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Understanding Medicinal Mushrooms: Benefits, History, and Myths

I often find that medicinal mushrooms are misunderstood. 

And it's no surprise. There are a whole range of areas that are confusing. 

When I first started learning about medicinal mushrooms -- often described as functional mushrooms or adaptogenic mushrooms -- it took quite a lot of time to catch up, and I'm still learning.

In this post we're going to look at some of the basics of functional mushrooms, some of the misconceptions, and the most basic review of what to look for in a medicinal mushroom product to get the benefits.

We'll take a look into:

  • What are medicinal mushrooms?
  • The history of medicinal mushrooms!
  • Modern uses and benefits of medicinal mushrooms, science, and popular medicinal mushrooms.
  • Dispelling some myths and common misconceptions!
    • For example, are medicinal mushroom psychedelic? And "Medicinal mushrooms just don't work for me!" (Hint: quality + processing matters!)

What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?

Medicinal mushrooms are a unique class of fungi that have been utilized for their health-promoting properties for centuries.

Unlike culinary mushrooms, which are primarily valued for their taste and texture, medicinal mushrooms are renowned for their potential to support various aspects of human health.

These mushrooms contain bioactive compounds such as polysaccharides, beta-glucans, triterpenes, and antioxidants, which contribute to their medicinal properties. Properties outside of the standard nutritional profile of a mushroom. 

I often think about mushrooms in this type of overlapping vendiagram. There are not necessarily hard lines between these groups. You could easily be talking about lion's mane mushroom in a culinary context or a functional context. But, not all mushrooms will fit into more than one category.

A Brief History of Medicinal Mushrooms

The use of medicinal mushrooms dates back thousands of years.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has long revered mushrooms like Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and lion's mane mushroom (hericium erinaceus) for their health benefits.

In Japan, Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake have been integral to traditional healing practices.

Indigenous cultures across Europe, North America, and Russia have also utilized mushrooms like Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) for their therapeutic properties.

These mushrooms like so many other plants have been used for a very long time. And at Pow we like to leverage both the long history of use in traditional medicine and the modern science to guide us. 

Modern Uses of Medicinal Mushrooms

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in medicinal mushrooms, driven by scientific research and a growing demand for natural health solutions.

Today, medicinal mushrooms are used to:

  1. Boost Immune Function: Mushrooms like Reishi and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are known for their immune-modulating effects, helping to enhance the body's defense mechanisms.
  2. Reduce Inflammation: Mushrooms such as Chaga and Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) contain compounds that may help reduce inflammation and support overall wellness.
  3. Enhance Cognitive Function: Lion’s Mane is particularly noted for its potential to improve memory, focus, and cognitive health.
  4. Support Energy Levels: Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is valued for its ability to boost energy, stamina, and athletic performance.
  5. Promote Relaxation and Stress Relief: Reishi is often used to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and support better sleep.
  6. Improve Skin Health: Tremella (Tremella fuciformis), also known as Snow Fungus, is celebrated for its hydrating and anti-aging properties.

So many of these benefits were known to those practicing traditional medicine over centuries, but now we know more about why these mushrooms have benefits. 

The Science Behind Medicinal Mushrooms

The health benefits of medicinal mushrooms are attributed to their rich profile of bioactive compounds.

Key components include:

  • Polysaccharides and Beta-Glucans: These compounds are known for their immune-modulating effects, helping to balance and enhance the immune response.
  • Triterpenes: Triterpenes have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and liver-protective properties.
  • Antioxidants: Medicinal mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, which help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.

Popular Medicinal Mushrooms and Their Benefits

  1. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum): Known as the "Mushroom of Immortality," Reishi supports immune function, reduces stress, and promotes restful sleep.
  2. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus): This mushroom is renowned for its neuroprotective properties and ability to enhance cognitive function and nerve health.
  3. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus): Chaga is rich in antioxidants and is used to support immune function and reduce inflammation.
  4. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis): Valued for its energy-boosting properties, Cordyceps enhances stamina and athletic performance.
  5. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor): Known for its immune-boosting properties, Turkey Tail is often used to support overall wellness.
  6. Tremella (Tremella fuciformis): Also known as Snow Fungus, Tremella is prized for its hydrating and anti-aging benefits, making it an excellent natural remedy for improving skin health.

We're currently using lion's mane mushroom in Wonder Matcha. And we use lion's mane mushroom, reishi, and cordyceps in Wonder MCT. In Pow Protein+ our adaptogenic collagen blend contains a healthy dose of tremella mushroom for skin health. 

Keep a look out soon, because we're adding one more of these mushrooms to the mix the coming 1-2 months. 

Important Factors When Considering Medicinal Mushroom Supplements

When choosing a medicinal mushroom supplement, it’s crucial to consider the following factors:

  1. Fruiting Body vs. Mycelium: The fruiting body is the actual mushroom, while the mycelium is the root-like structure. The fruiting body generally contains higher concentrations of beneficial compounds. Mycelium powders are almost always grown on grain, and the end product will contain whatever grain is left that the mycelium has grown into and consumed. Mycelium powders cannot be extracted. 
  2. Extract vs. Powder: Extracts are concentrated forms that offer higher potency and bioavailability, while powders are less concentrated but still beneficial. The extraction process helps break down the cell walls of the mushroom, bringing out the beneficial compounds that your body benefits from. With many mushrooms, it's difficult for your body to do this processing on it's own. 
  3. Extract Potency: Extracts can come in a variety of potencies. For example, an extract can be done at a 1:1 potency (the most common you'll find), up to 20:1 potency and higher. The ratio is [Grams of mushrooms used] : [Amount of extract powder produced]. So you can use more grams of mushrooms to create the same amount of end extract powder, which gives you a more potent product. 

At Pow we focus exclusively on fruiting body mushroom extracts. We use both 1:1 extracts and 8:1 extracts in our products to give you the most effective products out there.

Dispelling Common Myths and Misconceptions About Medicinal Mushrooms

As interest in medicinal mushrooms grows, so do various myths and misconceptions.

It's important to separate fact from fiction to make informed decisions about incorporating these powerful fungi into your health regimen. Here are some common myths and the truths behind them:

Myth 1: Medicinal Mushrooms Are Just a Trend

Truth: Medicinal mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in various traditional medicine systems, including Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. Their use is rooted in a long history of empirical evidence and cultural practices. Modern scientific research continues to validate and expand our understanding of their health benefits.

Myth 2: All Parts of the Mushroom Are Equally Beneficial

Truth: The fruiting body and the mycelium of a mushroom contain different levels of bioactive compounds. The fruiting body, which is the visible part of the mushroom, typically contains higher concentrations of beneficial compounds like beta-glucans and triterpenes. While mycelium also has health benefits, it's crucial to know which part of the mushroom your supplement is derived from to ensure you're getting the desired effects.

Myth 3: Medicinal Mushrooms Are the Same as Psychedelic Mushrooms

Truth: Medicinal mushrooms and psychedelic mushrooms are not the same. Psychedelic mushrooms, such as Psilocybe species, contain psychoactive compounds like psilocybin that can alter perception and cognition. Medicinal mushrooms, on the other hand, do not contain psychoactive substances and are used primarily for their health benefits, such as boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, and enhancing cognitive function.

Myth 4: Medicinal Mushrooms Are a Cure-All

Truth: While medicinal mushrooms offer numerous health benefits, they are not a cure-all. They can support and enhance health in various ways, such as boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, and improving cognitive function. However, they should be used as part of a comprehensive approach to health and wellness, not as a sole treatment for medical conditions.

Myth 5: More Is Always Better / "Medicinal Mushrooms Don't Work For Me"

Truth: The quality and efficacy of mushroom supplements can vary widely. You can find 2000mg of mushrooms in one product that is totally ineffective. Compare that to our highly effective product with just a 300-500mg per serving. Factors such as the part of the mushroom used (fruiting body vs. mycelium), the extraction process, and the purity of the product all play significant roles in determining the supplement's effectiveness. It's important to choose supplements from reputable sources that use high-quality, organic ingredients and rigorous testing methods. If 2000mg didn't work for you, there's probably a reason why. 

Myth 6: Medicinal Mushrooms Have No Scientific Backing

Truth: There is a substantial body of scientific research supporting the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms. Studies have demonstrated their potential to enhance immune function, reduce inflammation, improve cognitive health, and more. The active compounds in these mushrooms, such as polysaccharides, beta-glucans, and triterpenes, have been the subject of numerous clinical studies.

Myth 7: Medicinal Mushrooms Work Instantly

Truth: The effects of medicinal mushrooms are often cumulative, meaning they build up over time with regular use. While some people may notice benefits relatively quickly, such as improved energy or reduced stress, others may need several weeks or months of consistent use to experience the full range of benefits.

Conclusion

Medicinal mushrooms are awesome!! Right??

The breadth of benefits that they can offer always astounds me. And I know them first hand. For someone like me that has experienced his fair share of health problems, discovering the benefits of medicinal mushrooms and adaptogens was life changing. Especially because I'd prefer to keep it natural if I can.

Whether you're looking to boost your immune system, enhance cognitive function, improve skin health, or reduce stress, incorporating medicinal mushrooms into your wellness routine can be a powerful and natural way to support your health.

I hope this was helpful. Drop us a comment or reply to our emails with any questions. 

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