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January 10, 2022 10 min read

While magic mushrooms and their psychedelic effects might be what everyone thinks of when “mushroom effects” come up, there’s actually a host of other benefits that fungi can have on our health.

From boosting the immune system to improving brain health and heart health, mushroom benefits are as wide and varied as mushrooms themselves.

While the research on mushrooms has only picked up pace in recent years, mushrooms have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties. The Greeks talked about amadou mushrooms as an anti-inflammatory as early as 450 BC, while Chinese texts from 206 BC give reishi anti-aging properties. This medicinal usage of mushrooms has continued widely in Asia especially, while the West has only recently begun to take a closer look at shrooms.

For example, in Asia, there are over 100 types of mushrooms that are purported to treat cancer.

We’ll take a look at some of the benefits of mushrooms and a few of the most popular mushrooms to look out for. However, a grain of salt should be taken with many of these claims as we’ll see at the end.

Antioxidants and free radicals in balance - pictured as balanced balls on scale

Antioxidant Properties

One of the most cited benefits of many different fungi varieties is their use as antioxidants. Antioxidants are a type of molecule that fights a compound in your body called “free radicals.” Some level of free radicals is important for your immune system to properly function, but if too many free radicals are found in comparison to antioxidant molecules, the body goes into a state known as oxidative stress. If oxidative stress lasts too long, it can lead to damage to molecules in your body and even your DNA.

This plays a part in the risk of getting cancer, and it could even be tied to the aging process.

Things like smoking, alcohol, pollution, infections, high blood sugar levels, and toxins will all increase the levels of free radicals. Chaga mushrooms are particularly high in antioxidants, but more common white mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms also contain these beneficial molecules.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Simply speaking, inflammation is our body’s response to any type of irritant—whether that’s going to be a germ or a splinter you get in your finger. When your body responds by trying to protect itself, it increases the production of immune cells, white blood cells, and cytokines. These molecules help to repair injuries and fight illnesses and infections.

However, chronic inflammation can also occur in those who are either obese or under stress.

Chronic inflammation can lead to the development of illnesses such as heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Reishi mushrooms have particularly strong anti-inflammatory properties, along with chaga and cordyceps.

Supporting the Immune System

The immune system is difficult to describe in simple terms because it encompasses so many different aspects of our bodily functions. In short, it’s a network of processes that protects us from illnesses, diseases, and helps us recover from injuries. This aspect is very closely tied with antioxidants and also inflammation, but it encompasses more than just those things. Along with chaga and reishi mushrooms that we already mentioned, lion’s mane is also a great contender for an immune-boosting mushroom.

Shrooms for Brain Health

This is another general category that encompasses many different parts that all work together to keep your brain healthy and your thinking clear. Things like cognition, memory and the ability to concentrate are all tied to a healthy functioning brain. This is a combination of genetics and external factors such as diet, pollution, sleeping schedule, and physical activity levels.

The healthier the lifestyle you live, the healthier the brain you have.

Imbalances in certain compounds can lead to things like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s down the road. Lion’s mane is especially useful because it contains compounds that help your nerves grow (NFG) and also help to insulate nerve fibers (myelin).

Helping the Nervous System

This point also follows from the prior point on brain health, but it also includes things like balance, coordination, responses to stressful situations, digestion, sleeping, and even your senses. Once again, it’s a very encompassing category that mushrooms do a lot to help you with.

Your nerves control everything you do, so keeping them healthy is important.

Things like avoiding smoking, having a well-rounded and nutritious diet, staying active, and sleeping enough all play an important role in keeping your nervous system functioning and healthy. Like with brain health, lion’s mane is a particularly good contender in this category. Along with helping your nerves stay healthy, in a study on rats it was found that daily lion’s mane consumption led to faster nerve regeneration.

Supporting Healthy Blood Sugar

Also known as blood glucose, blood sugar is the sugar in your blood that’s used for energy. This sugar comes from the carbohydrates you eat, it’s immediately available for the body to use. Whatever isn’t used ends up being stored in your cells. Although this blood sugar is necessary, levels that are too high can result in type 2 diabetes. If this disease isn’t properly managed, it can lead to issues with the eyes, kidneys, blood vessels, and heart.

The best thing you can do is avoid things like white bread, sugary cereals, soft drinks, cookies, and donuts.

However, certain mushrooms can also help to manage blood sugar levels. For example, mushrooms rich in beta-glucan such as oyster and shiitake mushrooms are considered to be some of the best.

Increasing Energy

The last purported benefit of some mushroom supplements is that they can increase your energy. This is another general category that encompasses many different systems in the body, but we’ll primarily be looking at how your cells utilize energy.

One of the best ways to feel energized is to use more energy—staying physically active isn’t just good for your brain and your body, but it will also make you feel more energized.

Avoiding smoking and alcohol, eating healthy, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule will all work to keep your energy reserves full. Certain mushrooms such as cordyceps also contain a compound known as ATP. This compound is what gives your cells energy, and why cordyceps have been used traditionally for hundreds of years.

Wicker tray with variety of raw mushrooms on wooden table

Mushrooms of Note

While there are some properties that all mushrooms share, there are certain varieties that are better suited for certain needs. The world of mushrooms is vast, and so are the different interactions that mushrooms can have with the human body.

That doesn’t mean you need to try every single mushroom out there to get the full range of benefits—many mushrooms simply contain more concentrations of compounds that can help us in various ways. It can also be a good idea to test mushroom species individually to better figure out which ones speak to you and your needs the most.

Below are some of the most interesting and lauded varieties of mushrooms that each have their unique niche to fill in the world of fungi supplementation.

Reishi

Reishi (also known as lingzhi) is one of the most well-known mushroom supplements, first being recorded for its medicinal benefits around 2000 years ago. It was a mushroom that was regarded very highly, even used to increase longevity by royalty. On the other hand, monks used it to increase calmness. Although some of the bigger claims may be farfetched, reishi continues to be used for its immune support. It’s also believed to reduce stress and offer better sleep.

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane mushroom gets its name from its shaggy appearance that grows on tree trunks in more Northern areas. Like reishi, it’s been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. As we saw above, lion’s mane is a very useful mushroom for maintaining nerve health and cognition. It’s filled with beta-glucans, antioxidants, and neuroprotective chemicals that help in a variety of ways, not just limited to healthy nerve growth.

Maitake

More commonly known as the “hen of the woods,” maitake mushrooms are commonly found in both Japan and North America. It’s a mushroom that’s edible by itself, containing plenty of polysaccharides that are connected to the growth of cells. These mushrooms are particularly well known for their immune boosting effects by strengthening our bodies’ lymphocytes that protect us from illness (such as t-helper cells and natural killer cells).

Shiitake

These mushrooms are great to cook with, making them one of the most popular mushroom varieties in the world. They’ve been cultivated in Japan for centuries, at one point being known as the “elixir of life.” While this claim is largely dubious, shiitake mushrooms have been shown to be great for liver function and supporting the cardiovascular system. Although the science is still out on this one, there has been a compound discovered in shiitake called eritadenine. This compound has been seen to lower cholesterol, but not in all studies.

Chaga

Chaga is not technically a mushroom, but rather a sclerotium (which is still a type of fungus). Growing on tree trunks and looking like a dark canker, this fungus consists entirely of dense mycelium—the filaments that make up the body of a fungus. This mushroom was first used in Russia in the 16th century for stomach issues and has alleged anti-cancer benefits. While the trial is still out on this, chaga does provide a good source of antioxidants and helps with liver health.

Turkey Tail

Used for centuries in China as a treatment for lung disease, turkey tail mushroom also has one of the highest concentrations of beta-glucans out of any mushroom. While its traditional benefits are unconfirmed, turkey tail can improve immune function by increasing natural killer cells.

The Different Forms of Mushroom Supplements

When deciding on which mushroom supplement you want to incorporate into your diet, you want to look at more than just the type of mushroom. The format of delivery is also important since some forms of mushroom extract will be easier to incorporate into your lifestyle than others.

Mushroom supplements often come in either powdered supplements, capsules, or drinks and broths.Powdered supplements can be mixed into other foods to make supplementation quick and easy.For example, mixing into soups, smoothies, or even coffee.

The taste of mushrooms differs from variety to variety, and some may need more of a “flavor mask” than others. The best idea is to experiment to see what works for you. Capsules of mushroom powder are also quickly and easily implemented into a routine. The drawback is that it can be easier to forget or get into the habit of taking a capsule on a routine basis.

That’s why drink mixes can be a great option for those just starting out with mushroom supplementation.

Powdered drink mixes or broths are an easy way of bringing mushrooms into your diet. There’s plenty of mushroom coffee and tea choices available that will give you the boost of energy that you’re used to in the morning.

Functional Mushrooms Closer to Home

However, you don’t need to look far from home in order to capitalize on some of the magical properties of mushrooms. Even your basic white button mushrooms are a great source of fiber, vitamin B, and minerals such as copper, potassium, and selenium. At the same time, they’re low in calories making them a great food for weight loss. A similarity that mushrooms share with humans but not plants is that they can convert the sun’s ultraviolet light into vitamin D.

This makes mushrooms a great source of vitamin D (and one of the only decent dietary sources of it).

One drawback is that many mushrooms are grown in commercial farms which don’t offer any natural sunlight and only sometimes use UV light. One workaround to this is to slice your mushrooms and set them out in the sunlight on a baking sheet. Doing this for even 15 minutes can sharply increase the amount of vitamin D found in the fungi.

Taking Your Medicinal Mushrooms with a Grain of Salt

The lauded benefits of mushrooms really do seem to be magical, but the many of the purported benefits of shroom supplements are based on either test tube studies or studies done on animals. At the same time, it’s important to remember that we’ve been using mushrooms for their medicinal properties for thousands of years. Although we’ve never had today’s scientific ability to test and study different compounds, we also shouldn’t write off thousands of years of usage.

However, evidence is only part of the problem.

In a 2017 study, it was found that out of 19 reishi mushroom supplements sold in the US, only 5 were in accordance with what was advertised on the label. Put another way: almost 75% of reishi supplements didn’t actually contain the bioactive parts of reishi that are supposed to be beneficial (i.e., triterpenes and polysaccharides).

This also highlights the need to do your own research when looking to buy a mushroom supplement for a particular health benefit. For example, some mushrooms are often touted as a cancer treatment but this isn’t supported by clinical trials—professional medical advice should always be followed first before relying on supplements for their alleged health benefits. There are legitimate claims to be made and legitimate products to be bought, but at the moment, due diligence is required by consumers to ensure that they’re not being swindled.

Wellness sign with wooden cubes and flowers and stones

Mushrooms for Holistic Wellness

While the above paints a bleak picture of the mushroom supplement industry, there’s still a lot of evidence that holds up mushrooms to be a worthy supplement. While the area has been under-researched and under-funded, that only means there’s a lot of opportunities for further discoveries to be made about the compounds found in different mushrooms.

But mushrooms should also only be seen as a cherry on top of an otherwise healthy lifestyle. Eating well, working out consistently, and getting enough rest are all going to play a significantly more important factor on your health than any supplement—mushroom or otherwise.

If you always eat heavily processed foods filled with sugars and preservatives, a mushroom tea isn’t going to hold back the flood of health problems stemming from an unhealthy diet. But if all your ducks are in a row when it comes to health, mushrooms can be a fantastic way to take your health to the next level.

Either consider taking a supplement that combines various ingredients for a particular benefit such as immune health, or opt for a supplement that features a single mushroom.

Mushrooms offer another method of improving our health in a variety of ways. Used correctly and with proper expectations, they’re extremely useful for taking our wellness to the next level. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, their magic can shine its best.