Benefits of Functional Mushrooms
How Functional Mushrooms Benefit Your Health
First, what do we mean by functional mushrooms? We aren’t talking about “magic mushrooms” with psychedelic effects. Nor are these simply culinary mushrooms, although they are edible. There are over 2,000 known species of edible mushrooms, but only 15 are recognized for having “functional” benefits, or wellness benefits that go beyond their nutritional value.
Like many health trends that seem to come out of nowhere, this one is actually ancient. Functional mushrooms have been a part of traditional health practices for hundreds of years, particularly in Asia, where they remain common today.
What makes these mushrooms so beneficial? Mushrooms are superfoods loaded with nutrients and bioactive compounds, including polyphenols, antioxidants, polysaccharides, and beta glucans, which work together to support your overall health and immunity. Modern research is now beginning to shed light on how some of these compounds can benefit your health.
Here are a few general reasons why functional mushrooms are so good for you:
1. Mushrooms support immune health
Functional mushrooms are especially prized for their immune health benefits. Bioactive compounds in these mushrooms have been shown to modulate the innate immune system to support a balanced and appropriate immune response.1 Beta glucans, the most common active compounds among functional mushrooms, are considered particularly beneficial. A review of clinical studies found that beta glucans support healthy immune defenses and fewer allergy-related complaints.2
2. Mushrooms are considered adaptogens
In traditional Eastern health practices, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, functional mushrooms are often classified as adaptogens. Adaptogens are a unique class of herbs that support the body’s ability to adapt to physical or psychological stress. They help mediate the body’s stress response to promote stability and minimize negative effects of stress on the body and mind.3 Adaptogenic mushrooms such as reishi are thought to help calm the nerves and support a balanced mood.
3. Mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants
Functional mushrooms were traditionally used to help promote long life and healthy aging. Their high antioxidant levels may have something to do with this. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals – highly reactive molecules that accumulate in the body as we age and can damage cells and tissues, contributing to the effects of aging. The abundance of antioxidant compounds in mushrooms may help protect against oxidative stress and its age-related effects.4
4. Mushrooms support gut health
Mushrooms are a natural source of prebiotics, which act as food for your friendly gut bacteria. These friendly microbes, or probiotics, help keep less desirable microbes in check and provide benefits for your digestion, immunity, and more. Compounds from turkey tail mushroom, for instance, have been shown to increase beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium and help crowd out harmful gut bacteria.5 Research suggests that some of the health benefits of functional mushrooms are a direct result of their effects on the gut microbiota.6
5. Mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses
Edible mushrooms make a great addition to a healthy diet. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, amino acids, and fiber, and low in calories. Mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, and are one of the only foods that naturally produce vitamin D when grown in the sun. Not all functional mushrooms are good to eat, but shitake, maitake, and lion’s mane are a few examples of mushrooms that taste great and have added health benefits as well.
Your Guide to Functional Mushrooms
Functional mushrooms share many benefits among them, but different mushroom types also have their own unique benefits. Here’s a simple guide to some of the most well-known functional mushrooms and what they are good for.
This shaggy-looking white mushroom can be found growing on beech and oak trees as summer turns to fall. In addition to its therapeutic use, it’s also a culinary mushroom that’s said to taste like seafood when sauteed, although you’re unlikely to find it in a grocery store because of its short shelf life.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, lion’s mane mushroom has been used for centuries to support brain health, and research suggests there may be good reason for this. Lion’s mane contains natural bioactive compounds that are known to support cognitive health, including hericenones and erinacines.
Hericenones and erinacines can cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain and stimulate the synthesis of NGF (nerve growth factor) and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – compounds that help promote the growth, repair, and normal functioning of brain and nerve cells. These factors are important for maintaining healthy brain function and neuroplasticity.7,8,9
In one study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment who took lion’s mane for four months saw an improvement in their cognitive functioning. The benefits faded once they stopped taking the mushroom supplement.10 More human studies are needed to confirm these results.
Like other functional mushrooms, lion’s mane is rich in antioxidants, which help protect against oxidative stress, a contributing factor to cognitive aging.11 Lion’s mane is also rich in beta glucans, which help support your immune health and gut health.12,13
Lion’s mane is a featured ingredient in our Mushrooms Brain + Immune Blend, a select blend of functional mushrooms to support brain and immune health.
One of the most celebrated functional mushrooms in Asia, reishi has been highly prized in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for thousands of years. A woody mushroom with a glossy red cap that grows in a fan shape on hardwood trees, it is said to symbolize success, well-being, spiritual power, and longevity in Asian tradition.
Incredibly rare in the wild, reishi was once reserved for emperors and kings, who regarded it as the “mushroom of immortality” for its healthy aging and immune benefits. Chinese Taoist monks were also said to use reishi as an adaptogen to support calm and enhance their meditation practice.14
Today, reishi is widely cultivated for therapeutic use and is one of the most extensively studied herbs in the world. Researchers have identified over 200 bioactive compounds in reishi that may be responsible for its legendary health benefits, including unique triterpenoids, polysaccharides and peptidoglycans.15
The polysaccharides in reishi have demonstrated effects on immune function16 and seem to particularly impact white blood cells.17 Reishi has also been shown to support immune function in athletes under physical stress,18 which supports its reputation as an adaptogen.
Reishi is also popularly used for stress support and healthy sleep. This may be thanks to a compound called tripertene, which is thought to support a balanced mood and better sleep.19 Early research has shown that reishi may help patients under medical supervision to manage their stress better. Reishi has been found to help support a healthy mood and sense of well-being in those struggling with nervous stress and fatigue,20 as well as in individuals undergoing endocrine therapy.21
Reishi’s tough texture and bitter flavor make it less than ideal for eating, but it can be added in powdered form to coffee, chocolate, or tea, or better yet, taken as an extract. We’ve included reishi in our Mushrooms Brain + Immune Blend, as well as in our Whole Food Multivitamin + Immune Blend.
Turkey tail mushrooms grow on hardwood trees in multicolored fan shapes that look just like their name. Though too tough to eat, they have a long history of traditional medicinal use, particularly in Asia, where they were often brewed as a tea. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, turkey tail has been used to support respiratory and immune health for hundreds of years.
These immune health benefits are increasingly supported by research. Turkey tail boasts an impressive portfolio of beta glucans, antioxidants, and other unique compounds that support the immune system, most notably two polysaccharides called PSP and PSK, which have been shown to help boost the immune defense activity of certain white blood cells and support a balanced immune response.22,23
Turkey tail can still be taken as a tea or ground up with coffee, but is more often taken as a supplement. We’ve included it in our Whole Food Multivitamin + Immune Blend, as well as our Mushrooms Brain + Immune Blend supplement.
You are probably already familiar with shitake mushrooms, one of the few on this list that are commonly found at the grocery store. A popular ingredient in Chinese and Japanese style cooking, shiitakes have been cultivated in Asia for both culinary and medicinal uses for over a thousand years.
Shiitake mushrooms are a nutrient-rich food, with high levels of B vitamins, copper, selenium, and zinc, and many of the same amino acids found in meat. They also contain compounds that are thought to support blood vessel health,24,25 including eritadenine, a unique compound that may help reduce blood cholesterol levels,26 as well as plant sterols and other types of fiber that may help reduce cholesterol absorption in the gut.
Of course, shiitakes are also rich in beta glucans and other immunomodulating compounds, including lentinan, a beta glucan that has been medically used in Japan to support immune health.27,28 Though research is still in the early stages, a few small clinical studies have found that shitake mushroom can help support healthy immune defenses by regulating the activity of natural killer cells and other T-cells.29,30
Shiitake mushrooms are widely enjoyed for their earthy, umami flavor in soups and stir fries. They can also be found in teas and supplements. We’ve included some in our Whole Food Multivitamin + Immune Blend.
Nicknamed “hen of the woods” for its fluffy, feathered appearance, maitake is another popular culinary mushroom with a long history of traditional medicinal use. It’s also been called “king of the mushrooms” because it can grow as large as 50 or even 100 pounds in the wild. Maitake has a delicate texture and a woodsy flavor that’s been compared to eggplant.
Traditionally, maitake mushroom was taken as an adaptogen to calm the nerves and support immunity. A favorite of Japanese royalty, it was considered so valuable in feudal Japan that it was traded as currency for its weight in silver. This may explain how it got its name, maitake, which translates as “dancing mushroom,” because those who found it were said to dance with joy.
Today, maitake is as popular as ever, and widely cultivated as both a food and a supplement. The especially high concentration of beta glucans and other bioactive compounds in maitake has led to a surge of research into its potential health benefits.
One of the most interesting and widely studied compounds in maitake is D-fraction, a beta glucan that has demonstrated immune-enhancing activity.31,32,33 Another beta glucan, SX-fraction, may support metabolic health by helping with insulin sensitivity and blood sugar management.34,35
Maitake also appears to work well in synergy with other functional mushrooms. Studies combining maitake with shiitake and reishi mushrooms have shown enhanced immune benefits greater than the additive effects of the individual mushroom extracts.36,37 It’s one of the reasons we combine all three in our Whole Food Multivitamin + Immune Blend.
Choosing Functional Mushroom Supplements
Interested in trying functional mushrooms as supplements? Here’s what to look for to make sure you’re getting a high-quality mushroom supplement.
1. Fruiting Bodies vs. Mycelium
Check the label to see which part of the mushroom is being used – the fruiting body, or the mycelium. If mushrooms were plants, the mushroom cap above ground would be the fruit, and the mycelium would be the root structure. The fruiting body is the part that contains the highest concentration of bioactive compounds, although many mushroom supplements are made from the mycelium.
2. Mushroom Powders vs. Extracts
There are two kinds of mushroom supplements: those made from dried whole mushrooms, and those made from concentrated mushroom extracts. Both are beneficial, but in different ways. One gives you a broader spectrum of nutrients, while the other can give you more potency.
Whole mushroom powders contain more of the elements that make up a whole food: the amino acids, complex carbs, vitamins and minerals, etc. But the levels of beta glucans, antioxidants, and other unique bioactive compounds are relatively low by volume.
A mushroom extract is a distilled concentrate of the mushroom’s active compounds. The mushroom teas used in Traditional Chinese Medicine are a type of extract. The mushrooms would be boiled for hours to release and distill their beneficial compounds. Some of today's extracts can deliver beta glucan levels that are many times higher than whole mushroom powders.
During the cooking process that makes an extract, the beta glucans are freed from the mushroom’s cellular matrix, which is thought to make these compounds more bioavailable. Some nutrients are lost, but impurities are also purified out. And because the extracts are more concentrated, it takes a smaller amount to give you a meaningful dose of beta glucans.
Check the label to see if your supplement is made from mushroom extracts or whole mushroom powders. (An extract is not always in liquid form, it can also be made into a powder.)
3. Verified Beta Glucan Levels
Most of the mushroom benefits that researchers have observed are attributed to the beta glucans. If you’re taking a mushroom supplement for the beta glucans, you want to have some confirmation that it contains a significant amount of those beneficial compounds.
Extracts are generally more concentrated, but not all extracts are the same. Many extracts are not standardized and may contain inconsistent levels of bioactive compounds. Unless the extracts are tested for their beta glucan levels, the company won’t know, and neither will you.
A standardized extract, on the other hand, is designed to meet a standard level of potency. This is verified by measuring the concentration of a key bioactive compound, such as beta glucans. A mushroom extract can be standardized to contain a minimum percentage of beta glucans. This ensures you are getting a potent extract with significant beta glucan levels, verified by testing.
A supplement that uses standardized mushroom extracts will declare the minimum percentage of beta glucans right on the supplement fact label, so you don’t have to guess whether it really contains a meaningful amount of the beneficial compounds you are looking for.
Our Mushrooms Brain + Immune Blend is designed to give you the best quality, high potency mushroom supplement targeted for brain and immune health. We selected three of the most well-researched functional mushrooms: Lion’s Mane, best known for brain support, and Reishi and Turkey Tail for immune support. Our supplement is made with organic mushroom extracts derived only from the fruiting bodies and standardized to contain a minimum 25% beta glucans.
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