Functional mushrooms: from brain regeneration to better workouts
From the decriminalization of psilocybin to the spotlight on functional mushrooms in the wellness community, mushrooms are having a moment. Hippocrates, the first doctor himself, classified the Amadou conk mushroom as anti-inflammatory and ideal for cauterizing wounds, according to a review published by expert Paul Stamets. Despite the historical uses of mushrooms, modern Western medicine often overlooks fruiting bodies as viable for treatment or prevention. But mushrooms are still having a comeback.
Psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, continue to be decriminalized across the United States. States like Oregon are building voter-approved pilot programs to provide therapeutic psilocybin treatments. But magic mushrooms aren’t the only fruiting bodies that pack a punch. A handful of non-psychoactive mushrooms could benefit the immune system, work as antioxidants, strengthen neural pathways, and even have anticancer properties.
No, mushrooms aren’t a cure-all, but they are a functional food worth exploring, and research continues to support that notion. But always rigorously identify mushrooms before ingesting or gathering them–though some are considered medicinal, others are toxic.
Chaga Inonotus obliquus
The Chaga mushroom grows on birch trees in cool climates like North America, Northern Europe, Siberia, Korea, and Russia. The first documentation of its use as a medicine dates back to the Siberian Khanty people, formerly known as the Ostyaks. Now, people drink Chaga tea for its touted benefits.
Korean biologists published results after studying the properties of the mushroom, finding its antioxidant properties. The study showed that liquid chaga extract protected DNA in human lymphocytes–a form of a small white blood cell. In addition, cells pretreated with Chaga showed a 40% decrease in DNA damage from oxidation. Further studies support theories that Chaga is anti-neuroinflammatory and antimutagenic.
Another Korean research team studied the antitumor properties of Chaga in mice, finding that concentrations of 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams daily decreased tumor size by 33.71% compared to the control group.
Each study concludes by offering Chaga as a viable food and supplement, but drinking Chaga tea can lead to a substantial decrease in blood sugar. Those with diabetes, blood clotting disorders, or kidney issues should consult a doctor before adding Chaga to a wellness regimen.
Cordyceps Ophiocordyceps sinensis
This fruiting body made headlines this year as the video game-turned-television series The Last of Us explored a world after a zombie fungus wipes out humanity. The effect cordyceps has on insects may have inspired the storyline.
Cordyceps reproduce by taking over the brains of insects and feasting on their bodies but don’t fret. The mushroom has not evolved to take over human brains. Despite the zombie reproduction of it all, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have been using it for generations.
Cordyceps grow like little orange worms sticking straight out of the ground where their host body takes its final breath. One research team set out to understand how to replicate the growing process, hoping to do so without taking a bug’s life. They found that insects made up of more oleic acid developed cordyceps with higher volumes of cordycepin, the substance potentially responsible for the antiviral and antitumor properties of the mushroom.
In 2010, South China Agriculture University published the results of a study on the antiviral properties of Cordyceps, studying how an extract of the mushroom could fight the influenza virus in mice. Their research showed that a dose of 0.27 grams per kilogram of body weight had a significant antiviral effect compared to the control group. Additionally, higher doses were less effective.
Additionally, secondary metabolites from Cordyceps could have antitumor properties, may be anti-hyperglycemic when fermented, help keep the mind responsive as it ages, and even support pushing it to the limit in a workout. This research supports the notion that Cordyceps have medicinal value, but not that they’ll take over the brain propelling humanity into an apocalypse.
Lion’s Mane Hericium erinaceus
Not to be confused with the Puffball, this mushroom resembles a white lion’s mane growing off of old or dead broadleaf tree trunks. The fruiting body makes an excellent vegan “chicken” nugget and may be a powerhouse superfood for brain health.
A 2022 literature review of research on Lion’s Mane showed that it could reverse cognitive decline in conditions like dementia. That same year research on mice from the University of Texas Health Science Center concluded that Lion’s Mane could be a treatment for anxiety.
Another rodent study, this time rats, used a liquid Lion’s Mane extract to research how protective it could be against ulcers–showing it could have gastroprotective properties.
In addition, Lion’s Mane is regarded as having many other possible health benefits– though research has not yet reached a point where Western-educated doctors would consider it a treatment option. But never fear: the fluffy white fruiting body continues to be a culinary delicacy despite the lack of clinical trials.
Lingzhi (Reishi) Ganoderma lingzhi
Lingzhi, or Reishi, is revered as a “magic herb” in ancient Chinese literature and holds many nicknames that represent the auspicious power many believed it harnessed. Reishi can grow within living trees as a parasite and on dead trees. The fruiting body erupts right off the side of a tree or bark with a round edge, often appearing bright red and waxy.
The International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms published results from a clinical trial in Colombia on how Lingzhi impacts the immune system of children. Researchers added an extract of the functional mushroom to yogurt in a placebo-controlled clinical study. The mushroom increased the immune cells in the children’s blood, warranting more extensive clinical trials on its immune-boosting properties.
Many also claim that Lingzhi improves overall strength and stamina, which Italian research scientists explored in 2014. They gave seven male competitive cycling athletes a supplement combining extracts of Lingzhi and Cordyceps.
Over the three months of taking the supplement, researchers measured the testosterone-to-cortisol ratios in athletes’ saliva before and after physical exertion. Following exercise, a decrease in this ratio higher than 30% is a risk factor for overtraining syndrome (OTS).
After three months of the supplement, researchers found the change in testosterone to cortisol statistically significant, going as far as claiming that athletes were “protected” from OTS.
These aren’t all the mushrooms in nature that people use in wellness regimens, ancient medicine practices, and various healing modalities. The world of mushrooms is vast and varied, featuring many shapes and colors. Some could heal you, and others could kill you.
Fruiting bodies are mysterious and elusive and honestly probably older than humanity itself. With all that time on earth, it’s not hard to believe that living organisms have some medicinal value. As knowledge and access to the functional mushrooms become available, more people worldwide are turning to mushrooms to round out their wellness regimens.