting against blood vessel damage
The active compounds that make reishi a unique remedy are polysaccharides and triterpenes. Polysaccharides, as mentioned, have strong antioxidant abilities, while triterpenes—groups of compounds including phytosterols and phytoecdysteroids found in plant resins and gums—may stop tumor growth and prevent cancer from metastasizing, as well as provide a host of other benefits.
So far, studies have shown promising reishi benefits from supplementation, including:
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Fatigue (including chronic fatigue syndrome) prevention
- Energy-boosting activity
- Infection prevention (UTIs, colds, flu, etc.)
- Liver protection, possibly preventing liver disease (also central to its use as preventive medicine in TCM).
- Tumor growth prevention and increased defense against DNA mutations
- Reduction of pain and fatigue associated with chemotherapy cancer treatment
- Digestive relief
- Skin disorder protection
- Stress relief
- Sleep disorders/insomnia benefits
- Reduction or relief of depression/anxiety symptoms
- Lowered risk for heart disease and diabetes
Reishi is generally safe for most of the population, but as with cordyceps, those pregnant and nursing, with existing immunity problems, or on medications should avoid usage.
Typical doses include:
- 5 to 9 grams (g) of crude dried mushroom
- 1 to 1.5 g of extract (sold as a powder or capsule)
- 1 milliliter (ml) of tincture (solution)
3. Lion’s Mane
Lion’s mane is a furry-looking mushroom that, as its name suggests, resembles the mane of a lion. Native to North America, Europe, and Asia, the Hericium erinaceus is a mushroom species that could have some noteworthy benefits for brain function.
Classified as a nootropic, a popular “brain booster” category in TCM, lion’s mane may not only repair and protect brain tissue, but it may also battle cancer. The effectiveness of lion’s mane, as with other functional mushrooms, is a growing area of research and is continually being tested so that it’s better understood. But so far, a number of promising studies have shown its benefits for brain health.
Lion’s mane benefits for brain health are likely connected to its ability to enhance neural outgrowth. Neural outgrowth essentially means the growth of axons and dendrites. Axons are responsible for taking information away from the cell body, and dendrites bring information to the cell body.
They are imperative for exchanging neural impulses with the brain, and are therefore necessary for optimal brain function. By promoting their growth, lion’s mane could potentially slow or reverse cell degeneration in the brain, a common characteristic in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Studies have also shown lion’s mane benefits for mild cognitive impairment.
Research, although still in its infancy, has identified lion’s mane as:
- Anti-carcinogenic (especially with leukemia cells)
- Antihyperlipodemic (may lower/control cholesterol)
- An option to improve cognitive function, anxiety, and depression
Lion’s mane is generally safe for consumption and is typically consumed as part of a mushroom tea or coffee.
Known as black gold, chaga—or Inonotus obliquus—is a type of cold-climate fungus that grows on birch trees. Lumpy looking and black, almost like burnt charcoal, it’s been used in Russian and Northern European healing practices for centuries. Chaga can also be found in Northern Canada, Siberia, and Alaska.
In 2005, chaga earned the highest score on the ORAC scale (now, it’s No. 15), which measures the antioxidant capabilities of food. There is some controversy around the legitimacy of the ORAC score, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbent Capacity, because it’s tested in the lab and not in humans. Still, other foods with high ORAC scores such as blueberries have been found highly beneficial to human health.
Because of this score and chaga’s antioxidant capabilities, the mushroom has been highlighted for potential benefits to cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes. But chaga benefits may not end there.
Chaga needs to be broken down with hot water or alcohol to release its beneficial compounds, and is usually taken as an extract or consumed as part of a tea or coffee. It can also be purchased as a capsule.
Because research is still preliminary, safety and suggested dosages are still undetermined. However, there is concern for use among certain groups, including:
- People with existing auto-immune disease
- Diabetics (it may decrease blood sugar)
- People with bleeding disorders (hemophiliacs)
- People who just had surgery (may increase bleeding)
Mushroom Tea Recipe
A common way to consume mushroom supplements and get their benefits is through teas or coffee. Cordyceps, chaga, lion’s mane, and reishi are often infused in hot or boiling water to achieve a desired outcome.
Some companies sell blends or individual mushroom coffees and elixirs. If you want to make your own, you’d have to purchase your own mushrooms or forage for them—and both can be a little difficult—then make the proper adjustments.
For a chaga tea, for example, you would:
- Acquire chaga mushrooms
- Break a whole chaga into 10-gram chunks
- Grind a chunk into powder using a blender or coffee grinder
- Place a teaspoon or two (depending on the strength you want) into a tea infuser
- Put infuser into a mug and fill with hot water—about 400 mg
- Steep for about five minutes, or longer if you prefer
- Remove and add some maple syrup or honey for a sweetener.
You can follow similar directions for other mushrooms or make your own blends. But it might be easier to buy them premade. You can also purchase powder or capsule extracts.
Experience the Potential Health Benefits of Functional Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used for thousands of years, and the fact that they’re still in use and being more thoroughly explored by science makes them a food worth considering for your diet. This is especially true because recent scientific studies, although relatively limited, show promising results.
The antioxidant capabilities, as well as some of the immediate results you may experience—increased focus, less stress, better sleep, and more energy—make these supplements an interesting area of study with potentially revolutionary benefits.
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