It turns out the humble mushroom is a nutritional superstar. Often outshined by other veggies like kale and cauliflower, mushrooms are finally having their moment. While culinary mushrooms like cremini and portobellos have solid nutritional benefits, the fungi that are getting the most attention are part of a class called medicinal mushrooms. Known as such due to their medicinal properties, they are being used for a wide range of conditions including fatigue, hormone imbalance, and mood. (For the record, they are not the same as psychedelic – or “magic” – mushrooms; they will not make you high.) And while they’re relatively new to North America, they’ve been used in Eastern medicine for centuries.
Why are mushrooms so darn powerful? The answer may lie in their DNA. Sandra Carter, founder of Om Mushrooms, points to the fact that mushroom DNA is more similar to mammals than plants. “It’s that similarity in DNA that really helps to activate a lot of the health and wellness properties beneficial to us,” Carter explains. But with so many varieties on the market – think cordyceps, reishi, chaga and more – you may need a primer on these functional fungi before diving in. Here are four things you should know about ’shrooms before incorporating them into your routine.
’Shrooms Have Superpowers
One major claim to fame that medicinal mushrooms have is their ability to act as adaptogens, which support your adrenal glands and help you adapt, or manage stress, keeping the body in balance. But the benefits of mushrooms are far more wide-reaching than just stress. Mushrooms can impact the immune system — in some cases acting as an immune booster, and in others downregulating an overactive immune system. They can help calm anxiety, boost mental focus, help provide energy for a workout and even have disease-fighting properties. A surprising benefit of medicinal mushrooms? Some varieties may also support liver health.
“If you think about it, mushrooms are like the livers of the earth, decomposing materials and metabolizing nutrients from the soil,” explains Mary Bove, ND, director of medical education at Gaia Herbs, “And they support this same activity in the body when consumed.”
Mushrooms Impact the Health of Your Gut
We know that mushrooms strengthen the immune system, and one important way they do this is by acting as a prebiotic, or food for beneficial bacteria in the gut, thereby supporting a healthy microbiome, according to Bove. Cell walls of fungus contain compounds called beta-glucans, and it’s those powerful compounds that have prebiotic properties. Bove points out that one medicinal mushroom in particular, lion’s mane, controls the functioning of the enteric nervous system that controls digestion and GI motility and produces 95% of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin found in the body. While lion’s mane is best known for its benefits to cognitive health, one of the reasons it works may actually stem from its action in the gut, she explains. (Put this on your radar: Bove says lion’s mane is the mushroom to keep an eye on – it’s enjoying a surge in popularity!)
Use Them Right
Medicinal mushrooms come in single mushroom varieties or blends,
which usually target a health outcome such as increased energy or stronger immunity. Use a single mushroom if you’re looking for a specific benefit that mushroom provides; however, mushrooms work synergistically, so combining them can often provide even greater benefits. Experiment with either to see which works best for you, but keep in mind that unlike pharmaceutical drugs, you won’t necessarily feel the effects right away. According to Carter, you should start seeing benefits of medicinal mushrooms after two to three weeks. She recommends a dosage of 2 grams, or 1 teaspoon, daily, but she suggests doubling the dose for the first couple of weeks to accelerate the onset of benefits. Take them in capsules or add them to your foods. Carter suggests incorporating them into baking to replace some of the flour, in smoothies, lattes, hummus and salad dressings. And no need to worry about losing their benefits when heated. “Some of the vitamins might be denatured through heat, but the beta-glucans – which provide immunity – can withstand some very high temperatures,” Carter adds.
Who Shouldn’t Take Them
While medicinal mushrooms are generally quite safe, pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding should check with their doctor before trying them. If you’re on any medications, particularly blood pressure–lowering medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist to avoid any contraindications. Those with autoimmune diseases should also take note: Some mushrooms have immune-boosting effects, which may drive an overactive immune system. If you have an autoimmune condition, you’ll want to work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to ensure you choose the right mushroom for your needs.
Do you want to rev up your energy before a workout? Have a deadline that you want to be uber-sharp for? Get to know the benefits of these powerful medicinal mushrooms so you can select the right one — or ones — for your needs.
Boosts energy, contains antioxidants and supports the liver and kidneys. Use it before a workout or to get moving in the a.m.
TRY: Om Energy, which combines cordyceps with a variety of mushrooms and yerba mate, a caffeinated tea, to support stamina. $20, ommushrooms.com
Supports brain cells and new cell growth in the body and impacts the enteric nervous system. Use it to enhance mental clarity and focus.
TRY: Gaia Mushrooms + Herbs Mental Clarity, a blend combining lion’s mane with other mushrooms and herbs geared towards supporting cognitive function. $35, gaiaherbs.com
High in antioxidants and helpful for GI health. Use it for overall wellness and disease prevention.
TRY: Solaray Organically Grown Fermented Chaga for general wellness, plus the fermenting process makes it easier to digest. $27, solaray.com
Contain beta-glucans that support immune health and healthy cell development. Use it for overall wellness and cardiovascular health.
Promotes cellular health and provides immune system support. Use it for general wellness or in conjunction with other mushrooms for a synergistic effect.
Promotes healthy cell turnover and liver health and contains beta-glucans, which support immunity. Use it for overall wellness and immune support.
Supports the immune and cardiovascular systems and helps manage stress. Use it for overall health or to unwind after a stressful day.
TRY: Four Sigmatic Reishi Mushroom Elixir Mix that combines calming reishi with stress-supporting holy basil. $30, foursigmatic.com