Powerful Medicinal Mushrooms: Supplement with Science
Medicinal mushrooms are arguably one of the biggest trends of 2021, right up there with 70s inspired fashion and yelling at strangers from behind a mask. Not the mushrooms that take you to wonderland (with growing medical research of their own), but the ones that can be consumed before the workday—that many believe provide a myriad of health benefits.
Although accessible and solid research is limited (but rapidly growing), there is a wide array of anecdotal evidence that shows promise for the medicinal benefits of mushrooms; along with an industry that was globally valued at a whopping USD $41.6 billion in 2020 (Grandview Research, Mushroom Market Size…). A quick Google search yields pages of brands that claim these mushrooms will provide relief of ailments such as depression, fatigue, high blood pressure and even tumours.
The term “adaptogen” was coined in the 50s by Soviet toxicologist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, as he searched for substances to improve stress resistance in the body. He hypothesized that “adaptogens increase the state of nonspecific resistance in stress and decrease sensitivity to stressors—which results in stress protection—and prolong the phase of resistance (stimulatory effect). Instead of exhaustion, a higher level of equilibrium is attained—homeostasis. The higher the equilibrium is, the better the adaptation to stress. Thus, the stimulating and anti-fatigue effect of adaptogens has been documented in both animals and humans” (Panossian, Adaptogens. A Review…).
Medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, chaga and lion’s mane, are well-known adaptogens. They offer a variety of anti-stress benefits that, as previously mentioned, are not only supported by anecdotal evidence but backed by scientific research.
So, is it true? Are these funny looking fungi as advertised? Here is a look at some of the top health claims along with available data.
WHAT’S IN YOUR GUT?
Research on gut bacteria in the human body has become an area of focus over the last decade, and it looks like mushrooms contribute toward a healthy gut colony, by acting as a prebiotic.
A prebiotic will create a welcoming environment for good bacteria to habitate in the digestive system. A probiotic, either in the form of a capsule or live food, contains the bacteria that is so crucial to overall wellbeing. Bacteria in the gut influence many functions of the body, such as serotonin and dopamine production.
Reishi (ganoderma lucidum), king of mushrooms, plays a role in keeping those little soldiers in line, because it is rich in polysaccharides (specifically β-D-glucan), total phenols and terpenoids. It serves as an incredible prebiotic (Jayachandran et al, A Critical Review…), and thus, creates a favourable environment for good bacteria to thrive. A study involving the fermentation of reishi, showed that after 18 hours of batch-fermentation, the number of bifidobacteria increased. This bacterium is necessary because it aids in a myriad of functions such as the prevention of inflammation, hormone production and gut modulation. Furthermore, when supplemented, the fermented reishi also increased beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus, roseburia, and lachnospiraceae (Shuhaimi et al, Effect of Ganoderma lucidum…), which are essential for overall wellness.
The chaga mushroom (inonotus obliquus), a birch fungus used in herbal medicine since the 16th century, not only shows promise in gastrointestinal disorders (Spinosa, The Chaga Storey), but creates a complimentary environment for good bacteria. Like reishi, the chaga mushroom contains polysaccharides (IOP) in the form of sugars: rhamnose, arabinose, xylose, mannose, glucose, and galactose. Hu and his associates revealed that the presence of these IOPs prompts healthy changes in the gut, and increased bacteroidetes (Hu et al, inonotus obliquus polysaccharide regulates gut microbiota…).
Jayachandran and his group reviewed studies that were conducted on two more mushrooms, coriolus versicolor and maitake. Both of these studies display a consistent pattern: the polysaccharides found in mushrooms serve as a useful prebiotic in the gut.
IMMUNITY & WELLNESS
The coronavirus global pandemic has many reaching for natural immune boosting supplements. Medicinal mushrooms make the cut, as they show promise in overall wellness, increased immunity, and even cancer treatment.
When observed as part of a test-tube study, the reishi fungus increased immunity. Lin and his fellow researchers demonstrated immune function modulation and the promotion of the functioning of antigen-presenting cells. Antigen-presenting cells mediate the cellular immune response. They also revealed the elevation of the mononuclear phygocyte system, which is responsible for destroying foreign matter such as harmful bacteria and viruses. Lastly, improvement in humoral immunity, and cellular immunity, which are responsible for identifying and marking harmful pathogens for eradication and the production of beneficial cytokines. (Lin, Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Immuno-modulation by Ganoderma Lucidum).
On the subject of cytokines (peptides, proteins and glycoproteins), another study demonstrated that the reishi mushroom, along with many others, may enhance cancer treatment. Cytokine patterns were observed in vitro and vivo models. Reishi decreased the cytokines IL-1 and TNF-a, which are associated with the unwanted proinflammatory pattern. It also showed an increase in the favourable TH1 pattern, and a 56% increase in its dominant cytokine, IFN-γ, which is responsible for stimulating the cellular immune response to cancer (Guggenheim et al, Immune Modulation…), and therefore, may be beneficial to cancer treatment.
Being an athlete means balancing macros, micros, and training discipline—where do mushrooms fit in? Unlike “Athletes Foot,” mushrooms are a fungus that can significantly enhance fitness performance for both novice and seasoned athletes alike.
Research on the antrodia mushroom (antrodia camphorata), native to Taiwan, showed decreased physical fatigue and improved exercise performance in mice. Mice who were given antrodia exhibited increased grip strength, swim time, blood glucose and muscular and hepatic glycogen levels (Huang et al, Triterpenoid-Rich Extract from Antrodia…). Antrodia also demonstrated adaptogenic effects such as decreased ammonia levels in the mice.
The cordyceps mushroom (cordyceps sinensis), also known as “caterpillar fungus”, has an adaptogenic anti-inflammatory effect, which is beneficial to athletic recovery from injuries and training (Park et al, Molecular cloning, expression, and characterization…).
Further, in a clinical trial involving patients who had experienced heart failure, this fungus increased cardiac output by 60% (Chen, Effects of JinShuiBao Capsule…), which is crucial to oxygen and blood flow, thus making it beneficial to athletes.
Nutraceutical applications for mushrooms across innovative formulations and ingredients are emerging in the supplement space at a seemingly exponential rate—many of which hold clinically documented performance benefits. One particular organic-certified and research-backed product called Peak02 is available to consumers as a supplement and food additive. It is composed of six adaptogenic mushrooms and purports to improve energy, athletic performance, endurance and wellness.
In a double-blind controlled study, 28 individuals were given 4g/day of the Peak02 blend, and the group that consumed the mushroom blend improved their peak power output by 17.6%, whereas the placebo group experienced a decrease of 11.8% (Hirsch et al, Cordyceps militaris improves tolerance…). Another study observed the increase of aerobic performance in those who consumed Peak02. Results showed a significant delay in time to fatigue, increased VO2peak and a reduction in blood lactate during the economy phase (Dudgeon et al, The Effects of High and Low-Dose Cordyceps…). The promising data suggests improved endurance and performance in healthy young adults (Dudgeon et al) who are already at an average age of peak conditioning. This formulation is a far-cry from psilocybin, but it sure looks like magic.
MENTAL HEALTH & COGNITIVE FUNCTION
More so now than ever before, consumers are hungry for alternative and supplementary treatments to traditional prescription medication. Medicinal mushrooms may aid in improved mental health and cognitive function.
The lion’s mane mushroom (hericium erinaceus) has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine in tonics and food for a variety of health benefits, including benefits to the mind and brain. Current research shows this mushroom may decrease depressive symptoms and thus, may be useful in the treatment of depression. In one study, stress was induced in mice by putting them through physical trials, such as swimming. These trials resulted in decreased norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin along with proinflammatory cytokines (Chiu et al, Erinacine A-Enriched Hericium erinaceus). When these mice were given lion’s mane enriched with erinacine A, the levels norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin were increased and cell immunity ceased the secretion of proinflammatory cytokines. The results of this study showed that this mushroom may be a good candidate for the treatment of depression—even if only supplementary to traditional medication, as “over 30% of depressed patients do not achieve a clinically appreciable improvement with current treatments” (Chiu et al).
Another study showed positive results in supplementation of lion’s mane to individuals with suffering with anxiety and depression. After two months of supplementation, these individuals exhibited a 12.6% reduction in anxiety disorder symptoms, and individuals with depression experienced a decrease in symptoms by about 35% (Vigna et al, Hericium Erinaceus Improves Mood and Sleep).
Mushrooms are considered natural nootropics (cognitive enhancers) and may provide benefits to cognitive function similar to those of prescription grade nootropics.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel-group study, 31 individuals took lion’s mane for 12 weeks and then underwent a cognitive test called Mini Mental State Evaluation (MMSE). Participants with a normal MMSE starting score, showed improvement after the consumption of lion’s mane (Saitsu et al, Improvement of Cognitive Functions…).
A study in Singapore, involving 663 participants aged 60+, examined the relationship between Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and the consumption of golden, oyster, shiitake and white button mushrooms. Results showed that participants who consumed more than the traditionally recommended servings of mushrooms weekly, had a 50% lower risk of developing MCI. The participants who experienced reduced MCI risk consumed two or more portions of mushrooms, with one portion defined as 150 g (Lei et al, The Association between Mushroom Consumption…).
WAKING UP ON THE RIGHT SIDE
Optimal cognitive function relies heavily on adequate sleep. There is nothing more frustrating than feeling physically and mentally exhausted yet lacking the ability to fall asleep. Mushrooms may also aid in achieving improved nighttime rest.
The same aforementioned study by Vigna et al observed folks with sleep disorders, and after two months of lion’s mane supplementation, improved their sleep disorders symptoms by about 36%.
Reishi has long been known to be a natural sedative and followers of eastern medicine swear by it. Research reveals that at the right dose, this mushroom may have benzodiazepine-like effects on sleep. The administration of reishi extract at 80 and 120 mg/kg in rats showed decreased sleep latency, non-REM sleep time and light sleep time and increased overall sleep time (Chu, et al, Extract of Ganoderma…). Delta wave sleep was also increased during non-REM sleep, which is the transitional point between light and deep sleep.
What can’t fungi do? Not much apparently. Scientific data shows that certain mushrooms may positively impact the sexual health of women and men.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world. The use of condoms does not prevent infection and certain strains of the HPV can lead to genital warts and cancer (in both men and women). Unfortunately, HPV is associated with approximately 99% of all cervical cancer cases, 95% of anal cancer, 60% of oropharyngeal cancer, 65% of vaginal cancer, 50% vulvar cancer and 35% of penile cancer (Science Daily, Mushroom Extract, AHCC…). Preventative tests for men, which would substantially reduce the rate of transmission in both sexes, are unavailable. Currently, the only methods of prevention are abstinence and the controversial HPV vaccine.
A pilot clinical trial conducted at the University of Texas demonstrated that active hexose-correlated compound (AHCC), extracted from the shiitake mushroom (lentinus edodes), may eradicate HPV. The study identified ten HPV-positive women and administered to them AHCC once daily for six months. Out of the ten women studied, eight tested negative for HPV after the fact, and out of those eight, three continue to live HPV free. The study has moved into a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase II clinical trial (Science Daily) – as it comes to a close, findings are consistent, but final results are not yet accessible.
Since research on AHCC and HPV has been limited to the west, a Chinese study was conducted, with 60 random female participants – the study is estimated to complete in August 2023. Preliminary findings confirm the results of the previous study, with a 60% elimination of HPV with the administration of AHCC (Clinical Trials Gov, Evaluation of AHCC® for the Clearance of High Risk-HPV). More to come.
When potentially life-threatening viruses are not of concern, it looks like mushrooms, which have long been recognized aphrodisiacs, may help with sexual dysfunctions and overall sexual health in women and men. When supplemented, the cordyceps mushroom resulted in an 86% libido increase in women (Dong and Yao, In vitro evaluation of antioxidant activities…). Another study showed that when cordyceps was consumed by “22 males for 8 weeks, there was a 33% increase in sperm count, 29% decrease in the sperm malformations, and 79% increase in the sperm survival rate” (Jiraungkoorskul, Review of Naturopathy of Medical Mushroom).
A FUTURE OF FUNGI
The world of herbal medicine waits to be fully discovered and researched, and the current knowledge available with regard to mushrooms is only the tip of the iceberg. Clearly, the anecdotal evidence that mushrooms can play a significant role in health and wellness has merit to it and is backed by scientific data. As mushrooms continue to grow in popularity and demonstrate the potential to fill gaps in the medical industry, the hope of many advocates is that additional funding will be allocated to quality research.
It is worth noting that while the aforementioned reviews and studies are peer-reviewed and appear to be legitimate, they may contain biases and conflicts of interest. Scientific research should always undergo a clinical appraisal by a qualified individual before it is considered for product development.