Mushrooms: Superfood Superstars

Understanding the Fungi Craze

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Inflammation, low energy, hormonal imbalances…our go-go-go, high-pressure days have many of us suffering from these and other negative effects of stress. And while modern-day living may have gotten us into the mess, a time-tested superfood can help get us out: mushrooms. These medicinal gems are growing in popularity as the term “adaptogens” finds its way into common use. According to an article by Dr. Josh Axe, D.C., D.M.N., C.N.S., adaptogens help the body deal with the negative effects of stress without uniformly altering the body: For instance, rather than reducing inflammation altogether, mushrooms (and other adaptogens) encourage a healthy inflammatory response (1).

Mushrooms are easily incorporated into dishes, or they can be the star of a meal; Mushroom Jerky, like that sold by Pan’s, is vegan, meaty, and full of the benefits mushrooms can bring. Supplements also are readily available. That said, there’s a variety of mushroom species, and someone looking for specific benefits may need guidance. Sandra Carter, founder of Om Mushroom Superfood, Carlsbad, CA, says that, when it comes to educating customers, “the best approach is to focus on one specific activity of each species to clarify the differences. When you are able to separate and focus the activity, it helps the consumer. I found that when you list a large number of applications from either Traditional Chinese Medicine or from other research, it becomes confusing to the consumer.”

Here’s the basic selling point for several mushrooms—and a more in-depth explanation, for trickier customer questions.

Maitake—Carter says the main selling point for this one is “blood sugar balancing,” but it does quite a bit. In Japanese, “maitake” means “dancing mushroom,” which Healthline Plus attributes to stories of people dancing with happiness upon finding it in the wild (2). Mark Kaylor, consultant with Mushroom Wisdom and founder of the non-profit Radiant Health Project, notes that Maitake D-Fraction is particularly popular with Mushroom Wisdom’s customers: “Comparative studies found that the Maitake mushroom demonstrated a number of significantly stronger immune system actions than other leading mushrooms. Maitake D-Fraction was found to increase the number of multiple types of immune cells while supporting them.” It’s also an adaptogen, and research has demonstrated its potential for preventing breast cancer and tumor growth, increasing the number of cells that fight tumors, lowering cholesterol, and positively affecting glucose levels in diabetic rats—who wouldn’t dance if they found that?

Shiitake—With a meaty texture and an earthy flavor, these mushrooms are delicious in meatloaf or a burger. They’re a good source of copper, selenium, and pantothenic acid, a form of vitamin B, and they contain a wide variety of antioxidants (3). These mushrooms also contain lentinan, an antifungal protein that may slow the development of tumors.

Reishi—Jery Cochern, founder and president of R&D at Pure Essence, Las Vegas, NV, considers Royal Red Reishi to be one of the most important mushrooms out there: “Reishi is regarded in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the world’s most powerful whole-body tonic.” He notes that MYcoMUNE combines Royal Red Reishi with Cordyceps militaris, Lion’s Mane, Maitake, Shiitake, and Chaga, making it an all-around useful supplement.

Kaylor agrees that Reishi is a standout mushroom. “Reishi offers such an array of possible benefits that I have coined the phrase ‘tonic for the 21st century’ to describe it,” he says. “Reishi demonstrates benefits for virtually all the leading health concerns, from heart and cardiovascular support to immune balancing to stress and emotional assistance.”

Cordyceps—This parasitic fungus is known for its effects on endurance, Carter says. It contains adenosine, which helps stimulate production of energy (4). Additionally, it helps manage blood sugar levels, supports heart and kidney health, and boosts the immune system. Kaylor notes that this one is a close second in terms of his favorite mushroom—if not tied in first: “I highly recommend the combination of Super Cordyceps, first thing in the morning for that yang fire energy, and Super Reishi for its calming, balancing and detoxifying supportive activities. This dynamic duo supports all the major systems and organs in the body possibly enhancing overall health and vitality.”

Lion’s Mane—These mushrooms are particularly well-known for their effects on cognitive health, according to Carter, and deservedly so: While it has largely been studied in mice, studies have uniformly shown that it may help boost cognitive functioning, may reduce risk of dementia, and that it can help stimulate the growth of brain cells (5). It has also been shown to alleviate mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. Outside of the brain, they can help manage blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and boost the immune system.

Carter notes that Lion’s Mane is currently her company’s most popular product. “Our Lion’s Mane contains the full complement of bioactive nutrients: We grow our mushrooms through the full lifecycle, as there is research relating to erinacines—which are found in the mycelial stage—and hericenones—which are found in the fruiting body stage. We have a wide range of customers from 20-80 years of age who are looking for memory and focus support.”

Tremella—If you think you don’t know this one, think again—you might know it by one of its other names: snow mushroom, silver ear mushroom, snow fungus, or white jelly mushroom. It looks like a loofah. It’s high in protein, fiber, vitamin D, and antioxidants (6). It’s also believed to help the skin: It contains polysaccharides, which may have anti-aging properties, and when applied topically, behaves similarly to hyaluronic acid: It pulls moisture to the skin, assisting with skin texture and elasticity. (And if you’re not sure if you know it well enough—Steve Lankford, host of HealthQuestPodcast.com, and Kaylor went in-depth on this one, here.)

Shroom Skincare 

“Mushrooms have many impacts on skincare,” says Sandra Carter. “First, they help support a strong immune function—which translates to improved digestion and delivery of nutrients to all organs of the body, including the skin, our largest organ.” There are benefits to topical applications, she says: “Mushrooms can help prevent hyperpigmentation and protect against environmental stress. The unique antioxidants in mushrooms further reduce free radical damage and premature skin aging.”

Keep an eye out: For The Biome, a skincare company launched by Paul Schulick (founder of nutritional supplement company New Chapter), has partnered with Om Mushroom to create mushroom-based skincare products (10). And check out Om’s Beauty supplement, made with a range of helpful mushrooms to boost hair, skin, and nail health.

Agaricus—This is a big genus: Do you know the white button mushroom? Crimini? Portobello? All Agaricus bisporus. If you’re looking for benefits like the ones you’d get from Mushroom Wisdom’s Super Royal Agaricus, though, you’ll need to look to another species: Try Agaricus blazei Murill (7). This mushroom has been shown to activate white blood cells, giving the immune system a boost. It’s also been shown to improve quality of life in patients on chemotherapy.

Turkey Tail—According to Carter, it’s a species heavily associated with immune health. Research shows it assisting with the common cold, helping to fight infections, and supporting chemotherapy patients (8). It contains prebiotics, too, which can help support digestion.

Poria—Also called Fu Ling, it’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for around 2,000 years. It was traditionally used to reinforce and balance the effects of other herbs in medicinal formulas, and animal studies have suggested potential use as an immunomodulator and anti-inflammatory agent. (Go here for Lankford and Kaylor’s interview on this mushroom for more info.)

Chaga—This one isn’t actually a mushroom—it’s a canker, notes Jeff Chilton, president of Canada-based Nammex Organic Mushroom Extracts. “The chaga canker is produced by Inonotus obliquus, a fungal species classified as a polypore. Other medicinal mushrooms are also polypores,” he says, “so although chaga is not an actual mushroom, it has important compounds and benefits we expect to find in medicinal mushrooms.” It grows in a similar way, too: “Almost all major medicinal mushrooms grow on wood, and chaga grows on birch trees. Chaga has similar benefits to other mushrooms in large part due to unique triterpenoids, which are also found in reishi.”

If your customers are looking for antioxidants, says Carter, chaga is the fungus for them. Yet another immune-booster, this one has demonstrated in research the ability to activate immune cells responsible for combating cancer initiation (9). It’s also shown antimicrobial activity.

More Mushrooms

For more, check out our multimedia—we have podcasts on meshima mushroom, maitake mushroom, and general beneficial mushrooms. All hosted by Steve Lankford, two include Mark Kaylor, and one is with Jerry Angelini, national science educator for Host Defense Organic Mushrooms.

Choosing Supplements: 4 Key Qs

There’s plenty to consider when stocking a supplement: Is the company reputable? Will the product sell? How to merchandise it? Mushrooms, however, come with their own set of questions:

Are these products active? Chilton notes that there are methods for testing active compounds in mushrooms: “In 1995, in conjunction with the University of British Columbia, we developed testing methods for reishi triterpenoids. More recently, we have pioneered the Megazyme test, which specifically analyzes mushrooms for the polysaccharides called beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are the reason mushrooms are medicinal,” he emphasizes, “and there is a large and growing body of research to support this fact.” Because Nammex tests each batch of mushroom extracts, their customers often post a beta-glucan amount on product labels. “Beta-glucans are the key indicator of mushroom quality and an attribute that retailers can look for in order to qualify a mushroom product. Don’t be fooled by high numbers for polysaccharides. Most starch carriers and fermented grains are polysaccharides, so this is actually a false indicator, and is more often an indication of adulteration.”

Are they full spectrum? “In the nutritional supplement industry, ‘full spectrum’ almost universally refers to the entire range of chemical compounds or constituents that are naturally occurring in a certain part of a particular species of plant,” says Chilton. “We agree, and define full spectrum mushrooms as a product that has the same basic chemical and nutritional profile as the dried mushroom stage. It is the mushroom that has the extensive body of scientific research, as well as thousands of years of traditional use, to support it. So the mushroom stage is the standard which has to be met for a genuine full spectrum claim. Nammex only sells mushrooms, we do not sell the mycelium or spore stage.”

Mycelium or mushroom? The difference, according to Cochern: “Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of organisms called basidiomycetes. They’re the parts we see growing aboveground, on tree stumps or bark, et cetera. Mycelia are the very fine, filament-like root structures of these organisms. The major differences are that real mushrooms contain anywhere from 20% to 50% of the important Beta (1,3) (1,6) D-glucans. Mycelia only contain around 3% to 5%. Fruiting body mushrooms are also richer in vitamin D, triterpenes, diterpenes, ergothionenes, and other metabolites than mycelia.”

Grown on wood or grain? “Wood has the natural precursor compounds that enable the production of the unique compounds that are manufactured by the different mushroom species,” says Chilton. Mushrooms grown on grain not only miss out on those compounds, says Cochern, but are actually even less nutritious: “Once the mycelia grows, it cannot be separated from its grain substrate! The end result is around 60% starch, because it’s mostly grain. It still contains some valuable nutrients, but not nearly as many as real, fruiting body mushrooms.” WF

References

  1. Josh Axe, “Reishi Mushroom: Fight Cancer, Boost Immunity & Improve Liver Detox,” draxe.com. Posted 3/10/19. Accessed 7/1/19. https://draxe.com/reishi-mushroom/
  2. Emily Cronkleton, “Everything You Should Know About Maitake Mushroom,” healthline.com. Posted 10/31/16. Accessed 7/1/19. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/maitake-mushroom#benefits
  3. “What Are Shiitake Mushrooms Good For?” foodfacts.mercola.com. Posted 11/8/16. Accessed 7/1/19. https://foodfacts.mercola.com/shiitake-mushrooms.html
  4. “6 Powerful Health Benefits of Cordyceps Mushroom.” organixx.com. Accessed 7/1/19. https://organixx.com/cordyceps-mushroom/
  5. Erica Julson, “9 Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Plus Side Effects),” healthline.com. Posted 5/19/18. Accessed 7/1/19. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lions-mane-mushroom
  6. Mar Yvette, “Beauty From the Inside Out: A Guide To Tremella Mushroom,” freshcapmushrooms.com. Accessed 7/1/19. https://freshcapmushrooms.com/learn/tremella-mushroom/
  7. “Medical properties of Agaricus blazei,” agaricus.org. Accessed 7/1/19. http://www.agaricus.org/3_medical_properties.html
  8. Josh Axe, “Turkey Tail Mushroom: The Disease-Fighting, Immune-Boosting Fungus,” draxe.com. Posted 10/12/18. Accessed 7/1/19. https://draxe.com/turkey-tail-mushroom/
  9. Edward Group, “Chaga Mushroom: The Immune-Boosting Superfood,” globalhealingcenter.com. Posted 6/24/16. Accessed 7/1/19. https://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/chaga-mushroom-the-immune-boosting-superfood/
  10. WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “For The Biome, Om Mushroom to Create Mushroom-Based Skincare Products,” wholefoodsmagazine.com. Posted 5/13/19. Accessed 7/1/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/main-news/for-the-biome-om-mushroom-to-create-mushroom-based-skincare-products/

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