7 Studied Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms

The mushroom category is broad, and research on most mushrooms is limited—but what there is, shows enormous potential. Companies in this area are capitalizing on this potential: Om Mushroom has released a mushroom-based Immune Boost Drink Mix, Mushroom Wisdom offers Maitake D-Fraction in several strengths for immune support, and For the Biome launched a line of “sentient skincare” products, many of which are made with a combination of five adaptogenic mushrooms. Here, an overview of the existing literature:

Blood Sugar Support
A major ‘shroom in this area: chaga. A 2014 study performed on healthy adult rats, in which researchers induced diabetes, found that blood glucose in the diabetic rats diminished markedly over the course of six weeks when given chaga polysaccharides, and it diminished in a dose dependent manner (1). The researchers hypothesized that the polysaccharides may have alleviated oxidative stress, causing the hypoglycemic effect. The researchers also noted that chronic inflammation may have a role in the pathogenesis of metabolic disorders, leading them to test for levels of proinflammatory cytokines, including TNF-a and IL-1B, both of which have been associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, and glycated hemoglobin (1). The findings there: Treatment with 30mg/kg/day of the polysaccharide extract resulted in a marked decrease in IL-1B levels, and suppressed TNF-a production. The researchers concluded: “In summary, we have shown that [chaga polysaccharides have] therapeutic effects against diabetes via multiple pathways.”

A caution, however, from Verywell Health: Chaga is high in a substance known as oxylate, which interferes with the absorption of nutrients, and can bind with calcium to cause kidney stones (2). Verywell Health recommends that those with kidney disease or who have had kidney stones not use chaga, and notes that people on anti-diabetes drugs—including insulin—should use chaga with caution, as the combination may cause hypoglycemia. As always, customers should talk to a doctor before taking any supplements.

Cognitive Health
Lion’s Mane is well-known for its cognitive health properties, anecdotally. It has been minimally studied in humans, but what research there is, is promising. Verywell Mind reports that small human studies have found benefits in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, wherein adults taking lion’s mane extract showed significantly greater improvements compared to members of the placebo group; another small study found that menopausal women who took lion’s mane were less irritable and anxious, and more able to focus, than those who took a placebo (3). Verywell Mind also points to a study in mice, that found that lion’s mane helped protect against memory problems caused by the buildup of amyloid beta, a substance that forms brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The author notes that, while there is little safety data reported, there is concern that lion’s mane may aggravate symptoms in people with allergies and asthma, making it doubly important to consult with a health care provider (3).

Looking at different mushrooms, researchers at the National University of Singapore conducted an observational study in which they analyzed medical records of more than 600 senior citizens over a six-year period, and found that adults who ate two servings of golden, oyster, shiitake, and/or white button mushrooms each week slashed risk of mild cognitive impairment in half (4).

Heart Health
While there are many factors that play into heart health, blood pressure is a major one—and reishi may help lower it, according to Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CN (5). He points to triterpenes found in the mushroom as having blood pressure-lowering effects, as well as benefits for blood-clotting and cholesterol. The triterpenes may work by helping lower inflammation within blood vessels and arteries. Another possible mechanism of action: Reishi mushrooms help maintain optimal hormonal levels, and Dr. Axe explains that hormonal issues may cause high blood pressure.

Immune Support
WebMD points to reishi here, stating that the mushroom’s “claim to promote long-term health may be due to their effect on our white blood cells… Studies show reishi mushrooms may increase the number of white blood cells in your body and
improve their function” (6).

As Grant Tinsley, Ph.D., explains on Healthline, test-tube studies have shown that reishi can affect the genes and inflammation pathways in white blood cells (7). He points to research in cancer patients that found that reishi may increase the activity of natural killer cells. And a study performed in stressed-out athletes found that reishi improved lymphocyte function (7).

Worth noting: WebMD also states that reishi can increase risk of bleeding during surgery and in people taking blood thinners, so doctors recommend discontinuing reishi at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery, and it’s important to talk to a healthcare practitioner before taking them, particularly for those on blood thinners (6).

Shiitake mushrooms can help here, too (8). A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at 52 healthy adults, and found that those who ate a four-ounce serving of shiitake mushrooms every day for four weeks had high levels of a type of T-cell and a reduction in inflammatory factors, contributing to a stronger immune system.

And while shiitake alone can be useful, a 2014 study focused on the effects of maitake with shiitake—and found that the combination gave the immune system a boost, increasing phagocytosis, natural killer cell activity, and secretion of IL-6, IL-12, and C-reactive protein (9). Maitake alone was second strongest, followed by shiitake on its own.

Microbiome Support
Less well-known, perhaps, is reishi’s prebiotic properties. “The constituents of [reishi] make it one of the important prebiotics used to increase the bacterial flora,” say authors of a 2017 study published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences (10). “The prebiotic action of [reishi] should be due to the presence of several polysaccharides.”

Turkey’s tail mushroom, too, has been shown to act as a prebiotic in a small human study from 2014, which compared the effects of a turkey’s tale polysaccharopeptide to those of the antibiotic amoxicillin on the human gut microbiome (12). 24 patients were randomized to receive either the polysaccharopeptide, amoxicillin, or no treatment. Stool samples were analyzed on seven occasions over eight weeks for those in the active treatment groups, and on three occasions for the control group. The findings: amoxicillin caused changes to the microbiome that persisted through to the end of the study, 42 days after antibiotic therapy ended; turkey’s tail polysaccharopeptide, on the other hand, acted as a prebiotic, modulating participants’ intestinal microbiome composition.  

Skincare
Mushrooms are increasingly being used in skincare products. One mushroom is already well-known in this arena: Tremella fuciformis, or snow mushrooms, or silver ear mushrooms, or just tremella mushrooms. Meirav Devash and Rebecca Norris explain in an article for Allure that when taken orally, the polysaccharides in tremella can help boost skin hydration (12). Dendy Engelman,  M.D., Director of Dermatologic Surgery at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City, compared tremella to hyaluronic acid, in that it pulls moisture to the skin—and noted in the article that the particles in tremella are smaller than hyaluronic acid, helping it penetrate the skin more easily.

However, tremella isn’t alone. An article from Real Mushrooms notes that many mushrooms contain a wide range of skin-supporting compounds (13). Most mushrooms contain antioxidants, which can help protect against sun damage and diminish the appearance of skin wrinkles, and fatty acids, which can promote a healthy inflammation response, seal moisture into the skin, and protect against sun damage. More specifically, shiitake and oyster mushrooms contain L-ergothioneine, an amino acid with antioxidant properties, and chaga contains melanin, a pigment that can help protect skin from sun damage. WF

‘Magic’ Help for Depression

Magic mushrooms have a place in this discussion, as well. In a 2019 article for Psychology Today, Gary Wenk, Ph.D., explained that psilocybin—which can be found in more than 75 species of mushrooms, although the most famous is ‘magic mushrooms,’ Psilocybe Mexicana—has demonstrated modest success in clinical trials for the treatment of depression, PTSD, addiction, and death anxiety (13). The article explains that psilocybin is converted into psilocin after ingestion, which may stimulate the 5HT2A serotonin receptor. Abnormalities in those receptors have been linked to schizophrenia, depression/anxiety, and drug addiction. However, Dr. Wenk noted that these issues are usually treated by blocking the 5HT2A receptor—precisely the opposite of how psilocybin behaves. The full article is available at www.PsychologyToday.com.

References

  1. Bao-zhong Diao, Wei-rong Jin, and Xue-jing Yu, “Protective Effect of Polysaccharides from Inonotus obliquus on Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Symptoms and Their Potential Mechanisms in Rats,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/841496
  2. Cathy Wong, “The Health Benefits of Chaga Mushroom,” Verywell Health. Updated 4/22/2021. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-can-chaga-do-for-you-89553
  3. Cathy Wong, “The Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane,” Verywell Mind. Updated 03/09/2020. Accessed 07/01/2021. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-benefits-of-lions-mane-89474
  4. Amy Capetta, “One Major Side effect of Eating Mushrooms, Says New Study,” Eat This, Not That. Posted 3/27/2021. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.eatthis.com/news-side-effect-eating-mushrooms/
  5. Josh Axe, “Reishi Mushroom: Fight Disease, Boost Immunity, & Improve Liver Detox,” DrAxe.com. Posted 03/31/2021. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://draxe.com/nutrition/reishi-mushroom/
  6. “Health Benefits of Reishi Mushrooms,” WebMD. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-reishi-mushrooms#1
  7. Grant Tinsley, “6 Benefits of Reishi Mushroom (Plus Side Effects and Dosage),” Healthline. Posted 3/31/2018. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/reishi-mushroom-benefits
  8. Vaclav Vetvicka and Jana Vetvickova, “Immune-enhancing effects of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) extracts,” Annals of Translational Medicine. 2(2). 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25332990/
  9. Muthukumaran Jayachandran, Jianbo Xiao, and Baojun Xu, “A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota,” International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 18(9). 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28885559/
  10. Kumar Pallav et al., “Effects of polysaccharopeptide from Trametes versicolor and amoxicillin on the gut microbiome of healthy volunteers: A randomized clinical trial.” Gut Microbes. 5(4). 458-67(2014). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25006989/
  11. Meirav Devash and Rebecca Norris, “The Benefits of Adding Snow Mushroom to Your Skin-Care Routine,” Allure.com. Posted 11/05/2018. Accessed 07/1/2021. https://www.allure.com/story/snow-mushroom-skin-care-benefits
  12. Real Mushrooms Staff, “Mushroom Benefits for Skin: 5 Ways Fungi Foster Dermal Health.” Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.realmushrooms.com/mushroom-benefits-skin/#28dc6
  13. Gary Wenk, “Treating Depression With Magic Mushrooms,” Psychology Today. Posted 12/26/2019. Accessed 7/1/2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-brain-food/201912/treating-depression-magic-mushrooms