Reinventing the Superfood: How Mushrooms Fight Sickness, Slow Aging, and Improve Performance
Mushrooms don’t make up one entire kingdom of the earth’s living organisms for nothing. Forage into field of fungi, and there’s an entire non-culinary, non-psychedelic side of mushrooms that most of the general population likely knows very little about: their incredible, physiological properties. Containing compounds that can tackle everything from stress-induced inflammation and poor memory, to aging skin and even low libido (seriously!), these “adaptogenic mushrooms” have long been used as part of ancient Eastern medicine, and are finally getting their due attention worldwide—among mycologists and the medical field—as superfoods.
With research still being conducted on their medicinal powers, new varieties still being discovered, and a noticeable lack of guidance on how to actually use adaptogenic mushrooms to their full potential, they can be, understandably, a head-spinning realm to navigate.
A great place to start is Four Sigmatic founder Tero Isokauppila’s latest book, “Healing Mushrooms,” an in-depth dive into ten of the most powerful adaptogenic mushrooms we know of today—you may be surprised to find some familiar varieties like Oyster and Enoki among them. The book not only explains the science behind each mushroom’s incredible capabilities, but turns that abstract information into practical suggestions for reaping their full benefits in everyday life.
If you want a better idea of what adaptogenic mushrooms can offer for your body, take a closer look at four different varieties that are taking the world of wellness by storm.
Reishi is known as linghzi in China, a word that signifies longevity and spirituality; it’s an appropriate name because reishi is linked to helping more ailments and issues than any other mushroom. While it grows in red, black, blue, white, yellow, and purple varieties, the black and red forms are used most for healing purposes, with red reishi being particularly high in polysaccharides and triterpenes that give the mushroom many of its immune-boosting properties.
Reishi has more than 400 bioactive compounds that have been shown to act together to enhance nerve growth and promote neurological function. If that weren’t enough, studies are also examining how reishi’s polysaccharides can support your immune response to help. Is it any wonder why it’s known as the “immortality mushroom?”
With nerve-soothing, and antioxidant properties, reishi provides benefits for the body, mind, and spirit. And while it’s always a good idea to check with a physician before starting any type of new medication, reishi has an impressively clean track record where side effects are concerned, so it’s suitable for every day, long-term use for people of any age.
Using reishi has been linked to the following benefits:
Better sleep: It’s not exactly an exaggeration to say that sleep deprivation is pandemic. From irritability and muscle pain to even obesity and cancer, its effects can be more widespread and alarming than we appreciate. In short, most of us could use a little something to catch a few more zzz’s at night, and reishi mushrooms might just be the answer. A much more natural alternative to sleeping pills, reishi taken in continuous, small doses has been shown to activate sleep cycles, acting almost like a safe tranquilizer for the brain. By relaxing the nervous system, reishi helps restore sleeping patterns to normal.
Less stress: As an adaptogen, reishi mushroom naturally comes with stress-reducing benefits. Its bitterness is an immediate giveaway that it’s loaded with triterpenes, which are chemical compounds known to act as tonic for the liver. When the liver is well-maintained, ripple effects include lower anxiety and depression levels.
Proponents of Chinese medicine and meditation have long believed that reishi’s calming properties have a deep, beneficial effect on the body’s spiritual energy—known as “Shen”—especially when the reishi is taken in the form of tea. When your shen is in balance, you may become more focused and be able to retune your mindset, think more clearly, and get better perspective on circumstances that would otherwise cause you to start stressing.
Alleviated seasonal allergies: One significant type of triterpene (a chemical compound that lives in plants) in reishi is called ganoderic acid, which gives the mushroom its flavor and its ability to potentially help reduce the symptoms of uncomfortable seasonal allergies. When your body encounters allergens of any kind (think pollen, chemicals or contaminants in the environment, etc.), your immune system releases the chemical histamine, which then leads to a heightened inflammatory response in which your blood vessels swell so that your body can find and fight the foreign agent. That’s what leads to some of those nasty allergy symptoms like headaches, sneezing, red eyes, and itchiness. While it’s normal that your immune system is responding to allergens that don’t belong in your body, many people aren’t able to break down histamine properly, and it remains in your system in high levels. This exacerbates those allergies, and can worsen asthmatic reactions or hives. The ganoderic acids in reishi mushrooms inhibit the release of histamine, essentially regulating the immune system, which might be the approach you need to ease the intensity of allergy flare-ups.
Unlike most other mushrooms, which grow in warm and humid environments, the chaga variety loves the cold. Thriving on birch trees in regions like Siberia, Canada, North Korea, and some parts of the northern United States, it has been used for centuries by these cultures for specific medical purposes, from helping delay degenerative diseases and treating respiratory conditions in Eastern Europe.
Like a fine wine, the power of chaga can be linked to the amount of time it takes to mature. It takes around 15 to 20 years for a chaga mushroom to fully form—the gradual process allows for its medicinal properties to increase in potency as it develops and making it strong in antioxidant properties.
As a convenient bonus, you don’t have to brew chaga into a tea or grind it into a powder to reap its benefits like we do for other, tougher medicinal mushrooms; simply eating it is enough for all its goodness to just as adequately enter your system.
Take a closer look at some of the main ways chaga mushrooms can work their magic:
Warding off the common cold: One of chaga’s main compounds is the antioxidant-packed sterol called betulinic acid, which the mushroom gets from the botulin that happens to hang out on the birch tree that it grows on, and naturally metabolizes to make it more absorbent for our bloodstreams.
Betulinic acid in chaga is known to treat symptoms of the flu, including fatigue, congestion and body aches. Along with its antioxidant beta-glucans, which are also abundant in chaga and help to balance your body’s immune system, betulinic acid can help fend off sickness during cold and flu season. In several worldwide research initiatives, chaga has also shown to increase levels of macrophages, cells of the immune system that are essential for helping to fight infections.
Promoting shiny, thick hair and glowing skin: Just like the antioxidant melanin determines our skin shade, it also takes credit for chaga’s dark color and beneficial effects on hair and skin health. Melanin is known for not only protecting DNA, but also for helping it regenerate. In fact, melanin is a huge reason for why chaga can grow in those freezing environments—it acts as a barrier against the harsh weather.
Melanin’s protective powers extend to removing deep blemishes and age spots, shielding hair from sun damage, and generally keeping skin smooth, fresh, and springy. Many natural skin ointments and anti-aging creams include chaga as part of their concoctions; a past study in which men and women diagnosed with psoriasis took chaga in extract form continuously over three months, saw significant, if not complete, improvement in their rashes and pain.10
Lowering inflammation caused by stress: Whether it’s from a hectic work schedule, a family to care for, or trying to “adult” in general, increased stress is more common than ever. And when it causes your body to become less adept at eliminating toxins and maintaining a general sense of metabolic balance, your immune systems start to go a bit haywire in response (a state known as oxidative stress), and as a result, inflammation occurs.
While inflammation can manifest itself in any number of ways, from hepatitis and arthritis to ulcers and colitis, the betulinic acid is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to reducing the various types, especially those related to digestion. For example, when chaga was used as a supplement for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, it was 20% more powerful at reducing their oxidative stress levels than patients in the control group. This is likely due to the mushroom’s extraordinary levels of superoxide dismutase (SOD), an enzyme that fights cell damage caused by oxidative stress. In fact, author and MD Cass Ingram states that of all medicinal mushrooms, “chaga has the highest concentration by far” of SOD.
Since inflammation is caused by a heightened immune response to a foreign agent or stress, treatments for it usually suppress the immune system. While that might work in the short term, research suggests that over the long term, medications that keep telling the immune system to chill out can ultimately weaken the body’s defenses. Chaga, however, stands out for being able to reduce inflammation while, at the same time, keeping the immune response up to speed (that’s why it’s so good at help to fight off colds, too!)10.
Cordyceps is unique among the functional mushrooms for being part-fungus, part—wait for it—caterpillar. Growing from within the insects and acquiring several of its nutrients from them, the cylindrical-shaped Cordyceps can be found mostly in the high-altitude areas of China, Tibet, and Nepal. However, being one of the harder-to-source mushrooms out there, clinics in China have devised several ways to ferment it, using grains instead of caterpillars, that suppliers in the west have adopted. Not only do these methods make it easier to grow Cordyceps, they also reduce some of the risks of mold and contamination that might come with Cordyceps that grow on caterpillars.
A versatile mushroom, Cordyceps has been used by practitioners of Chinese medicine for improving everything from sleep to energy. It’s also shown potential for helping keep adrenal hormones and cholesterol levels in balance.22
Increase energy: Increased sexual and physical performance go hand in hand with higher energy levels, and Cordyceps is known for keeping lethargy at bay. In addition to having a positive effect on training competitors, Cordyceps has proved beneficial for the general population as well, by increasing how much of the energy molecule ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) is created through the cellular respiration process, and even more importantly, improving how thoroughly the body uses oxygen.
The study shows that Cordyceps can support endurance levels for everyone from working professionals to the elderly, all without the uglier side effects (such as sleeplessness and jitteriness) that alternatives like super-high doses of caffeine can produce.
Higher Oxygen Intake: By stimulating white blood cells to respond to unwanted bacteria, Cordyceps can relax smooth muscles and loosen narrowed tracheas, which can in turn might allow your lungs to operate at higher levels. In a 2016 study conducted at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, asthmatic subjects taking Cordyceps over a three-month period exhibited less inflammation, better pulmonary function leading to higher activity levels, lowered use of inhalers, and reductions in asthma symptoms including sleeplessness and night sweats. Several Chinese studies observing patients of chronic bronchitis over weekly and monthly stretches showed higher breathing capacity and fewer coughing fits.
Growing on hardwood trees and aptly named for its resemblance to hair, lion’s mane (also called monkey’s head mushroom, hedgehog mushroom, or pom-pom mushroom) is distinctive for its shaggy appearance and abundance of amino acids, but also its meaty texture and taste. In fact, it’s often used as an edible mushroom in pastas or seafood dishes, so there’s a good chance you’ve eaten it before.
In Chinese medicine, lion’s mane has been used mostly for digestive and liver health purposes, and like most other medicinal mushrooms, it’s an antidote to inflammation. However, modern medicine has also discovered that lion’s mane is one of the only mushrooms out there with neuroprotective properties. Let’s take a closer look at what makes people refer to lion’s mane as “the smart mushroom.”
Nervous system protection: Lion’s mane contains large amounts of the compounds erinacines, which are especially effective at stimulating the production of NGF (nerve growth factor), a protein that’s central to the growth and health of neurons in our brains. Since the blood-brain barrier prevents NGF from entering the brain, that stimulation is essential for making sure that the brain synthesizes the protein on its own. When our brains cannot induce NGF on their own, we become more susceptible to degenerative conditions, particularly dementia, so an external source of NGF production is imperative to maintaining our cognitive health.
Other protective properties of lion’s mane include its ability to activate myelination, or the production of the myelin sheath—the protective covering around nerve cell branches—without which issues like multiple sclerosis are more likely to develop. The mushroom also suppresses the amount and activity of beta-amyloid plaques in our nervous systems, which are proteins that can build up around nerve cells and disturb the communication between neurons, a breakdown that can lead to conditions like Parkinson’s Disease or depression.31
Improved memory: When your nerve cells are growing well and protected properly, they can, naturally, operate better. The NGF growth stimulated by lion’s mane is particularly valuable for maintaining the function and the size of the forebrain, which is where most of our decision-making, analytical thought, and memory processes occur. When the forebrain shrinks, our ability to perform those processes declines as well.
While research using human subjects hasn’t been exhaustive, we do know the importance of the forebrain. That’s why lion’s mane might play a helpful role in warding off the symptoms and conditions brought about by memory loss. For example, in a four-month study, older patients with “mild cognitive impairment” took 1000mg of lion’s mane tablets three times a day for four months. Test results showed considerable improvements from those before the study, and “remained high for a few weeks after the patients stopped taking the supplement.”
Upgraded concentration: Lion’s mane tea has long been by Buddhist monks for better focus during meditation. They were on to something, because along with keeping memory and cognition up to par, lion’s mane also might help increase your ability to concentrate in a world full of distractions. The neurons that are created when lion’s mane jump-starts NGF production are essential for maintaining levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that, when insufficient in supply, can lead to shorter attention spans, fidgetiness, and anxiety.
When dopamine amounts are in check, not only are we spared from the “brain fog” that can accompany compromised focus, but our moods can improve and we feel more relaxed. For this reason, lion’s mane has been used on ADHD patients, women experiencing emotional swings during menopause, and people suffering from depression.
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