In this article we will talk about 4 of the best medicinal mushrooms and why you should consider their supplementation.
1. The Magic of medicinal Mushrooms
People have appreciated mushrooms for their taste and multiple health benefits for a very long time. In fact, their use in folk medicine dates back thousands of years. Despite that, there is a limited access to general information about the use of medicinal mushrooms. However, for the past few years, there has been a significant increase in interest and sales of medicinal mushrooms supplements.
There are many types of mushroom supplements, with each of them having unique health benefits. Some may have immune support activities, others mood boosting effects, or even increase energy and stamina. But to those, who want to support their brain function, there are some mushrooms with quite powerful nootropic effects too! A nootropic is any natural or synthetic compound, or plant extract, which supports brain and cognitive function.
Bit of a history
The history of medicinal mushrooms use goes back to at least 3300 B.C.E. In fact, a man, who froze in ice around that time, was discovered in an alpine glacier in 1991. Researchers discovered he carried two different species of mushrooms, along with many other belongings. One of the mushrooms was a medicinal birch polypore, which people ingested to fight parasites and other infections (1).
The ancient Egyptians also believed that eating mushrooms brought longevity. We can see from Egyptian hieroglyphics that they saw mushrooms as ‘magical plants of immortality’. Because of this, mushrooms were part of the pharaohs normal diet. Mushrooms were also often referred to as ‘sons of the gods’ and portrayed in drawings as being sent to earth from the universe.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. The oldest official list of medicinal substances found in mushrooms dates back to the 29th century B.C.E. It was written by a famous mythical Chinese emperor, Shennong. Already back then, people knew the medicinal and health boosting properties that science today attributes to medicinal mushrooms.
Many cultures around the world have been using psychedelic or ‘magic’ mushrooms for thousands of years. They served as means of creating ‘channels’ with their gods. This practice may have helped to lay foundations of many established religions. Examples include the famous Soma drink that appears throughout the Sanskrit- a sacred language of Hinduism. They thought that the ‘active’ ingredient was possibly from the hallucinogenic Amanita Muscaria (the Fly Agaric mushroom).
Also, the ancient Greeks had their own drink made from Ergot fungus infected wheat. The active component of this fungus is very similar to synthetic LSD.
Since then and as of most recent times, research has found medicinal effects in more than 850 mushroom species. With alternative medicine wide spreading, now there is more understanding of their full benefits, for both: our bodies and our minds.
Now, evolutionarily speaking, fungi are more closely related to humans than plants. Turns out that animals and fungi share a common ancestor and branched away from plants 1 billion years ago. It was only later that animals and fungi separated. In fact, we share about 30% of our DNA with those fascinating organisms. Perhaps because of this relative evolutionary closeness, many of the compounds mushrooms produce show physiological activity in humans as well as animals.
2. Health benefits of mushrooms
Mushrooms contain the same wide range of vitamins and minerals that we would expect to obtain from fruits and vegetables. Mushrooms are also low in calories, fats and sodium. They contain a very good amount of proteins (up to 40% protein by dry weight). Those who want to decrease meat consumption, but worry about getting enough proteins, will find in mushrooms a fantastic replacement.
Mushrooms also contain B vitamins, which function to form red blood cells, that carry oxygen around in our body. They also help our body to better absorb energy from foods. Overall, their function is to keep us energised, focused and feeling positive, while promoting long-term brain health as we age.
Mushrooms are also abundant of a very important nutrient, choline. This nutrient is otherwise present in high amounts in eggs, shellfish, liver and other animal produce. Choline impacts not only liver function, healthy brain, muscle movement, but also our nervous system. It is a key nutrient for production of acetylcholine. This is a neurotransmitter crucial for memory, muscle contraction, blood pressure and many other important bodily functions. This is another reason for vegetarians and vegans to eat mushrooms.
Mushrooms are the second best food source of selenium after Brazil nuts. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that prevents damage to tissue and cells. It helps to support the immune system and in men, high selenium serum levels are may reduce prostate cancer risk(2).
Interestingly, when placed in direct sunlight, mushrooms increase in vitamin D concentration, just like humans do. In fact, mushrooms are the only natural vegan source of vitamin D. This is a crucial nutrient for bone health, but also for our immune system, mood, to suppress inflammation and more.
All mushrooms contain high amounts of beta-glucans. This substance, a type of polysaccharide, offers many health benefits, including modulation of the immune system(3). Beta-glucans are one of the key active components in medicinal mushrooms and commonly listed on supplements labels.
Mushrooms also contain a vast amount of antioxidants, which have the ability to reduce oxidative stress. This is very important because free radicals can damage our cells and DNA, which may cause disease, including cancer.
Cooking and dehydration
Mushrooms active compounds are not deteriorated by cooking or drying, offering almost the same health benefits as the fresh ones. Medicinal mushrooms however, as the name suggests, have exceptional medicinal properties compared to their culinary cousins.
So, let’s look at four of the main medicinal mushrooms available today.
3. Lion’s Mane (Hericium Erinaceus)
Lion’s Mane really stands out from the rest of the medicinal mushrooms when comparing their effects on brain health. People use Lion’s Mane to resist the natural degenerative effects of ageing. They may also help in boosting memory and focus, and to help the brain resist the negative effects of stress.
So what makes the Lion’s Mane mushroom so powerful? Well for start, It stimulates the synthesis of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which may support neurons growth. Stimulating NGF production in the brain may have a great protective action. To people who have any neurological disorders this is very promising news. This single mushroom may not only slow the progress of disease, but actually may reverse its damage.
In 2009, 30 Japanese patients whit mild cognitive impairment, participated in a small, double blind clinical trials for 16 weeks(4). Half the group received 250mg of dried Lion’s Mane mushroom three times daily, while the other half received a placebo. At week 8, 12 and 16, participants taking Lion’s Mane displayed significant cognitive function improvements compared to the placebo group”. These results suggest that Lion’s Mane is effective in improving mild cognitive impairment.
more on these medicinal mushrooms
In 2015, scientists studied Lion’s Mane on inflammation induced anxiety and depression on animals (5). The findings were very positive, suggesting that Lion’s Mane mushroom may be a great supplement to improve depression.
In 2011 another study examined the effects of Lion’s Mane on brain function, also using mice. Researchers showed that Lion’s Mane protected against memory problems caused by the buildup of particular protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease (6). Those findings yet again indicated that Lion’s Mane may be useful in prevention of cognitive dysfunction.
Let’s not ignore other health aspects of this nootropic mushroom and Lion’s Mane has plenty of them such as increased immune function, regulation of oxidation and inflammation as well as supporting cardiovascular function!
My favourite Lion’s Mane product is THIS
4. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi is probably the best known and most researched medicinal mushroom on the planet. Highly regarded for its strong effects on immune function and general anti-aging qualities, Reishi was often referred to as ‘The Mushroom of Immortality’ and ‘The Mushroom of Spiritual Potency’.
Reishi may also have nootropic properties and exert a positive effect on memory. Multiple studies indicate that it can improve this function, especially in the face of cognitive decline(7, 8).
Reishi mushroom may also work as an adaptogen, which may help the body during emotional or physical stress. Reishi mushroom improves brain function through the way it balances the hormonal system. In return it may help our bodies feeling good and energised even during mental and physical stress.
Dr. Christopher Hobbs in his book ,,Medicinal Mushrooms” writes that Reishi mushroom is ,,especially suitable as a calming herb for people with anxiety, sleeplessness, or nervousness accompanied by an adrenal weakness”, and few different studies confirm those findings(9,10).
The Reishi mushroom has been praised for over 2000 years, with a scientifically established health benefits and a long history of its consumption’s safety. Based on that data, especially in regards to cognitive function, stress management, immune and cardiovascular support, and even reduction in cancer rate, anyone who lives high-paced, busy and stressful life, is ought to benefit from this extraordinary healing mushroom.
My favourite Reishi product is THIS
5. Cordyceps (Cordyceps Militaris)
Cordyceps shares many of the same health benefits to other medicinal mushrooms, such as immune system and inflammation support. However, this type of fungus is extremely useful as a health supplement for both cognitive purposes, and for athletes who wish to increase their physical endurance and energy levels.
Recent studies have shown that Cordyceps mushroom improves the body’s ability to use oxygen(11). Even though most of the research focuses on exercise, there is a lot of potential for this mushroom to be a great benefit for cognitive performance as well. Oxygen utilisation is a vital component of our brain function and if we don’t have enough of it supplied to our brain, we can experience lightheadedness, loss of memory, tiredness, poor judgement and low mood.
Another famous Cordyceps’ quality is its effect on libido. Many people have used this mushroom for its aphrodisiac qualities, especially men. It is also commonly known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’. There is a clinical evidence that suggests there is some truth to this ancient reputation(12).
Cordyceps is definitely not your average mushroom! It is also known as the ‘zombie fungus’ getting nickname for its wicked life cycle. This type of mushroom infects various insects with each species (and there is over 400) targeting a specific one, causing them to eventually die. First, Cordyceps spores land on the insect and ‘grow’ into its body to create mycelium. From there, the mycelium consumes the body from inside and when the insect is fully eaten, the mushroom is produced from the insect’s head. Cordyceps will then release spores and the life cycle starts again.
Aren’t those ‘magical’ organisms just fascinating?
My favourite Cordyceps product is THIS
6. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Known as ‘The Gift From Heaven’ by Siberian Shamans, Chaga has also a reputation of being ‘The King of the Medicinal Mushrooms’, probably due to its antioxidant content.
Chaga is another ‘unusual’ fungus native of northern Europe, America and Siberia, growing mainly on birch trees. Drawing some powerful nutrients from the inner layers of the tree’s bark, Chaga has one of the highest ORAC values of any known food. The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale measures the capacity of any food to neutralise harmful free radicals in cells and prevent oxidative damage.
This mushroom is especially high in SOD (super-oxide dismutase), which is an enzyme that reduces free radicals damage in the body.
Chaga isn’t often thought of when talking about nootropic supplements, but thanks to those important anti-aging(13) benefits, it makes this mushroom great for supporting brain health, especially if taken over long periods of time. Unfortunately, as we age our brain cells naturally begin to deteriorate. Chaga may have ability to keep neurons healthy by fighting off the damaging effects of stress(14), toxins and aging.
Chaga may also have adaptogenic properties which, as mentioned earlier, can help us cope and neutralise damaging effects of stress. A study presented in 2011(15) was aimed to investigate the cognitive enhancing and anti-oxidant activities of Chaga mushroom. The results concluded that ,,these findings stress the critical impact of Chaga, a medicinal mushroom, on the higher brain functions like learning and memory’’.
Present-day Russians have pointed out, that in the Siberian regions where populations use Chaga, there was no cancer. Inuit tribes – Siberia’s close neighbours, who did not use Chaga, had an average life span of 40-50 years. In contrast people from Siberia, who regularly consumed Chaga mushroom, lived to 90-110 years old.
My favourite Chaga product is THIS
7. Final words on medicinal mushrooms
Mushrooms have a lot to offer us, both as food and supplements. Perhaps the greatest level of interest in their medicinal benefits is for immune function, lowering inflammation, and cancer preventative properties. More recently there’s a lot of interest in the impact of fungi on the brain health. And we don’t have to go foraging for raw mushrooms to gain from their benefits either. They are in fact increasingly available in health food stores in convenient capsule, tincture or powder form.
Author, Sylwia Wyrębek, Naturopath, MCMA
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