What are functional mushrooms?
Function mushrooms are a class of mushrooms that are edible and medicinally beneficial to humans.
Of the 14,000 known species of mushrooms that have been classified, nearly 3,000 of them are edible. Approximately 700 of those are known to have medicinal properties. Of these 700 species, many have both nutritional and medicinal properties, including immune modulation and anti-tumor properties.
Functional mushrooms are a class of fungi that possess the beneficial immune-modulating effects and many of them have been used for centuries in East Asian countries. These mushrooms are known to grow in dense forests, on fallen logs, and even on the Himalayan plateau. They are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and each one has a series of individual health benefits. Most importantly, research has shown that eating certain kinds of functional mushrooms has proven to strengthen the immune system.
Although they have been utilized for thousands of years, functional mushrooms have gained popularity among Western countries due to the extensive research and the growing demand for natural and alternative solutions to improve health and wellbeing. In recent years, they have also gained attention in the medical community for their highly potent and effective medicinal uses.
Perhaps the most researched mechanism of mushrooms is their capacity to stimulate the immune system response. The polysaccharide fraction of the mushroom, known as the beta-glucan portion, is responsible for their immune-modulating effects. The protective mechanisms of this portion of the mushrooms lay in their capacity to stimulate the immune system response. The beta-glucan portion of the mushroom can activate the immune cells, proteins, macrophages, T cells, natural killer cells, and cytokines that attach and create tumor cell growth.
What many fail to realize is that even the common white button mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, has bioactive antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties. Its properties alter the aromatase enzyme activity that is involved in the conversion of androgens to proliferative estrogenic intermediates that are closely linked to breast cancer development. Similar to white button mushrooms in their biological activity, but differing in their lacking of the polysaccharide beta-glucan constituents, Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms have protective activity against murine skin cancer and human prostate carcinoma cells (Ayeka, 2018).
An additional protective effect of functional mushrooms is their ability to act as adaptogens. A select group of herbs and mushrooms, known as adaptogens, support the body’s natural ability to deal with stress. They “adapt” their functions to what the body specifically needs at that time whether that be physical, chemical or biological. Adaptogens are naturally occurring nontoxic substances that protect the body from stress through stabilizing and optimizing our physiological functions. For a mushroom to qualify as an adaptogen, it must help the body in a nonspecific way. Meaning, rather than helping the body in a targeted or specific purpose, they help the body literally “adapt” their healing, medicinal, and functional properties to what the body needs at that moment in time.
Mushrooms that work in specific ways that help the immune system are known as immune-modulators. Immunomodulatory interventions modify the response of the immune system by increasing or decreasing the production of serum antibodies. Interventions that help to increase serum antibodies, are known as immune-stimulators, and those that decrease serum antibodies are known as immune-suppressors. Immuno-suppressants inhibit the immune response in things like organ transplants and in autoimmune diseases, where immuno-stimulants increase the immune response in infections, immunodeficiency disorders and cancers. Immune-modulators are used to describe interventions that causes measurable alterations in immune function because they can act at different levels of the immune system. Their actions can be both specific and nonspecific. Immunomodulatory mushrooms are classified within four categories based on their chemical composition of lectins, terpenoids, proteins and polysaccharides. Some of the most powerful functional mushrooms which are also all immune-modulating mushrooms are maitake, reishi, cordyceps, and turkey tail in their ability to down-regulate TH2 cytokines which demonstrates their benefits in treating cancer. While there is not enough evidence to utilize functional mushrooms exclusively for cancer treatment, that’s not to downplay the incredible benefits from using them as an adjunct therapy. The dose, concentration, absorption and extraction methods of each mushroom also plays a large role in their pharmacological effects. Perhaps one of the most interesting mushrooms as it relates to its promising immunological findings is Turkey Tail. The increased rate of survival for breast, gastric and colorectal cancer patients who took this mushroom is astounding.
The following is a list of functional mushrooms that I have found to be incredibly powerful in their nutritional and medicinal compositions. Since functional mushrooms and herbal supplements are both immune-modulating agents, many of their helpful effects are not apparent unless taken for time periods closer to two weeks to a month. Their nutritional and medicinal effects are most beneficial when taken consistently.
A few brands of reputable functional mushrooms powders are Four Sigmatic, Moon Juice, Om Mushroom and Sunpotion. I have personally experimented with and noticed the greatest beneficial changes when using Terrasoul Superfoods, Four Sigmatic and Om Mushroom powders. Genius and Host Defense Mushroom supplements are encapsulated mushroom powders which are also a wonderful addition to daily regimens. Altogether mushroom supplements improve the immune system, lower blood pressure and improve blood flow while a few also work to enhance endurance and focus. Since medicinal mushroom supplements are derived from mushrooms that are typically eaten, they are largely thought to be safe and have very few side effects. Likewise, while functional mushrooms can be considered a medicinal food, it is important for individuals who suffer from low blood pressure, diabetes or uncontrolled immune disorders to consult a physician before starting a medicinal mushroom supplement regimen. In general, medicinal mushrooms are safe and effective for most individuals to take. However, if an individual has underlying health conditions it is most important to consult a licensed health care professional prior to consumption.
Below is a list that I have compiled of the ten most effective mushrooms and their effects:
1. Chaga, Inonotus obliquus
Chaga is a functional mushroom that has been used for centuries throughout the world and is known best for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Historically, Chaga has been used as a coffee alternative for its smooth and nutty flavor. Chaga mushrooms are packed with antioxidants that help fight inflammation and rid the body of free radicals. Chaga mushooms are known to regulate cytokine production and stimulate white blood cell production which is part of our first line of defense in the immune system. Chaga’s high zinc content and targeted adaptogenic properties help the immune system combat bacteria and viruses.
2. Reishi, Ganoderma lingzhi
Most commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 2,000 years, the Reishi mushroom is known for its antioxidant and adaptogenic properties that support a state of calmness. Reishi mushrooms contain potent amounts of the active compound triterpene, which has been known to reduce stress, improve sleep, boost mood and enhance mental focus. Reishi mushroom is often used as a before-bed tea to promote healthy, restful sleep and to reduce stress, or in the afternoon to calm the nerves. This mushroom is also known to reduce blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar levels and is powerful in its cardio-protective properties.
3. Lion’s Mane, Hericium erinaceus
Lion’s Mane mushroom is known to improve focus and boost concentration and memory. Lion’s Mane is a medicinal mushroom that has shown great potential as a neurologically-active supplement due to its ability to increase Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) levels. It has been known to prevent declines in cognitive function and may even help with mild cognitive impairment. Likewise, Lion’s Mane mushroom may help to reduce irritability and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Lion’s Mane stimulates the gut bacteria that supports our immune system. Overall, Lion’s Mane is an incredibly powerful functional mushroom that has a broad range of neurological activity that can reserve, repair, and improve cognitive function, well-being, memory, and focus.
4. Cordyceps, Ophiocorydceps sinensis
Cordyceps mushroom is most commonly known for its properties that promote energy levels, vitality, endurance, and boost the immune system. Cordyceps mushroom is a particularly strong functional mushroom that has been studied for its ability to augment athletic performance because it is known to improve endurance. At times, it is also taken as a pre-and post-workout supplement to help enhance stamina and endurance.
5. Shiitake, Lentinula edodes
The most common and widely known functional mushroom, Shiitake, has also been part of TCM for thousands of years. Shiitake mushrooms are known to be a superfood powerhouse used in recipes, healthcare routines, and hair and skincare products. Most importantly, Shiitake mushrooms contain the 9 essential amino acids that are helpful and necessary for proper bodily function. Studies published by the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that shiitake mushrooms can boost immune function and improve cell function and gut immunity. Shiitake mushrooms are also a great food source of B vitamins, vitamin D, and zinc, and have been shown to possess anti-tumor properties.
6. Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor
In many cultures, Turkey Tail mushrooms symbolize longevity, health, and spiritual attunement. Likewise, Turkey Tail mushrooms contain an impressive array of antioxidants and are a powerful immune-modulating mushroom that boosts immune function and helps fight infection. Turkey Tail mushrooms contain 38 phenolic compounds and the flavonoid antioxidants quercetin and baicalein. Turkey Tail mushrooms are often used as an adjunct therapy to cancer treatments because of the two natural polysaccharides that both activate and inhibit specific types of immune cells while suppressing inflammation. These two polysaccharides, polysaccharide K (PSK), and polysaccharide peptide (PSP), naturally strengthen the immune system, and thus are used as an anticancer agent alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
7. Maitake, Grifola frondosa
Maitake, also a key functional mushroom, is often used to help treat cancer and relieve chemotherapy and chemical treatment side effects. It is also used to combat and relieve symptoms as they relate to HIV/AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis, hay fever, diabetes, high blood pressure and infertility. The Maitake mushroom compounds fight off tumor growth and stimulate the immune system. Their most potent effects lay in their ability to prevent and treat cancer through fighting the growth and reproduction of cancerous cells. Although Maitake mushrooms have been used for centuries in several Asian cultures for their healing properties, they are known in the US for their vitality enhancement.
8. Enokitake (Enoki), Flammulina velutipes
Native to China, Japan and Korea, the Enokitake mushroom contains an incredible amount of enoki linoleic acid and enoki chitosan. Along with the immense amount of fiber, the enoki properties help the body lose fat within the gut lining, maintain proper blood sugar levels, and prevent bowel complications. Although most functional mushrooms do possess a wide range of immune-boosting benefits, the Enokitake mushroom’s amino acids, valine, lysine, and ergothioneine specifically, fortify the immune-heightening properties of Enoki mushrooms. The amino acid content encourages mental development and memory enhancement. The consumption of Enoki mushrooms can also help to prevent the rise of blood lipids while decreasing cholesterol and the occurrence of coronary disease. Enoki mushrooms further encourage the biological activity of the body by improving metabolic processes that encourage the absorption of nutrients.
While the functional mushroom list is not limited to the above 8, the most commonly known and medicinally used mushrooms are often ones in the above list. Functional mushrooms are a wonderful addition, and when used properly, substitute, for pharmaceuticals because their effects are based on immunological enhancement in the host!
Ayeka,P.A. (2018). Potential of mushroom compounds as immunomodulators in cancer immunotherapy: A review. Hindawi, 7271509, 9. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/7271509