Introduction to Mushrooms, Benefits and What to Look for When Purchasing
Fungi have their own biological kingdom alongside animals, plants, protists and single-celled monera. They are commonly encountered as mushrooms, yeast, mold and truffles, and play a vital role on our planet as a recycler of dead organic material. Similar to plants, their lifecycle has three primary stages, not all of which are easily visible to the eye.
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungi, and they contain reproductive spores (seeds), which are distributed into the ecosystem either through the air or when eaten, and later excreted by an animal. When these spores grow together, they form an underground mycelium network (the vegetative stage). The mycelium grows through soil looking for dead organic matter such as animals, logs and leaves, and then secretes an enzyme that breaks down the organic matter, creating fertile, new soil and helping to support plant and animal life. Many green plants have a symbiotic relationship with a type of fungi called mycorrhizal. They trade energy-rich carbons, sugars or lipids in exchange for minerals from the soil.
Mushrooms as Medicine
Mushrooms have been used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years in Asia and elsewhere. Today, they are quickly becoming a popular addition to our diets for their health benefits, not only in the form of fresh or dried mushrooms, but in tinctures and capsules, as well as in powders and other forms as additions to coffee, other beverages and more.
Medicinal mushrooms typically do not taste good, so popular drinks cover it up with flavoring and the dose is often too low for any measurable benefit. Traditional alcohol-based tinctures are effective, but they are an acquired taste, as well. A multi-mushroom capsule which does not contain grain or rice is a good place to start when buying a medicinal mushroom product.
What to Look for When Purchasing Medicinal Mushroom Products
When purchasing any medicinal mushroom product, determine where and how the ingredients were grown. About 70 percent of raw product for the U.S. mushroom market is imported from China, where growing practices are often not verified. Also ensure there are only fruiting bodies and no fillers such as mycelium/fermented brown rice biomass or myceliated grain. These include the growing substrate (grain or rice) that also acts as a filler.
Research how the products are manufactured. Mushroom cell walls are made up of tough chitin which needs to be broken down to access the beta-glucans and other beneficial compounds. A double extraction using alcohol and then hot water is acceptable. Ideally, a third extraction using fire is performed to capture the minerals.
Benefits of Common Medicinal Mushroom Varieties
These are some of the most widely studied and used medicinal mushroom varieties commonly available.
Lion’s Mane: Commonly used for cognition and nerve support. Studies show that Lion’s Mane is a good source of hericenones and erinacines, which accelerate the growth of brain cells. It is also rich in nerve growth factor which is essential for the brain, according to The National Library of Medicine study, "Nerve Growth Factor: Early Studies and Recent Clinal Trails."
Cordyceps: Commonly used for energy and athletic performance. It has been found to boost . adenosine triphosphate, which delivers energy to the muscles, and boost maximal aerobic capacity, a measurement to determine fitness levels.
Turkey Tail: Commonly used for immune and cancer support, and widely studied in China and Japan for immune-stimulating polysaccharides, it contains high levels of polysaccharide krestin which has been extracted and used as a pharmaceutical cancer treatment for 30 years.
Chaga: Commonly used for digestion and anti-aging, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcer and diabetes (prevents absorption of glucose), it has been researched for anti-tumor and cancer properties, and as an antioxidant powerhouse 25 to 50 times more potent than blueberries.
Reishi: Reishi is known as ling zhi in Chinese Traditional Medicine, which considers this mushroom highly valuable for replenishing qi (energy) and promoting longevity. It is commonly used for longevity, muscle relaxation, central nervous system relaxation, cardiotonic activity, general immune potentiation and liver and bronchial protection.