Medicinal mushrooms: Your guide to functional fungi

Mushrooms (of both psychedelic and non-psychedelic varieties) are of enormous interest right now in terms of their potential utility for brain health. Psilocybin, the chemical derived from a number of species of “magic mushrooms” shows enormous promise as an emerging therapy in psychiatric settings for the treatment of mental health conditions ranging from depression, PTSD to alcohol use disorder.

Most people are much more familiar with the popular button, cremini or portobello mushrooms you can find in grocery stores. Did you know that these are all the same species of mushroom (Agaricus bisporus)? The large portabello mushroom is the final stage of the button mushroom’s maturity.

But there โ€‹are many more different types of edible mushrooms for you to explore, and even more there are functional (but non-psychoactive) mushrooms with medicinal properties that have been used for centuries in traditional Eastern medicine, which have become integrated into more modern settings in recent times.

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Non-psychedelic medicinal mushrooms are great for brain health. Many species can prevent or reverse cognitive impairment in older adults and have antioxidant properties that offer brain protection. Studies have found that mushrooms in their diet or through supplements can lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment – an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Functional, or medicinal mushrooms such as Chaga, Reishi, Cordyceps, Turkey tail and Lion’s Mane are touted to provide impactful health benefits, mainly supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation, but also brain health and mental clarity. They are often described as “adaptogens” – a word for the herbal pharmaceuticals that aid our bodies to be more resilient when faced with the physical or mental stressors of hectic everyday life.

Medicinal mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years and have gained even more popularity as of late. These mushrooms are to be taken as nutritional supplements as powders or in capsules (not eaten raw or whole), and can be found nowadays in most health food shops.

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Here’s a simple guide to medicinal mushrooms to get you started…

๐Ÿ„ Chaga mushrooms are an antioxidant powerhouse, fighting free radicals and inflammation in the body. Chaga offers anti-inflammatory effects and is rich in antioxidants because of its high content of polyphenols. This mushroom combats oxidative stress (which is linked to skin ageing and many neurodegenerative diseases), may prevent or slow the growth of cancer, and has been found to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL)- the โ€œbadโ€ cholesterol). Most of the scientific studies on chaga so far have used human cells in a petri dish or in mice, but the signs point to this mushroom being good for you.

๐Ÿ„ Reishi also has anti-inflammatory capabilities. What makes this mushroom unique, however, is its calming properties โ€” which are thanks to its content of the compound triterpene. These mood-boosting compounds may alleviate anxiety, ease depression, and encourage better sleep, shown in studies with mice. Reishi can also promote healing and sharpen mental focus, too. It is also touted to reduce fatigue, anxiety and depression.

๐Ÿ„ Turkey Tail is well-known for its immune-boosting properties and antioxidants. Turkey tail contains a compound called polysaccharide-K (PSK) that helps to stimulate the immune system. PSK is an approved anticancer prescription drug in Japan, where it is used to boost the immune system of those undergoing chemotherapy for certain cancers. 

๐Ÿ„ Lion’s Mane can help with improving cognitive function, mental clarity and mood, and is one of my favourite mushroom supplements because of its action on neurons. Lion’s Mane acts in the brain to increase the production of nerve growth factor and myelin (the fatty insulation around nerve fibres) so could increase neuroplasticity. Lion’s Mane mushroom has also been shown to improve cognition in a small human study, memory in mice, increase concentration, and alleviate anxiety and irritability.

๐Ÿ„ Cordyceps is called the “energy mushroom” because it can help improve vitality and endurance. Its compound, cordycepin can help the body use oxygen more efficiently and enhance blood flow. This mushroom has been shown to not only improve exercise and athletic performance, but also speed up post-workout muscle recovery. In the wild, cordyceps is known as the Chinese caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinesis) that grows within caterpillars, in the end killing them by growing out of their heads (which is just too much like a zombie movie for me). Because of this complex lifecycle, cordyceps sinesis is difficult to harvest from nature and carries a huge price tag – this wild harvest method isn’t really efficient for mass production. The cordyceps supplements sold in health stores contain a synthetically grown version called Cordyceps CS-4. It is worth noting that no clinical studies have yet examined the safety of Cordyceps supplementation in humans. However, a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine indicates that they are nontoxic.

Medicinal mushrooms contain potent chemicals! Always talk to your doctor before adding medicinal mushrooms into your diet – especially if youโ€™re using prescribed medications or are pregnant. Also so some research into whether you feel these supplements would bring benefits to your health. Like all active chemicals, mushroom supplements can cause side effects including upsetting your stomach or allergic reactions.

People who have enrolled in my nutrition coaching programs will also receive advice on adding medicinal mushrooms to health regimes!

This article is for informational purposes only, and is not meant to offer medical advice. 

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