If you’ve been seeing or hearing a lot about mushrooms lately, it’s not just you. Fungi have sprouted into a full-on trend, and the number of products featuring ’shrooms of some sort — foods, beverages (even cocktails), nutritional products and supplements — are, well, mushrooming all over the place.
But despite the recency of our piqued interest in fungi, they are far from a new fad. More and more research has shed light on their healing and health-supporting potential — for the immune system, cancer, healthy aging, and more. Not to mention that for centuries, mushrooms have been a cornerstone of traditional medicine and a tasty addition to dinner plates across the world thanks to their unique medicinal properties and savory flavor.
Mushrooms and other fungi — molds and yeasts are also part of this group — are unique from other edible plants and medicinal herbs. “Fungi have a very different physiology — they’re not in the same category or kingdom as plants or animals; they’re really in a league by themselves,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan.
For instance, fungi produce spores rather than seeds for germination, and they don’t have roots or require sunlight and chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Rather, they rely on what’s called mycelium, which acts like a root system and takes up nutrients from the soil or the surface they grow on. The mycelium houses the mushroom’s complex immune system, plus many of its potent powers.
Another main difference is in the cell walls. Plants’ cell walls are made mostly of cellulose (a type of glucose). Fungi’s, on the other hand, include chitin, a polysaccharide known as N-acetylglucosamine, as well as glucans (a polysaccharide with powerful bioactive abilities), and proteins, all of which can contribute to mushrooms’ health benefits, too. Still, there are some notable similarities between mushrooms and plants, including other medicinal herbs. For one: Variety. “There are so many different types of fungi, and a lot of them are really beneficial,” Dr. Rawls says.
And, although a few fungi (and plants) may be poisonous, far more are harmless, and many have the power to help improve or support human health. They have complex signaling mechanisms as well as evolved immune systems that allow them to fend off microbes and other threats that are different from but complementary to the human system. And therein lies much of mushroom’s health-promoting power, Dr. Rawls says.
The terms “functional fungi” and “tonic mushrooms” are often used to describe fungi that offer such health benefits. You can buy many of the best fresh or dried fungi in the grocer’s produce section or at the farmer’s market. Others you wouldn’t want to cook up for dinner, but you can get them (as well as some edible versions) in supplement powders, capsules, tonics, and the like that help you bypass unappetizing flavors and textures and also allow delivery of potent doses, Dr. Rawls says.
So, which fungi are best? It’s hard to say. More than 100 different medicinal mushrooms are used in Asia to address cancer alone. But there are a few common ones that have been well-researched and are known to provide the biggest health bang for your ’shroom buck:
Reishi mushrooms, as well as two lesser-known types called turkey tail and chaga, are considered “shelf” mushrooms because they grow on the sides of trees, Dr. Rawls says. “Many of these types have medicinal value, with reishi being the most common,” he says. “But they’re not ones you’d want to eat. They’re hard, like cork, and very bitter.”
Cordyceps isn’t a mushroom that grows on trees or in soil, but rather a fungus that naturally grows on the backs of a certain species of caterpillar that lives in the mountains of Tibet. “It was considered a rare and valuable fungi for emperors in ancient China and Tibet — and today the cost of natural cordyceps is higher than gold,” Dr. Rawls says. “Fortunately, it can now also be cultivated in the lab inexpensively but with the same medicinal qualities.”
Shiitake and maitake mushrooms, unlike shelf fungi and cordyceps, have a delicious, savory flavor and meaty texture that happens to come with a hearty helping of health benefits. Shiitakes sprout on decaying oak, maple, and other hardwood trees, while maitakes, also known as “hen of the woods” mushrooms, grow in clusters at the base of trees.
The Power of Mushrooms
Trendy or not, the fungus among us are potent medicines hiding in plain sight — or, sometimes, hiding in damp dark places or under logs and leaves. Regardless, research shows that medicinal mushrooms are a bandwagon worth jumping on. While there are multiple ways fungi support our health, here are five key things to know:
1. Mushrooms Fine-Tune Your Immune System
“Fungi’s most important function is that of immune modulation,” Dr. Rawls says. “If parts of your immune system are overactive, they tone it down, so in that way, they may help counteract autoimmune responses.”
On the other hand, fungi are also known to bump up parts of the immune system that fight disease and intracellular pathogenic microbes. One key to this power is the beta-glucan in mushroom cell walls, Dr. Rawls explains. These specialized polysaccharides prime the immune system for working against harmful microbes.
Indeed, a study published in the Annals of Translational Medicine found that a beta-glucan-rich supplement made from reishi, shiitake, maitake, and other mushrooms enhanced the immune response of mice exposed to the flu virus. Other research has found cordyceps similarly helps boost immunity against the flu. In addition, studies also show that medicinal mushrooms have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
2. Mushrooms’ Powers for Reducing Cancer Risk are Well Documented
“Medicinal mushrooms increase your body’s natural killer cells, which are remarkably important for taking out abnormal cells and harmful intracellular microbes that may contribute to cancer,” Dr. Rawls says. Simply eating mushrooms is one way to harness the protective benefits. A review in the journal Nutrire found that a healthy diet that frequently includes mushrooms may reduce the risk of developing cancer.
Supplements, which allow more potent doses of mushrooms’ bioactive compounds, are also a smart move. In addition to promoting your body’s own defenses against cancer, fungi may also directly target or alter cancer cells or slow or stop tumor cells. In fact, in Asian countries, mushrooms are traditionally used in conjunction with traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, and there’s a wealth of research showing the myriad ways mushrooms and their active compounds work against cancer.
For example, research published in the journal Nutrients found that reishi mushroom extract helped inhibit the release of inflammatory compounds in melanoma and breast cancer cells, plus it helped thwart cancer cells’ viability and ability to migrate. Another study, which looked at the effects of cordyceps on colorectal cancer cells, found that the fungi’s extract was highly toxic to the cells and contributed to tumor growth inhibition.
3. Mushrooms May Help Keep You Young
A robust and supported immune system is one way they support healthy aging, of course, but there are a number of other ways fungi are linked to increased longevity. “The fundamental thing that drives aging is burning out your mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of cells,” Dr. Rawls says. “Mushrooms help protect mitochondria.” They do this in part by providing high levels of a variety of antioxidants.
In fact, research shows that mushrooms deliver exceedingly high amounts of two specialized antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, which play a key role in healthy aging and fending off diseases like Alzheimer’s. Another study found that people who ate two or more servings of mushrooms a week reduced their risk for mild cognitive impairment by half compared to those who ate mushrooms once or fewer times per week. Researchers think it could have something to do with mushrooms’ ergothioneine.
But it’s not only edible mushrooms that help. Reishi and cordyceps are also high in antioxidants, plus help balance the body’s stress response and increase oxygenation of tissues, Dr. Rawls says. All of those factors can contribute to greater vitality and health as you get older. Reishi was even found to help protect collagen-producing skin cells from sun-induced damage, which causes skin wrinkling.
4. Your Gut Loves ’Shrooms
Mushrooms’ beta-glucan, chitin, and other natural polysaccharides make effective prebiotics, meaning they provide fuel for the beneficial bugs in your gut and promote a healthy microbiome, according to a review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. The researchers note that beta-glucan-rich reishi in particular helps support healthy gut bacteria, but so does adding mushrooms of all types to your diet.
For example, maitake mushrooms were shown to help balance the gut microbes of mice fed a high-fat diet, according to a study in the journal Food & Function. Another study found that eating white button mushrooms increased the diversity of mice’s microbiota — a sign of a healthy gut — plus helped speed recovery from a bacterial infection. What’s more, follow-up research suggests those positive effects could extend beyond the gut: The type of gut changes the mushrooms produced seemed to improve glucose control in the liver.
But fungi’s effects on microbiota aren’t the only way they protect your gut. A pilot study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine showed that cordyceps may help bolster or protect the intestinal mucosal barrier. Researchers administered cordyceps to mice with gut-barrier dysfunction and sepsis. What they found: The fungi seemed to promote new growth of mucosal cells, restore the tight junctions between epithelial cells, and protect cells from damage compared to a placebo.
5. They Promote a Healthy Weight
Along with beta-glucans and other bioactive polysaccharides, edible mushrooms provide essential amino acids, fiber, and other nutrients like magnesium and zinc that you need in a healthy diet. But one part of edible mushrooms’ magic lies in their meaty texture and savory, umami flavor, which make them ultra-satisfying without overloading you with saturated fat and calories.
But mushrooms work in several other, more specialized ways to help keep weight in check. First, they could help control the glycemic response after eating. Researchers found that portabella powder, for example, modulated blood glucose and the insulin response after people drank a glucose drink, plus reduced feelings of hunger two hours later.
Studies on reishi mushroom extract also suggest that it helps protect against weight gain and obesity through its regulatory effects on gut bacteria, according to a review in the journal Molecules. One study even showed that mice on a high-fat diet gained less weight when given reishi compared to those that didn’t get the extract. The mushroom helped protect against insulin resistance, gut inflammation, and the growth of harmful bacteria linked to weight gain, according to researchers.
How To Get The Most From Mushrooms
Adding more fungi to your diet is a great place to start, Dr. Rawls says. It’s easy to toss mild-tasting button, crimini, and portabella mushrooms into stews, soups, and sautés, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other varieties known for medicinal qualities, especially shiitake, maitake, and others typically used in Asian cuisine.
Supplements containing mushroom extracts, meanwhile, deliver potent amounts of the beneficial compounds, but know that not all are created equal. For example, a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports evaluated 19 different reishi mushroom-containing brands and found that only a quarter of supplements contained the amount of bioactive compounds their labels promised. The others tended to include fillers — starch-like polysaccharides not found naturally in reishi mushrooms.
How to be sure you’re getting a quality product? It can be tricky, so right off the bat, “purchase from a reliable brand that is trustworthy and transparent,” says Ryan Burke, Director of Product for Vital Plan. “Considering the recent mushroom boom, I bet we’ll start to see a ‘sprinkling’ of mushrooms added to various products — aka label dressing — just for consumer appeal but providing little or no health benefit.” Transparency isn’t a guarantee, but it’s one signal of proper quality control.
Transparent companies will also have labels that give you additional clues as to quality. First, check the label for specification on which part of the fungi the extract is made from to be sure you’re taking what you intend. “Fruitbody” means it’s made from the actual mushroom; “mycelium” means it’s from the “root” system.
Next, make sure you’re getting an extract, which is more concentrated than a powder. Look for the percentage of the fungi’s bioactive compound (like beta-glucan for reishi, or cordycepic acid for cordyceps). “With reishi, for example, much of the beneficial nutrients are locked inside the cell wall, so a powder made from reishi that has simply been ground and milled may not provide as much benefit as a mushroom extract,” Burke says.
An extract label should also list an average ratio of the bioactive compound There are two types of extracts. A 1:1 extract means the nutrients have been released from the cell wall, but all the fiber is still present in the powder or raw ingredient. Concentrated extracts — i.e. 12:1 — are more potent since the beneficial nutrients have been condensed and the fiber left behind, Burke explains.
But it may pay to dig a little deeper still, given how trendy mushrooms are now — and how expensive the raw ingredients are. “The more expensive the ingredient, the more likely adulteration will be a problem, Burke says. “For example, it’s very easy to artificially spike polysaccharide levels by cutting it with a starchy powder.”
To get around this, check the manufacturer’s website or even contact them directly to determine if the ingredient meets the following qualifications:
- It should be identified by what’s called high-performance thin layer chromatography (HPTLC), a sophisticated method of analyzing identity and quality.
- It should be grown without the use grain substrates that may artificially boost polysaccharides
- It should be extracted using hot water or dual extraction, a two-part process using hot water followed by alcohol. These methods help efficiently pull out beneficial phytonutrients so that they can be utilized by the body.
Taking your health into your own hands — and ensuring you’re getting quality products for your money — is an empowering feeling. And harnessing the incredible healing power of mushrooms is an easy and excellent way to do both.
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