The Medicinal Mushroom Boom: What You Need to Know - Vital Plan

The Medicinal Mushroom Boom: What You Need to Know

If you’ve seen or heard 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 mushrooming all over the place.

Despite the recency of piqued interest, fungi is 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 thanks to their unique medicinal properties and savory flavor.

wild Armillaria Mushrooms of honey agaric In a Sunny forest.

How do mushrooms differ from plants and herbs?

Mushrooms and other fungi are unique from edible plants and medicinal herbs. “Fungi have a different physiology — they’re not in the same category as plants or animals; they’re 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. Another difference is in the cell walls. Plants’ cell walls are made mostly of cellulose (glucose), while fungi include chitlin, glucan, and proteins, which all contribute to mushrooms’ health benefits. 

Still, mushrooms and plants have some notable similarities. For one, variety. “There are so many different types of fungi, and many of them are really beneficial,” Dr. Rawls says.

Why are mushrooms beneficial?

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. How? They have complex signaling mechanisms and evolved immune systems that allow them to fend off microbes and other threats that are different 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” often describe fungi that offer such health benefits.

Where can you buy mushrooms and fungi?

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 in supplement powders, capsules, and tonics to help you bypass unappetizing flavors and textures and allow delivery of potent doses, Dr. Rawls says.

Various fresh mushrooms on a showcase in a grocery store.

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 mushroom buck:

The Best Fungi and Mushrooms For Health, According to Dr. Rawls


mushroom reishi

Dr. Rawls says that Reishi mushrooms and two lesser-known types called turkey tail and chaga are considered “shelf” mushrooms because they grow on the sides of trees. “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.”

mushroom cordyceps

Cordyceps isn’t a mushroom that grows on trees or in soil, but rather a fungus that naturally grows on the backs of a particular 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.”

mushroom shiitake

Shiitake and maitake mushrooms, unlike shelf fungi and cordyceps, have a delicious, savory flavor and meaty texture that comes 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.

So we now know Dr. Rawls’ picks, but why did he choose them?

Trendy or not, the fungus among us are potent medicines hiding in plain sight — sometimes in damp, dark places or under logs and leaves. Regardless, research shows and Dr. Rawls agrees 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:

The Power of Mushrooms & 5 Reasons Why You Should Care

1. Use Mushrooms For Immune System Support

Close up of reishi mushroom with capsule on wood

“Fungi’s most important function is immune modulation,” Dr. Rawls says. “If parts of your immune system are overactive, they tone it down so that 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. Dr. Rawls explains that one key to this power is the beta-glucan in mushroom cell walls. These specialized polysaccharides prime the immune system for working against harmful microbes.

Indeed, a study found that a supplement made from reishi, shiitake, maitake, and other mushrooms enhanced the immune response of mice exposed to the flu virus. Other research 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

lab table testing and applying cancer tests with mushrooms

“Medicinal mushrooms increase your body’s natural killer cells, which are remarkably important for taking out abnormal cells and harmful 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 defenses against cancer, fungi may 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 found that reishi mushroom extract helped inhibit the release of inflammatory compounds in melanoma and breast cancer cells. It also 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 Keep You Young

Happy healthy senior couple with their grandaughter harvesting vegetables on allotment. Man pushing small girl in wheelbarrow, woman carrying vegetables in a basket.

A robust and supported immune system is just one way mushrooms support healthy aging, but there are also several 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 various antioxidants.

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. One 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.

But it’s not only edible mushrooms that help. Dr. Rawls says that Reishi and cordyceps are also high in antioxidants, plus they help balance the body’s stress response and increase the oxygenation of tissues. All those factors can contribute to greater vitality and health as you age.

4. Your Gut Loves Shrooms

various mushrooms on plate and on a table, spoon and seasoning behind plate

Mushrooms make effective prebiotics, meaning they provide fuel for the beneficial bugs in your gut and promote a healthy microbiome. According to a review 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. 

But fungi’s effects on microbiota aren’t the only way they protect your gut. One study showed that cordyceps may help bolster or protect the intestinal mucosal barrier, which helps nutrient absorption and protects you from external factors.

5. Mushrooms Promote a Healthy Weight

Healthy eating concept.White Plate with mushrooms, fork, knife  and measurement on wooden table.

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 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 showed that mice on a high-fat diet gained less weight when given reishi compared to those who didn’t get the extract. According to researchers, the mushroom helped protect against insulin resistance, gut inflammation, and the growth of harmful bacteria linked to weight gain.

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.

Diferent Types of Edible Mushrooms in Top View

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 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 not found naturally in reishi mushrooms.

How to be sure you’re getting quality mushroom/fungi products?

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. 

How to Read the Label?

Step 1:

Check the label for specifications 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.

Step 2:

Next, ensure you’re getting an extract that is more concentrated than a whole mushroom 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.

Step 3:

Make sure the extract label lists the 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 in the powder or raw ingredient. Burke explains that concentrated extracts — i.e., 12:1 — are more potent since the beneficial nutrients have been condensed and the fiber left behind.

Words of Caution:

Even if you’re following steps 1-3 above, it may still pay to dig a little deeper, 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. 

To get around this, we suggest you follow…

Step 4:

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 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 the body can utilize them.

The Bottom Line: Ensure Quality To Receive Mushroom Health Benefits

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.

As a company that takes great pride in harnessing the power of herb and mushroom extracts, we encourage you to see what we have to offer. Take our Vital Planner Quiz (2-3 minutes) to discover Vital Plan’s solutions for you.

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