Are Mushrooms Safe? 4 Myths About Mushrooms

When you hear the word “mushroom,” what comes to mind?

Maybe it’s an image of cute little button mushrooms destined to be seen in soups or salads. Or, you might envision a psychedelic option of Alice-in-Wonderland proportions.

The story is pretty much the same everywhere: Most people think the word “mushroom” refers to a few culinary mushrooms or to hallucinogenic mushrooms. And the misinformation about mushrooms doesn’t stop there. It’s very common to hear “Aren’t mushrooms poisonous?” or “All mushrooms have high toxicity levels.”

While there are some mushrooms with health risks, there are an estimated 1.5 million types of fungi --  many of which offer a wide array wellness benefits that have played an important role in medical research for years.

More and more research suggests functional mushrooms are safe —and they have the capacity to change your life in an immediate and powerful way. Among the many benefits, mushrooms can help balance and restore your immune system, increase oxygen flow to your cells, amp up your mental and creative acuity, regulate your blood sugar, lower your stress levels, ensure restful sleep, and address myriad physical and emotional ailments.

If you’re still skeptical, I want share how I came to devote my life to advancing the use of mushrooms—and then clarify four myths about mushrooms. I hope you’ll walk away from this article feeling as excited about mushrooms as I do every day.

Mainstream Mushrooms

I’m a 13th generation farmer. I grew up in Finland, and spent my youth on the farm, living off the land, and I’ve been fascinated by farm-to-table foods and resources ever since.

And while everything of the land is of interest, in particular, one of my favorite jobs was foraging with my mother. It was the activity she enjoyed most. And while her preference was searching for wild berries, my obsessions quickly became hunting down the best mushrooms. Even today, when I’m asked to tell the Four Sigmatic story, my first thoughts go back to my family’s farm. Initially, I searched for those that tasted best. At the time, I didn’t understand the full range of health benefits offered by a wide variety of mushrooms.

Once I was in college, that’s when my love of mushrooms became something greater than I ever imagined. I began researching the world of mycology, and was fascinated when I learned about how mushrooms had been used for thousands of years and that science -- and even pharma companies -- supported the claims.

That was just the start. Once I became educated, I started to apply mushrooms to my own life. The first breakthrough was when I was a competitive runner in my 20s. I began using a mushroom called cordyceps. That’s because research suggests that cordyceps can increase your energy while also reducing fatigue. At the time, it wasn’t as easy to source, but I found a reputable source and started pouring capsules of cordyceps power into my pre-workout smoothies. I couldn’t have asked for better results. Every run -- within about 15 minutes -- I experienced a surge in energy, combined with mental clarity.

At that point, I knew I needed to make mushrooms more available. After all, cordyceps is just one of 1.5 million varieties. I had read the research about how mushrooms were involved in boosting immune function, upgrading sleep quality, improving cholesterol, improving performance, and helping to figure disease. That’s why I decide to become a “fun-guy.” (My ridiculous way of saying I’m invested in the fungi kingdom as a solution to human health and wellness.)

My new obsession led me to research different varieties of mushrooms, and I uncovered a relationship between human wellness and fungi with a centuries-long history.

My firm belief that everyone deserves to reap the incredible benefits that come from incorporating mushrooms into a daily wellness regimen inspired my decision to found Four Sigmatic in 2012. Our dream was to popularize the consumption of medicinal mushrooms by making them accessible to everyone. We made it our mission to offer medicinal mushrooms to consumers in such a way that they would merely be upgrading or replacing existing habits with healthier options that contained mushrooms. We started with mushroom coffee because it allowed us to introduce people to mushrooms in a simple, seamless, and delicious way.

Today, we’re full-on living our dream of bringing mushrooms to the masses—masses who are, incidentally, becoming increasingly hungry for alternative means to achieve optimal health and wellness.

But our work isn’t over. Even though more and more people are coming alive to the functional benefits of mushrooms, fungi still face an uphill climb in the court of public opinion. As you’ll see in the next section, concerns and misconceptions about mushrooms abound. So it’s high time we set the record straight.

The 4 Biggest Mushroom Myths

It might sound silly, but mycophobia (the fear, distrust, or abhorrence of mushrooms) is a real thing. In fact, research suggests that entire cultures can demonstrate either mycophobic (mushroom-fearing) or mycophillic (mushroom-loving) attitudes. The British are notoriously mycophobic, while European, Asian, and African cultures are more likely to be mycophillic.

Here’s the key: If mycophobic attitudes tend to be learned through cultural influence, then that means they can also be unlearned. If you are among the many people who suffer from a learned aversion to mushrooms, the following information should help to put your mind at ease.

Myth #1: Mushrooms have high toxicity levels.

The facts: This statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s misguided about medicinal mushrooms that you’ll find in our products. Some fungi do contain toxic compounds—but this isn’t the case for functional mushrooms.

The reason mushrooms have gotten a bad rap when it comes to concerns about toxicity is because of a little thing called mycotoxins, or organic substances that are present in mushrooms and poisonous to humans. Once again, it’s important to note that mycotoxins aren’t present in all mushrooms. Instead, these undesirable fungi include black mold (the stuff of home renovation horror stories) and aflatoxins, another genus of molds that is sometimes found on foods such as cacao, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Researchers believe that mycotoxin-containing fungi evolved to regulate other, “rival” fungi.

While some varieties of fungi may include mycotoxins, the reality is that functional mushrooms contain naturally occurring, non-toxic substances called adaptogens that can do wonders for people’s wellbeing. Adaptogens have been shown to protect the body from stress by stabilizing and optimizing its physiological functions; in the process, they can boost immunity, offer protection from disease, and promote overall wellness. The takeaway? When it comes to mushrooms and toxicity, it’s important not to confuse the bad with the good.

Myth #2: Mushrooms are poisonous.

The facts: Saying that mushrooms are poisonous is like saying all people are bad. Are there a few bad seeds in this world? Of course. Just as there are a few dangerous mushrooms. But given that there are more than 1.5 million types of fungi, it would be foolish to throw them all out with the (presumed poisonous) bathwater. In fact, research suggests only approximately 60 species out of the whole lot of known mushrooms are actually poisonous.

On the flip side, adaptogens and functional mushrooms may assist in the treatment of more than 200 health conditions and may offer more than 130 medicinal functions in the human body. Mushrooms are jam-packed with essential vitamins and nutrients and have been shown to balance and restore the immune system, promote brain health, lower stress levels, improve heart health, promote gut health, and support healthy skin. They may even play a role in cancer prevention and treatment, have anti-diabetic properties, and assist in recovery from Hepatitis B. Mushrooms’ benefits are so powerful that roughly 40 percent of all pharmaceuticals contain fungi in some form—including the world-changing and life-saving penicillin.

Myth #3: There’s not enough science to corroborate mushroom safety.

The facts: This one is just patently false. In the last decade, there have been more than 100,000 studies on medicinal mushrooms in Asia alone. In recent years, as Western researchers catch on to the potential wellness benefits of mushrooms, there’s been a huge surge in mushroom-related studies across the U.S, and, overall, this research has been overwhelmingly positive. For starters, it’s turned up all the potential wellness benefits of mushrooms outlined above. If you’re interested, you can find more of this research throughout this post.

Myth #4: Eating raw mushrooms is dangerous.

The facts: Eating functional mushrooms in raw form will not hurt you, but it also won’t take advantage of all of the benefits. If you want to obtain the maximum healthy living impact from mushrooms, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Fruiting bodies have higher concentrations of active compounds. By “fruiting bodies,” I mean the part of the fungi that grows above ground (what we typically call the “mushroom,” though it is in fact only a part of the whole). These fruiting bodies contain concentrated healthful compounds.
  • Mushrooms need to be dual-extracted in order for their benefits to be made bioavailable to the body. This two-step process entails using alcohol extraction to release fat-soluble compounds (including good-for-you terpenoids) and then using a hot-water extraction in order to release water-soluble compounds (such as healthful polysaccharides). This means that if you’re attempting to utilize mushrooms for their functional benefits, raw mushrooms are a big no-no.

    As mushrooms grow in popularity, many companies are promoting the potential health benefits of mushrooms on the packaging of products that have not been dual-extracted, which means those benefits are less available to the body. It’s a good idea to steer clear of any product that hasn’t been dual-extracted if you want to get your money’s worth.

    It’s also smart to avoid products that mention they are both raw and extracted as well as products that say they contain the fruiting body, spores, and mycelium all together (unless they explicitly stipulate the exact amounts of each part). These “blends” are often a clever way to mask lower-quality ingredients.

    It’s fair to say that these presumptions about mushrooms have done us all a disservice, because they’ve resulted in the healing potential of mushrooms being largely overlooked in Western culture. Fortunately, the recent rise of mushroom popularity in both the culinary and health-and-wellness spheres is helping functional mushrooms’ cause. The more people who take the time to address their misconceptions about mushrooms, the more we can all enjoy the benefits of these potent members of the fungi kingdom.

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