Mushrooms: Fungi With Serious Benefits

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Mushrooms have been used for centuries and even millennia in Eastern and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Compared to Asian countries like China and Japan, the application of medicinal mushrooms in the Western countries is more recent (1). Mushroom supplements have been growing in popularity in recent years as the Western world has come to realize the benefits of these favorable fungi. The use of macrofungi such as Reishi and Chaga is not baseless, as research has grown and demonstrated that they provide many benefits to the body, and at least 126 medicinal functions are thought to be produced by medicinal mushrooms and fungi.

These functions include: cardiovascular, immunomodulating, antioxidant, antiradical, antitumor, antihypercholesterolemia, antiviral, antibacterial, antiparasitic, antifungal, detoxification, antihepatotoxicity, and antidiabetic effects (2).

Functional mushrooms came in at number three on Whole Foods Market’s top food trends list for 2018. As they grow in popularity in Western society, chefs and scientists are finding ways to expand their use and incorporate them into products ranging from coffees, teas, and cocktails to body washes and face masks, but are also looking for ways to increase the potency of supplements, powders, and beverages so the full benefits of these natural wonders can be experienced. Whether an individual is looking to increase immunity, cognitive health, or searching for a supplement with adaptogenic benefits, there are many mushroom powders, supplements and tinctures available in the market that can give one access to those benefits.

Immunity
Glossy ganoderma (Ganoderma lucidum), known in Japan and China respectively as Reishi and Lingzhi, is a fungus that has a long history in Asia of promoting well-being and longevity. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for at least 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest mushrooms to be used (3). Traditional processes of extraction like hot-water extraction have been used to make teas. The process can release beneficial carbohydrates and fibres that have potent immune system effects and can increase the production of certain white blood cells to help identify and break down invading bugs (4). While that method is still applicable, modern science has allowed the benefits to be reaped from other methods of consumption such as dietary supplements and powders.

Traditional medicine systems in countries such as China and Japan have long celebrated the health benefits of maitake. The mushroom is mentioned in texts written as early as during the Han Dynasty (206 BC. – 220 AD.) in the Chinese medical text the “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing” (5). At present, maitake has a growing body of modern research that supports its effectiveness in stimulating the immune system, and it’s been found to be a potent immune booster due to its high concentration of a beneficial fiber called beta-glucan (6). Well-researched extracts (such as D-fraction) take the mushroom from the TCM realm of medicine to the Western realm as the specific active constituent from the mushroom is now being used by practitioners all over the U.S. A 2014 animal study found that maitake extract significantly stimulated immune response in mice. Reishi can be found in any local health food market in many forms. It comes in traditional capsule form, and also vegan or vegetarian capsules, as well as organic powders and tinctures, powder extracts individually packed in sachets to eliminate the need to measure and estimate the amount or serving required for full benefits. The spores are also available in sachets, with spores already broken so as to increase the bioavailability and absorption of the product.* Maitake also comes in tinctures, powders, and capsules, but the powder selections are fewer.

Cognitive
Offering cognitive benefits is not necessarily something one would expect from something as simple as a mushroom, but with Lion’s Mane the benefits are within the realm of possibility. Research has been growing in support of claims that Lion’s Mane can do wonders for those suffering from neurological degenerative diseases. Known scientifically as Hericium erinaceus, this mushroom has human research that backs the claims it can do wonders for cognitive health, especially for the elderly. In a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial published in the Journal of Restorative Medicine in December of 2017, a group of Japanese men and women ranging in age from 50-80 years old who were diagnosed with mild cognitive intake were provided with 250 mg tablets of Lion’s Mane three times a day for 16 weeks. The clinical trial yielded astonishing results as those who were administered the Lion’s Mane showed distinguishable improvement in the revised Hasegawa Dementia Scale (HDS-R) in comparison to the controls of this trial. It should also be noted that just four weeks after the group stopped taking the Lion’s Mane supplement, their scores on the HDS-R decreased (7).

Lion’s Mane is available in capsules, either fermented or unfermented. Aside from capsules, the mushroom is also available in the form of extracts, tinctures and organic powders that are either single species or a mix of it and other beneficial mushrooms.

Adaptogenic
Adaptogens are defined as “a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning” (8). We’ll be looking at how Cordyceps and Chaga both help the body achieve stabilization of physiological processes and promote homeostasis. Cordyceps is an endangered genus of fungi that only occurs in the high mountains, more specifically the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, in China and Tibet. In a 2004 study it was concluded that Cordyceps militaris, a type species of Cordyceps, “possesses anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive activities…. “(9). This means it prevents inflammation, and also blocks pain naturally.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) also comes loaded with benefits as it possesses anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that contribute to overall human health. In a mouse study published in 2012 where the effect of colitis was induced, it was shown that ethanol extracts from Chaga contributed to prevention of colonic tissue destruction that would have otherwise been induced by the treatment that induced the symptoms of colitis. In this study, it is understood the chaga mushroom has potential to be a potent anti-inflammatory agent (10).

Cordyceps and Chaga are both available in the standard powders, vegetarian and vegan capsules, and teas, but Chaga certainly has more variety in the way of consumption as it comes in teas, drink mixes, coffees, and mochas as well.

The Future is Fungi
The prevalence of mushrooms being used for medicinal purposes is on the rise as Fast Company’s website states that “Food Navigator found that year-on-year sales for food products incorporating medicinal mushrooms have risen between 200-800%, depending on the variety” and the mushroom market is projected to hit $50 billion in the coming years (11). We’ll begin to see the term dietary supplement extend beyond just capsules and tinctures, into potent powders and mixes for beverages that will be able to fill in the dietary gaps many Americans suffer from due to a fast-paced lifestyle. As Americans become more aware of the impacts and influences that diet and the hustle and bustle of life have on each individual, it only makes sense that something so simple as a supplement taken a few times a day or a beverage that can be consumed before the gym or work ­­­will become more popular.

Also, as people shift towards more plant-based, holistic, and natural means of obtaining good health, the fungi phenomena will only grow as it is naturally dairy and soy free, natural, and can provide many benefits as was discussed above. It remains to be seen whether or not Whole Foods Market’s projection will be correct, but so far it looks like an area of incredible growth for these incredible wonders of nature. WF

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