Functional Mushrooms – A Deep Dive into Nature’s Healing Fungi
A celebrated hero in the wellness community, functional mushrooms have been used for centuries in traditional medicine, and their popularity has grown in recent years due to their multiple health benefits. Beyond their nutritional value, functional mushrooms contain unique bioactive compounds and are known to improve cognitive function, promote a sense of calm, support a healthy immune system, and elevate moods, among many other superpowers.
Let’s explore what functional mushrooms are, their potential health benefits, and how to incorporate them into your daily rituals to live a vibrant and balanced life. Some of the most popular include Lion's Mane, Chaga, Reishi, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, and Agaricus Blazei.
Health Benefits of Functional Mushrooms
Functional mushrooms have been traditionally used to promote overall health and wellness, and recent scientific studies have validated many of their health benefits. Some of the most researched health benefits of functional mushrooms include:
- Immune System Supporting Properties: Functional mushrooms contain beta-glucans and polysaccharides that have been shown to enhance the immune system.
- Muscle Ache Relief: Many functional mushrooms contain compounds such as triterpenoids and ergothioneine which can help reduce strain in the body.
- Improved Cognitive Function: Certain functional mushrooms, such as lion's mane, have been shown to improve cognitive function and memory.
- Gut Health: Functional mushrooms can improve gut health by increasing the diversity of beneficial gut bacteria and supporting the overall digestive process.
Lion's Mane Mushroom
Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a mushroom that grows on hardwood tree trunks and has a lion-like appearance (hence the name), resembling a white pom-pom. Rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practitioners refer to this mushroom as the monkey head, or Hou Tou Gu, and use it for qi deficiency (a lack of energy), stress, and to tonify the spleen.
Lion's mane is rich in beta-glucans and polysaccharides, which have been shown to boost the immune system, improve cognitive function, and promote nerve regeneration. Recent studies indicate that lion's mane mushroom contains compounds that can stimulate the growth of new brain cells and improve memory problems associated with aging.
The Shugendō Japanese Buddhist monks drank Lion’s Mane tea to assist with their meditation practice, and the mushroom was also widely used medicinally by Indigenous peoples of North America and Australia.
Lion’s Mane has a delicate texture with a mild, slightly sweet flavor and is commonly consumed as a tea or supplement but can also be cooked and used in recipes like mushroom risotto or stir-fry.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is called a mushroom; however, it is not technically mycelium, but a polypore, or perennial canker formed on birch trees after being infected with a pathogen. For this reason, Chaga contains decayed wood fiber with medicinal compounds including betulin and betulinic acid. (And it is important to note that lab cultivated chaga does not contain these compounds.)
Rich in antioxidants, Chaga, boosts the immune system. Traditionally used in Russian and Scandinavian folk medicine, Chaga was consumed as a tea in the 16th Century to aid in stomach health. The fungi also contains high amounts of melanin, making it an excellent companion for skin care. Many indigenous people continue to use Chaga medicinally.
Chaga has a black, charcoal-like appearance and a slightly bitter taste. It is commonly still consumed as a tea but can also be used in recipes like hot chocolate or added to smoothies or gummies.
Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is known as the “elixir of life” according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as it benefits health and promotes longevity. A natural adaptogen, the Reishi mushroom is rich in polysaccharides and triterpenes, which are compounds that have been shown to have immune-boosting properties. It also helps to improve sleep and reduce stress, making it a promising functional mushroom for overall health and wellness.
Referred to as Ling Zhi or “Divine Fungus” by the Chinese, the mushroom was once only served to emperors as it is rare to find them in the wild. A native of Asia, Europe, and North America, this “mushroom of immortality” can be found growing on hardwood trees such as oak or maple and has a shiny red kidney shaped body.
With a bitter taste, Reishi helps to support the liver, digestion, sleep and mental clarity. Often used in hot drinks, Reishi can be consumed raw, as a supplement or powder.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris) is a mushroom that grows on insects and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries. It has a unique appearance, resembling a caterpillar, and is a parasite that takes over its host’s body. The revered fungi is hand harvested by searching for the tiny, infected bugs on the ground.
Cordyceps is rich in cordycepin and adenosine, which have been shown to improve athletic performance, and boost the immune system. Rich in antioxidants, the fungi reduces fatigue and helps improve memory. The benefits of this mushroom are versatile as they also stabilize blood sugar levels and promote heart health as well.
Known as the “Viagra of the Himalayas,” Cordyceps have been used as a natural aphrodisiac by both men and women. The mushroom has a slightly sweet, earthy flavor and is commonly consumed as a supplement or tea but can also be used in recipes like mushroom soup or pasta dishes.
Turkey Tail Mushroom
Turkey Tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) grow in North America, Europe, and Asia on trees in hardwood forests. The polypores form large fruiting bodies with many health benefits and decompose organic matter making them a crucial element to balance ecosystems.
They have been traditionally used in Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries to boost the immune system and fight off illness. The Turkey tail mushroom is rich in polysaccharides and beta-glucans, which are compounds that poses immune-boosting properties. It also improves gut function, making it a promising functional mushroom for digestive health.
Fan shaped with concentric bands of brown and grey, Turkey Tails are difficult to eat with their leathery texture, and therefore are most used medicinally via a supplement or tea.
How to Take Functional Mushrooms
Functional mushrooms can be taken in a variety of forms, including capsules, powders, teas, and tinctures. The most popular form of functional mushroom is the extract, which is made by boiling the mushrooms in water and then drying the liquid into a powder.
When taking functional mushrooms, it's important to choose a high-quality product that has been tested for purity and potency. It's also important to follow the recommended dosage and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any health concerns. It may be helpful to target a specific problem to remedy and choose a mushroom that aligns with your desired goals.
Functional mushrooms, including lion's mane, chaga, reishi, and turkey tail, have been used for centuries in traditional medicine for their potential health benefits. Recent studies have shown that these mushrooms contain compounds that can improve cognitive function, boost the immune system, and even help with sleep and digestion. When taking functional mushrooms, it's important to choose a high-quality product made with fruiting bodies and is third party tested. With their potential health benefits, functional mushrooms are a promising natural supplement for overall health and wellness.