Ask your mates if they want milk and sugar in their tea or coffee nowadays and they’ll probably sniff at you. Our tea and coffee additions have gotten a lot more sophisticated and – more importantly – far healthier.
Well, budge up Bulletproof Coffee: there’s a new coffee (and tea) upgrade in town.
I’m talking about fungi. To be precise, medicinal mushroom powders, or ‘nature’s best kept secret‘.
More and more companies are switching on to the health benefits of these functional foods. That’s exciting for us, as it means products and supplements are popping up all over the shop.
One of the early adopters, Finnish brand Four Sigma Foods, is making particularly beautiful, high quality products (reviewed below). Four Sigma Foods’ success reflects that quality, and the company recently relocated from the UK to Los Angeles, and is making its products (already found in 21 countries) available all over California and New York.
So what unique characteristics do these mushrooms hold that makes them so beneficial for us?
Medicinal mushrooms aren’t the same as the culinary kind. We have known about the health-giving qualities of the latter for a while.
Shitake, mitake, portobello, the cute little white buttons – they are all packed with phyto (or ‘plant’) nutrients, which are essential in our diets. In fact it is widely agreed that culinary mushrooms can help us maintain an ‘ideal’ anti-inflammatory, low sugar and high nutrient-dense diet.
Certain edible mushrooms, such as shitake, pack a great meaty flavor that mimics meat, making them an excellent staple food for vegetarians. We all can and should work them into our daily recipes.
WHAT ARE THEY THEN?
Unlike the edible kind, medicinal mushrooms don’t grow on the ground – they grow on or near trees. Some actually look like tree bark. Others resemble something from a horror movie.
Because you can’t really eat them raw, you need to extract the benefits from mushrooms using a process. The main processes are by hot water extraction (i.e. boiling them) and alcohol extraction (soaking the mushrooms in alcohol).
Medicinal mushrooms are frequently dried and sold packaged in either powder or capsule form (although some may be eaten raw).
Both medicinal and edible mushrooms are considered useful as alternatives to medicine for treating age related disease.
Mycologist Paul Stamets, probably the world’s leading authority on mushrooms, likens them to miniature pharmaceutical factories. In fact, medicinal mushrooms are understood to be responsible for 130 functions, which I’ll go into more below.
They have some pretty fun names. Here are some characters from the medicinal mushroom kingdom:
- Lion’s Mane
- (My personal favorite) Turkey tail
You can watch documentaries about mushrooms here and Stamets’s fascinating Ted Talk here.
‘SHROOMS UNDER THE ‘SCOPE
The studies that have been done on medicinal mushrooms aren’t conclusive, but the data that we do have is exciting. Here are some of the results of the studies:
Reishi – Used as an overall health and longevity tonic for thousands of years, tests on Reishi show that the mushroom has neuro-protective effects in rats, a life-span promoting effect on worms, an inhibiting effect on the growth of tumors and liver re-generation effects in mice. Check out Examine.com’s neat little compilation of the studies (there is a page for some of the other mushrooms mentioned below too).
Chaga – Traditionally used to treat upset stomachs and intestinal pains, Chaga inhibits oxidative DNA damage (a key factor in accelerated aging), and shows promising potential as an anti-cancer agent.
Check this awesome infographic on the other benefits of Chaga.
Lion’s Mane – Lion’s Mane helps to stimulate nerve growth factor (plays a significant role in immunity), has an improving effect on mild cognitive impairment conditions, reduces beta amyloid plaque in the brain (a marker of Alzheimer’s), reduces anxiety and depression in menopausal women, and improves concentration.
Turkey tail – Studies on Turkey tail show that it improves the immune systems of breast cancer patients. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved a clinical trial of Turkey Tail for prostate cancer patients.
WHAT’S RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE HEALTH BENEFITS?
The active part of medicinal mushrooms is a category of compounds called polysaccharides (which are a form of sugar/carbohydrates). Some mushrooms, such as Reishi, also have triterpenoid compounds.
Polysaccharides – These are generally thought of as BRMs (biological response modifiers). It is these compounds that are linked to protection against cancer cells, as well as viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. Beta-glutens, a form of polysaccheride found in Chaga, help to modulate the immune system. Betulinic acid which is found in Chaga (and also winged beans) is currently being researched for its anti-HIV properties.
- Triterpenoids– This class of compounds has liver protecting, lipid lowering, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also inhibit the release of histamine, which assists with allergies. Ergosterol, a type of triterpenoid, has been discovered to have anti-tumor and antioxidant properties. Ergosterol is also a precursor to Vitamin D, as exposure to UV light converts Ergosterol to Vitamin D2. Vitamin D deficiency is currently a global epidemic thought to contribute to most states of disease. Another type of triterpenoid, betulinic acid, breaks down ‘bad’ cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Brace yourself, this is horribly technical.
Polysaccharide compounds tend to be found in the water-soluble fragment of the mushroom, or the hot-water extracts. Triterpenoids are found in ethanolic (alcohol based) extracts.
All this means in practice is that you should ensure that whoever you are buying from has extracted the mushrooms in one of these ways. See the ‘FSF’s extraction method’ and ‘identifying other quality products’ sections below.
So, what does this all mean for your health?
There are two key ways that incorporating these types of mushrooms into your diet can benefit you, both on a day-to-day level and over the long term: (1) they help to support and strengthen your immune systems through their ‘adaptogenic’ qualities, and (2) through their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, they help protect you from early aging and onset of disease.
Immune system boosters – Medicinal mushrooms are adaptogens, which is a category of foods and substances that have a re-balancing effect on the body. They help us to up or down regulate as necessary! In practical terms, this means mushrooms help us:
- Adapt to stress;
- Sleep better;
- Balance hormone levels naturally; and
- Maintain a healthy energy level.
Medicinal mushrooms are adaptogens. They help us deal with stress.
Antioxidants – Chaga has the highest ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score ever recorded. That makes it profoundly anti-aging. When we eat a high antioxidant diet, our whole body benefits. We look better (skin and hair) and our organs function better.
Anti-inflammatory – There’s a reason why everyone and her mother are on a crusade to end chronic inflammation. Maintaining proper levels of inflammation through diet and lifestyle mean less chance of developing chronic degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer and stroke.
NO SIDE EFFECTS
One of the fantastic things about medicinal mushrooms is they don’t have any adverse side effects. You can just keep consuming and the benefits accumulate.
One exception has been highlighted: where individuals are using immune suppressing medicines (used after a transplant). In such cases, the immune modulating effect of medicinal mushroom extracts might neutralize the effects of the drugs.
DO YOU NEED THEM?
We all need the nutrition from plants (‘phytonutrients’). The way you get them is entirely up to you. As I’m not into messing around, my view is that these types of mushroom are among the top ways to get the important phytonutrients.
Melinda Ring, MD, Medical Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, says: “To me it’s one of those things I’ll often include as a gentle support. Take your multi, have probiotics, get enough vitamin D — and for immune support, I do like mushroom extract. You could add them to a smoothie, just like you throw in your greens and protein powder.”
The Osher Center recommends medicinal mushrooms for people who might benefit from extra immune support. Melissa Ring, MD:
“Anybody who struggles with recurrent respiratory infections, people entering the cold and flu season, people who work in careers that expose them frequently to infections, like teachers, all those sorts of people can benefit from including medicinal mushrooms in their regimen, whether through diet or supplements.”
Review Of The Range
Mushroom coffee: The real ‘coffee on crack’, this stuff gives you the double health whammy of coffee and mushrooms. Now, if you wanted, you could make a bulletproof, mushroom coffee. I have tried all the varieties, and I preferred them to my normal espresso (I found them less acidic).
Mushroom hot chocolate: Medicinal hot chocolate. The guys sent me a chai flavour to try, which I liked. A lot.
Instant ‘Tea’ Drinks: The original drink mixes. These are the ones to drink either alone or bung in your smoothie. Or your soup. Or your raw chocolate cake!
Other stuff: Superfoods blends. Other cosmic offerings from the guys, including ‘Viking’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Eazy’, ‘Prince Princess’ and ‘Winning X’.
FSF’S EXTRACTION METHOD
The drinks come in cute little sachets full of a dual-extracted mushroom powder. Dual extraction, using both water and alcohol, is considered the best method for making the contents of mushrooms bioavailable.
FSF doesn’t just powder its mushroom: it extracts them in both hot water and alcohol for all beneficial compounds to become bioavailable. The final extracts are standardized, before being combined with herbs and natural flavors including liquorice root, star anise, mint, stevia and rose hip.
IDENTIFYING OTHER QUALITY PRODUCTS
If you want to shop around, there are a couple of things to be aware of.
Currently there are three main types of products that you can buy: whole mushrooms (used by Four Sigma Foods), mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus), and spores. Most of the research has focused on extracts of whole mushrooms. Mycelium and spore products do not have the same level of data.
In general, quality products are available as concentrated powder made from the whole mushroom.
MAKING YOUR OWN
You can prepare a hot infusion made from chaga bark at home – it’s pretty simple. Obviously this doesn’t have the convenience of using the powders – but on the plus side, it’s hella ceremonious. I have used and can recommend UK company Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury (non-affiliate).
You can make chaga tea at home. It’s hella ceremonious.
I couldn’t write an article on mushrooms without mentioning the original good time guys themselves.
Psilocybin mushrooms (aka magic mushrooms) are mushrooms that contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin and psilocin. This modest looking mushroom upends the brain quite thoroughly. For that reason, they are illegal to use in many countries.
However, scientists have been offering them to patients in a controlled manner with some interesting results.
Psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, might change people’s minds for the better. It works byprofoundly altering consciousness, rearranging the brain so that new connections between neurons are made.
“People often describe taking psilocybin as producing a dreamlike state,” Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher who studies psilocybin, said. Whilst this is going on, with the activity in the emotion region of the brain working at full-force, the area that helps us find a sense of self-awareness (the ego) goes quiet. Although the effects are gone within five to 10 hours, the enlightenment they bring is long-lasting.
Studies have shown that the psilocybin in mushrooms may be an effective chemical for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Other studies suggest that psilocybin may help smokers to quit.
Further, a new review of studies found that psilocybin, along with other psychedelics, hold potential for treating mental illness. So let’s watch this space…
Moved to discover the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms? Got a question or observation you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.