When you stop to think about it, mushrooms are remarkable.
They’re closer to animals than plants on the tree of life.
They can break down plastic and petroleum.
The single largest organism on the planet is an underground honey fungus spanning almost 3 miles in the the state of Oregon.
They carry messages along their underground fungal networks using neurotransmitters that are very similar to the ones our brains use.
They’re a kind of “forest internet” which plants and trees use to communicate with each other.
And, as it turns out, they possess and confer some very impressive health and therapeutic effects. Several years ago, I highlighted the culinary varieties and explored their considerable health benefits. Go read that, then come back here because I’m going to talk about the different types of adaptogenic mushrooms today. These are the real heavy hitters, the ones that appear to supercharge immune systems, stimulate neuronal growth, improve memory and focus, pacify the anxious mind, increase the libido, and enhance sleep quality.
Let’s go through the most important adaptogenic mushrooms and the evidence for each. I’ll primarily stick to human studies, but may relay some animal studies if they seem relevant.
Reishi has been used in traditional Asian medicine for hundreds of years to treat diseases of the immune system. (Reishi is its Japanese name; in China, it’s called lingzhi and in Korea, it’s yeongji.) Other folk uses include all the regular stuff you expect—aches, pains, allergies, “qi”—but the majority of modern clinical evidence focuses on immunity, cancer, and inflammation.
But the interesting thing to remember is that inflammation figures into pretty much every modern ailment. Even conditions like depression and anxiety are often characterized by a surplus of systemic inflammation. If reishi can soothe the inflammation, it could very well help with all the other seemingly unrelated conditions, too.
- Reduced anxiety, depression, and fatigue and improved quality of life in breast cancer patients.
- Reduced insulin resistance.
- Reduced inflammatory markers and restored kidney function in kidney disease patients.
- Suppressed the growth of more adenomas (benign tumors with the potential to become malignant) in patients with existing colorectal adenomas.
- Boosted the immune systems of late-stage cancer patients.
Reishi is also said to be very good for sleep, though I wasn’t able to find a supporting human study.
Exercise caution if you have an autoimmune disease, as using reishi to”activate” the immune system that’s attacking you may—theoretically—increase the attack’s severity.
Reishi may also lower libido in high doses, as it inhibits the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone—albeit in rats. More rat research suggests that low doses of reishi could increase libido.
No human studies indicate this, but a rodent study found that giving reishi reduced time to exhaustion in a forced weighted swimming challenge (throw a rat in the water with a weight attached). They got tired faster.
Cordyceps is another mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote vitality and energy. For the men, that’s code for “better erections.” What does the evidence say?
It is broadly anti-inflammatory.
It’s an effective immuno-adaptogen: it boosts immunity when immune function is too low and dampens it when it’s over-activated. Autoimmune thyroiditis patients who took cordyceps saw dual-direction immunomodulation—too low got higher, too high got lower.
As for the “energy and vitality” claims, that appears to be true in mammals. We have evidence that rats, pigs, mice, and even yaks, goats, and sheep get boosts to testosterone status and sexual function when taking cordyceps, and that it improves brain function and cognition in small mammals, but nothing solid in humans. Still, the fact that it helps other mammals probably indicates utility for us.
Chaga is a mushroom with a long history of use in Northern Eurasia (Russia, Siberia) as well as a considerable body of animal evidence and isolated human cell evidence in support, but no real studies using actual live humans. That’s unfortunate, because chaga appears to be the real deal:
- Immunomodulation (mice).
- Increased endurance and improved lactate threshold during exercise (mice).
- Reduced cancer progression and spread (mice).
- Reduced DNA damage (human cells).
I hope we get some strong human studies in the near future. In the meantime, you can always run your own!
Lion’s Mane is a mushroom that looks like a pom-pom. Or a brain, which is fitting. Lion’s Mane’s main claim to fame is its purported ability to increase neurogenesis, reduce cognitive decline, and even regrow damaged nerves.
Studies in fact show that Lion’s Mane can:
- Reverse mild cognitive decline in the elderly (for as long as they continue to take the mushroom).
- Help nerve-damaged rats regenerate destroyed nerves and regain their ability to walk.
- Improve the Functional Index Measure in patients with dementia.
- Reduce anxiety and depression in women.
The majority of Lion’s Mane customers aren’t interested in reducing decline. They want a boost. They want increased focus, improved cognition, more and better neurons. Judging from the reversal of cognitive decline in the elderly and the flood of online anecdotes about improved focus and cognition, I suspect that there’s something there.
That said, another common side effect I’ve heard about from many of the same people lauding its cognitive effects is reduced libido. So keep an eye out for that one.
You know how I do things here. I can’t in good faith make definitive claims based on mouse studies that show this or that mushroom improving memory, blasting tumor cells, and increasing sexual virility. Still, I also can’t discount the hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of years of traditional use of these mushrooms for many of the conditions, nor can I ignore (or write off as “placebo”) the thousands of experimenters out there online deriving major benefits from some of these mushrooms.
The only option, of course, is to try it for yourself, which I may do in the near future (and will write about my findings).
How to Choose a Mushroom Supplement
When you’re buying an adaptogenic mushroom extract, look for products that come from fruiting bodies (actual mushrooms) rather than mycelium (the “roots” of the mushrooms). Fruiting bodies tend to have more of the active constituents than mycelium. Fruiting body extracts will also be more expensive—mushrooms take longer to grow than mycelium—but the added potency makes up for it.
Look for products that list the beta-glucan content, not the polysaccharide content. Beta-glucans are the uniquely active constituents. All beta-glucans are polysaccharides, but not all polysaccharides are beta-glucans.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your experiences with adaptogenic mushrooms. Have you tried them? How have they been useful for you (or not)? Thanks for stopping in, everybody.
Zhao H, Zhang Q, Zhao L, Huang X, Wang J, Kang X. Spore Powder of Ganoderma lucidum Improves Cancer-Related Fatigue in Breast Cancer Patients Undergoing Endocrine Therapy: A Pilot Clinical Trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:809614.
Futrakul N, Panichakul T, Butthep P, et al. Ganoderma lucidum suppresses endothelial cell cytotoxicity and proteinuria in persistent proteinuric focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) nephrosis. Clin Hemorheol Microcirc. 2004;31(4):267-72.
Smiderle FR, Baggio CH, Borato DG, et al. Anti-inflammatory properties of the medicinal mushroom Cordyceps militaris might be related to its linear (1?3)-?-D-glucan. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(10):e110266.
Lin WH, Tsai MT, Chen YS, et al. Improvement of sperm production in subfertile boars by Cordyceps militaris supplement. Am J Chin Med. 2007;35(4):631-41.
Parcell AC, Smith JM, Schulthies SS, Myrer JW, Fellingham G. Cordyceps Sinensis (CordyMax Cs-4) supplementation does not improve endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004;14(2):236-42.