If you were to describe an ideal healthy food, you might list benefits such as low-calorie, low-sodium, cholesterol-free, fat-free, and also it would be loaded with anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Well, you may be surprised to learn that you just described the underappreciated often overlooked mushroom. Mushrooms offer real health benefits. They are a good source of B vitamins, potassium, iron, copper, and the antioxidant selenium. With the exception of fortified foods, they are one of the few vegan-friendly sources of vitamin D, especially when treated with sunlight or UV light (1)Pubmed Central A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D. They are among the most nutrient dense foods in the world, full of nutritional goodness including micronutrients. As such, mushrooms can easily be called a superfood. More specifically, some of these are known as “functional mushrooms” or “medicinal mushrooms” because they provide positive health benefits. Mushrooms have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine to help with many health conditions.
Although there’s no scientifically based or regulated definition for superfood, generally, a food is promoted to superfood status when it contains high levels of beneficial nutrients which may be linked to the prevention of a disease, or it is believed to offer additional health benefits beyond its nutritional value. “Superfood” has even been included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines a superfood as “a food that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.”
Although mushrooms may seem to be a strange looking type of plant, they actually belong to a completely separate class of organisms known as Fungi. Interestingly, research shows fungi and mushrooms are genetically more similar to animals than to plants (2)Molecular Biology and Evolution The Protistan Origins of Animals and Fungi. For this reason, mushrooms contain many chemical compounds which are not predominantly found in other food sources. In this context, the ability for mushrooms to produce vitamin D in sunlight (similar to humans) is even more intriguing (3)Pubmed Central A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D. Although there are mushrooms which are poisonous, the overwhelming majority of mushrooms are edible. In fact, many mushrooms are prized as culinary delights. But more importantly, medicinal mushrooms have the potential to improve your overall health and wellness.
Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which are complex carbohydrates. These polysaccharides have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and antibiotic effects. Mushrooms also contain a specific form of polysaccharides known as beta-glucans. These beta-glucans are the compounds that have been found to boost the immune system and have positive effects on our health. There are many different types of beta-glucans which have been researched for their biological properties. Overall, the beta-glucans found in functional mushrooms act as immunomodulators by interacting with various types of white blood cells to enhance the effectiveness of the immune system, without overstimulating it. Some of these beta-glucans are unique and only found in a specific type of mushroom. This is what makes certain mushrooms uniquely more beneficial for specific health benefits, such as the anti-cancer effects of the polysaccharide peptin(PSP) found in turkey tail mushrooms.
Mushrooms also contain a variety of terpenes and terpenoids, which are fat-soluble, organic compounds. Terpenes are the molecules which give the distinct aroma to plants such as orange peels and pine bark. Terpenes and terpenoids have natural anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. They also have strong anti-inflammatory properties which are effective in boosting our immune system without overstimulating it. The terpenoids found in many medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, are able to reduce inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory mediators such as cytokines and prostaglandins.
For over a thousand years, mushrooms have been recognized for their potential to improve health and wellness. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, mushrooms are revered as the “elixir of life” and have been used to improve longevity and treat many illnesses. At one time, they were so highly valued that only royalty was allowed to posses them. The variety of biologically active compounds found in medicinal mushrooms leads to the potential to help in the management of many health conditions. Research has confirmed that medicinal mushrooms are rich in antioxidants and have the ability to positively affect the immune, neurological, cardiovascular, endocrine(hormones), digestive, and respiratory health systems. Additionally, medicinal mushrooms can protect against illnesses by way of their antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-tumor properties.
Medicinal mushrooms not only promote general health and wellness, but may even enhance physical and mental performance. Specific examples include mushrooms, such as lion’s mane, which have been shown to have positive neurotrophic effects (4)Pubmed Neurotrophic properties of the Lion’s mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia. These positive effects also seem to help improve mental focus (5)Pubmed Improvement of cognitive functions by oral intake of Hericium erinaceus. The cordyceps mushroom has been recognized for its potential to improve athletic performance, even gaining attention in 1993 when Chinese women runners shattered several world records. Their coach attributed their success to a diet containing cordyceps (6)Pubmed Central Effect of Cs-4® (Cordyceps sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.
Societies continue to become more health conscious and aware of how diet, nutrition, and exercise are linked to health and longevity. Nutritional supplementation, especially with natural, sustainable ingredients, has gained popularity. Medicinal mushrooms can play a vital role in this trend. Clinical studies are continuing to confirm many of the historical anecdotes which Traditional Chinese Medicine has practiced for centuries.
If you are thinking about adding medicinal mushrooms to your diet, you can find many brands of mushroom supplements online, but you want to be sure that they are made from “fruiting body” extracts. The “fruiting body” is the part we typically think of as the mushroom. The mycelium is like the “roots” of the mushroom. Many products use “mycelium on grain” extracts which are cheaper to produce and not as pure, therefore not as beneficial. Be sure to check the labeling. If product label does not specifically state that it is made with fruiting body extracts, they probably use the mycelium based extract.
Medicinal mushroom supplements are available in powdered preparations and in capsule form. My favorite source for medicinal mushroom powders is Freshcap. The company founders are mushroom growers devoted to delivering high quality products that you can trust. A popular way to get your daily dose of medicinal mushrooms is from mushroom coffee. Personally, I enjoy the convenience of the mushroom coffee blends from Four Sigmatic. The company founder, Tero Isokauppila, is an enthusiastic functional mushroom advocate who is committed to delivering exceptional products, and the company culture reflects that attitude.
So if you’re looking to optimize your physical and mental health, medicinal mushrooms are absolutely good for you!