Not long ago, serving up oyster mushrooms instead of the more familiar button mushrooms would have caused a few raised eyebrows. But today, mushroom supplements and exotic mushrooms have become the talk, not only of the town, but the world. For those of us still asking the question “Are mushrooms good for you?” that comes as something of a surprise.
So, what are the potential benefits of mushrooms that have caused such a sensation, and should you consider trying mushroom supplements as a natural addition to your daily routine?
Mushrooms have been part of traditional folk medicine and Eastern medicine for thousands of years. Today, people who want to use them to help address health concerns typically turn to supplements as a first step. In this article, we’ll look at the potential benefits of mushroom supplements, the types of mushroom supplements you can expect to find, their history, and much more besides. Let’s begin our journey of discovery by clarifying what mushrooms are before taking a step back into the past.
WHAT ARE MUSHROOMS? HINT: MAYBE NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT!
We might think of mushrooms as being your typical supermarket-packed “mushroom-shaped” item, even if we did know that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. However, mushrooms can and do come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and although we might refer to some of them as being “plate fungi” and we might have come across the term “polypores,” all of these structures are also the fruiting bodies of fungi. So, to keep things simple we’ll run with the term “mushroom” even though the botany of mushrooms may leave our choice open to debate.
Simply put, mushrooms spend most of their lives where we can’t see them - under the bark of trees, or feeding on decomposing organic matter in the soil. At this stage, they’re just a mass of fine filaments that form a network stretching far further than we may have imagined. In fact, the largest organism on earth is a mass of mycelium that extends for an estimated 3.5 square miles!
The only time we really notice mushrooms is when they pop out of their substrate to form a fruiting body, and its function is simply to release spores into the wind and water, thereby allowing a new generation of fungi to grow. Interesting though this may be, what we really want to know is what mushrooms are good for you. Once again, the answer may be somewhat unexpected!
The truth is that the vast majority of fungi are edible. Only about 3 percent of mushrooms are actually poisonous. But, these rarities are so extremely poisonous that we definitely wouldn’t recommend that you go out foraging or gathering wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely sure about what you’re doing! There are also mushrooms that we may see as being inedible, even if they aren’t really poisonous. They may have a woody texture or a sharp flavour, for example. As a result, some of the mushrooms used for supplements today definitely haven’t been eaten as food. Instead, they are often steeped in water to make teas, or processed into tinctures.
So, what led us to turn to mushrooms for our health? Let’s follow this ages-old story up to the present day.
THE HISTORY OF MUSHROOM SUPPLEMENTS
In the West, we may be pardoned for seeing mushroom supplements as something new, but their true history goes back a very long way indeed. When researching the history of mushroom supplements, the best one can do is to try pinpointing when they were first mentioned in ancient Chinese or Japanese texts.
It’s certainly true that many of the mushrooms we’re going to talk about occur in the Far East, but some of them are distributed across large swathes of the world map. That means that functional mushrooms have almost certainly been used for longer than written records indicate, and there’s a high probability that they have been used in cultures that didn’t keep written records at all.
There’s tantalising evidence that Ötzi, the 5000-year-old “iceman” whose corpse was found in the Italian Alps may have been using functional mushrooms. He certainly carried birch polypore, known in the East as “Chaga,” along with him. Since studies of his corpse showed that poor Ötzi was living with pain and inflammation before his violent death, it’s tempting to conclude that he was using Chaga as a medicine.
Returning to more “recent” mentions, we find Hippocrates recording the use of a functional mushroom species as an anti-inflammatory agent around 450 BCE. Moving East, the alchemist Tao Hongjing wrote about several species of mushroom that he believed had medicinal value in the 5th century, and he was not alone in recording the use of mushrooms as tonics or as medicine in the Far East.
To this day, Eastern medicine continues to view certain species of mushrooms as having medicinal properties. However, we should be cautious about seeing this as any form of “proof” for their use as a treatment. Rather, we should look to the concept of “functional foods” and the philosophy that goes with it.
MUSHROOMS AS “FUNCTIONAL FOODS”
The concept of “functional foods,” which first saw the light in the 1980s, and has its origin in Japan, may help to shed light on the potential benefits of mushrooms as a supplement. The concept is relatively simple and may also help to clarify some of the less-likely-seeming titles these mushrooms have gained in the Far East. For example, the Reishi mushroom was once hailed as the “mushroom of immortality,” but given the length of the average lifespan at that time, scholars must have been using a touch of poetic licence. More realistically, we find some species of mushrooms being termed “mushrooms of longevity,” a possible consequence of any healthy diet.
So, leaving behind claims that mushrooms can boost qi and other statements we might easily make too much of if we aren’t careful, let’s return to the question, “Are mushrooms good for you?” The “functional food” philosophy says that there’s a link between diet and disease, and that certainly agrees with our understanding of the role of food and nutrition in health. Functional foods, says the theory, have special nutrients that may improve overall health. It’s not an exotic concept as anyone who takes vitamin supplements and tries to eat a healthy diet will agree.
In essence, functional foods are meant to contain nutrients that will help the body to maintain homeostasis - a balanced state in which the body is able to take care of itself and remain healthy. So, what, exactly, are the nutrients we can get from mushrooms when used as a supplement?
NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS OF FUNCTIONAL MUSHROOMS
Each species of mushroom contains its own cocktail of nutrients and antioxidants, but we can make some generalisations as to their nutritional benefits. Among these are the presence of minerals and micronutrients that we all need for a healthy body.
Mushrooms, in general, are seen as good sources of potassium and selenium. The former is believed to help combat high blood pressure while the latter acts as an antioxidant. Another antioxidant you’ll find in functional mushrooms is ergothioneine, and like other antioxidants, it may help to boost immunity.
The unique amino acids and polysaccharides found in mushrooms are perhaps the main cause of all the recent excitement. So much so, that they are being studied for their potential medicinal benefits in treating serious diseases.
What we are able to say for certain is that mushrooms are an excellent source of certain vitamins, particularly the B Vitamins, Vitamin C, and when exposed to sunlight, Vitamin D. Once again, this supports the idea that mushrooms are rich in beneficial nutrients that may help to improve our overall health, especially when consumed in a convenient daily capsule.
SPECIFICS: SPECIES OF FUNCTIONAL MUSHROOMS AND THEIR POSSIBLE BENEFITS
It’s possible that in discussing the possible health benefits of functional mushrooms, we may be a little conservative in our claims. However, it simply isn’t right to claim what isn’t yet scientifically proven.
Potential benefits of Reishi mushrooms: There’s some reason to believe that thanks to their nutritional profile, Reishi mushrooms may help with immune system support. Some people also say that they feel less stressed out when using reishi mushrooms, that they sleep better, and feel more energetic.
Potential benefits of Chaga mushrooms: Thanks to their antioxidants, Chaga mushrooms may be able to help against inflammation, support digestive health and improve immunity. People also report that Chaga helps them to feel calmer and more relaxed.
Potential benefits of Shiitake mushrooms: Often seen on supermarket shelves, Shiitake mushrooms contain eritadenine, sterols, and beta-glucans - nutrients that are believed to help combat “bad” cholesterol. Like other functional mushrooms, they’re a good source of vitamins and minerals that may help to keep us healthy and feeling energetic.
Potential benefits of Lion's Mane mushrooms: The health benefits attributed to including antioxidants in one’s diet account for many of Lion’s mane’s possible uses, but many people say that it helps them to think more clearly and feel more focused too.
USING FUNCTIONAL MUSHROOMS AS A SUPPLEMENT
With the exception of Shiitake mushrooms and Lion’s Mane, you probably won’t find functional mushrooms for sale in their whole form all that easily. Instead, most people use powders, capsules, extracts, or tinctures of functional mushrooms. While all these different mushrooms are considered “generally” safe to use, you should always consult your doctor about using supplements if you are ill or prone to certain health challenges.
When it comes to using natural health supplements, we always recommend starting small and self-monitoring. Occasionally, people may find that a supplement doesn’t agree with them at all, in which case, it’s always best to search for an alternative.
If you’re interested in taking supplements of any kind, always be careful to investigate the source of their claims for trustworthiness and also product quality. Be particularly cautious of any supplement that appears to offer a “cure.” For the time being, there’s no concrete evidence that functional mushrooms “cure” anything.
Once you’ve completed your research and found a credible mushroom supplement supplier, and you don’t have any serious health issues you’re aware of, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try these supplements out. They’ve certainly been used safely for thousands of years, and although we don’t understand them fully as yet, we do know that they contain natural nutrients and antioxidants that can be good for our health. Some people believe that they offer far more than what is currently proven, but we will have to wait for research results before we can have a properly informed opinion on this score.
Grass & Co. and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. The information and products presented on this site are not intended for medical use nor do they make any medical claims. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programmes.