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What Are Functional Mushrooms? Types and Their Health Benefits

a chef cooking and preparing functional mushrooms

Key Takeaways

  • Functional mushrooms hold a reputation for their health and wellness benefits, acting as a superfood.
  • Categorized into adaptogenic and medicinal, each type of functional mushroom has unique benefits.
  • Researchers have highlighted Reishi, Shiitake, and Chaga for their various health benefits including immune support, anti-inflammatory properties, and skin health benefits.
  • Many point to Cordyceps and Turkey Tail mushrooms for their potential benefits in immune health and cancer support.
  • The Lion's Mane mushroom is notable for its cognitive function enhancement and potential in alleviating depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • People prize Tremella mushroom, also known as the "beauty mushroom", for skin hydration, weight management, and neuroprotective benefits.
  • Consumable in different forms including fresh, powdered, as supplements, teas, and coffees, making them a versatile addition to one's diet.

At first glance, functional mushrooms don't look like much! But what they lack in devastating good looks, they more than makeup for in the health and wellness department. Over and above nutritional benefits, they're becoming increasingly well-known for their positive impact on human health.

As a plant-based ingredient, functional mushrooms have also established a firm following in the culinary world. With many a chef or self-professed foodie willing to stand behind their deliciously robust and earthy flavour profiles. Chefs love the flexibility these mushrooms bring to the table. Used in cooking in various forms, you can have them "whole, sliced, sautéed, fried and even powdered; the latter adding a flavourful punch to dishes without requiring any added liquid."

Herbalists also appear to wholeheartedly agree. According to¬†Rachelle Robinett, RH(AHG), Registered Clinical Herbalist; ¬†‚ÄúThey‚Äôre a food, and a medicine, and work in a variety of ways, which is part of what fuels the well-deserved hype.‚ÄĚ

Functional mushrooms deservedly stand head and shoulders above the regular garden variety mushrooms that stare you down as you walk past your favourite market aisles.

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Here's everything you need to know about these nutritional all-stars:

What are Functional Mushrooms?

Functional mushrooms are mushrooms that serve health benefits beyond their nutritional profiles. So, more than providing carbs, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, they may also help improve your health, such as helping you fight the risk of inflammation and chronic disease.

But more about that in just a wink!

Functional mushrooms are broadly categorized into two types:

  1. Medicinal mushrooms - These have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat and prevent a variety of health conditions. They contain a variety of bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides, triterpenes, and antioxidants, which are responsible for their many benefits.
  2. Adaptogenic mushrooms - These house unique compounds known as adaptogens, which aid the body in countering and adapting to stress, thereby promoting equilibrium and homeostasis. By modulating the body's response to stressors, adaptogenic mushrooms foster enhanced resilience and support overall wellness.

Adaptogenic mushrooms are a subset of medicinal mushrooms. All adaptogenic mushrooms are medicinal mushrooms, but not all medicinal mushrooms are adaptogenic.

Main Functional Mushroom Varieties and Health Benefits

Up next, we'll cover the main functional mushrooms used and enjoyed by health and culinary enthusiasts alike:

1. Reishi Mushrooms (Ganoderma Lucidum)

reishi mushrooms growing on a tree

Reishi mushroom is an adaptogenic mushroom variant known in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as 'lingzhi' or the 'spirit plant.' Although it comes in various colours, only the red/brown-coloured variant is used for consumption or the preparation of herbal medicines, utilizing the fruiting body of the mushroom.

These mushrooms have been a staple in traditional medicine in Asia, used for thousands of years and valued for their innumerable health benefits. While scientific research on their effects is ongoing, the initial findings are promising.

Emerging clinical evidence suggests that Reishi may be beneficial in supporting immune health. Additionally, Reishi's antioxidant properties combat free radicals, contributing to its immune-boosting effects. Some studies show that certain forms of Reishi may increase natural killer cell activity, which helps combat cancer cells.

A 12-week study on 26 participants indicated Reishi extract's potential to improve HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol)levels and reduce triglycerides. There is also some research to suggest Reishi mushrooms may be beneficial in managing blood glucose levels and treating diabetes.

The polysaccharides present in Reishi mushrooms may also help slow cell decline and the ageing process.

2. Shiitake Mushrooms (Lentinula Edodes)

brown and white mushrooms on brown woven basket

Shiitake mushrooms are very popular in the culinary world owing to their dense texture and strong, earthy flavour. But they're just as exciting from a health perspective.

These functional mushrooms boast anti-inflammatory properties and abundant nutritional content, including essential vitamins and minerals like selenium, niacin, zinc, riboflavin, and copper. Significantly, they are rich in Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, making them an excellent choice for skin health.

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Shiitake mushrooms contribute to healthy hair by providing key nutrients like antioxidants, Vitamin D, selenium, and copper. Vitamin D plays a crucial role in hair growth, while selenium participates in the creation of new hair, and copper aids in maintaining your hair's colour and structure.  The antioxidants present in shiitake mushrooms support collagen maintenance, reduce hair shedding, and improve scalp conditions.

Consuming shiitake may also be beneficial for weight watchers because of the presence of specific compounds that help lower cholesterol, reduce fat deposition, and increase satiety. They're also low in calories. Half a cup of fresh shiitake contains as few as ten calories, making it a guilt-free option for weight-conscious individuals.

3. Chaga Mushrooms (Inonotus Obliquus)

chaga mushrooms in a wooden bowl

Often found on birch trees, Chaga mushrooms, offer numerous benefits, particularly for immune support, digestion, and skin health. One noteworthy property of the Chaga mushroom is its ability to stimulate bile production, aiding the breakdown of food and proteins. With its high fibre content acting as a prebiotic, Chaga also has potential benefits for maintaining a healthy bowel.

Chaga mushrooms contain significant amounts of betulinic acid, known for its antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. They promote the health of the gastric mucous, which lines the stomach, and the ill-health which, plays a key role in conditions like gastritis and ulcers.

These adaptogenic mushrooms have also shown potential in possibly slowing the growth of lung cancer cells due to the presence of compounds called triterpenes.

Regarding skin health, the high antioxidant content of Chaga, inclusive of superoxide dismutase (SOD), links to anti-ageing benefits and the reduction of oxidative stress. It is believed that Chaga's betulinic acid may regulate sebum production, potentially promoting even skin tone and preventing acne-causing bacteria. It also supports collagen stimulation, which is essential for maintaining healthy, youthful, and hydrated skin.

Also, for skin, Chaga's melanin content may offer protection from the sun's harmful UV rays, similar to our body's natural sunscreen, potentially reducing the appearance of dark spots and sunspots.

4. Cordyceps Mushrooms (Cordyceps Sinensis)

cordyceps mushroom in a wooden spoon

Cordyceps mushrooms, also adaptogenic, offer a vast array of benefits for our immune system and overall health. While this area needs more research, promising results are emerging. It's believed that Cordyceps may aid in healing the immune system by enhancing cellular and humoral immunity. These mechanisms act as a backup immune response when the initial response fails.

Cordyceps may also play a role in reducing cancer cells, particularly in conditions like leukopenia, which decreases white blood cells, making the body more vulnerable to infections.

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There is also some research that suggests that Cordyceps may help fight inflammation by suppressing the proteins associated with increased inflammation. Cordyceps also has free radical scavenging abilities, which help balance oxidative stress by reducing fatty liver development and inflammation. Additionally, Cordyceps may promote liver health by restoring and regenerating cells and offering hepatoprotection.

5. Turkey Tail Mushrooms (Trametus Versicolor)

a close up of a bunch of mushrooms on a mossy surface

The intriguingly titled turkey tail mushrooms (no prizes for guessing why!) are best known for their benefits on the immune system.

The high concentrations of protein-bound polysaccharides, PSK and PSP, primarily contribute to the immune-enhancing attributes of the Turkey Tail mushroom. These potent compounds wield the dual powers of activating and inhibiting specific immune cells while also fighting inflammation, equipping your body to combat toxins, viruses, and bacteria more effectively.

Supporting liver function, mitigating oxidative stress, promoting gut and respiratory well-being, and harmonizing the body's vital energy, known as QI in the Eastern tradition, are overall health benefits that research suggests may be associated with Turkey Tail mushrooms.

Particularly noteworthy are emerging studies highlighting the positive impact of these functional mushrooms on cancer patients undergoing conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Seen as a strengthener of immunity and accelerator of recovery, this adaptogenic mushroom holds promise.

6. Lion's Mane Mushrooms (Hericium Erinaceus)

lions mane on brown wooden table

The powdered form of the remarkable Lion's Mane mushroom contains compounds believed to enhance cognitive function, combat inflammation, and fortify the immune system. Research suggests that this adaptogenic mushroom may also benefit in treating depression and anxiety, owing to its influence on the hippocampus, the emotional response and memory-processing hub in the brain.

Additionally, early research on menopausal women showed that daily consumption of Lion's Mane mushroom powder reduced irritability and anxiety.

Lion's Mane also appears to have benefits on cognitive function and memory, potentially offering a preventive measure against Alzheimer's. Two compounds - erinacines and hericenones, are primarily responsible for this. They help promote brain cell growth.

Lion's Mane also exhibits antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, potentially working as a disease preventative.

7. Tremella Mushrooms (Tremella Fuciformis)

tremella mushroom in a white plate on a wooden table

The beautiful-looking Tremella mushroom (unsurprisingly also referred to as the "beauty mushroom‚ÄĚ) contains gluconic acid, amazing for aiding hydration retention in your skin. Word has it, it's even better than its more well-known counterpart - hyaluronic acid! It's also full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds known for fighting inflammation and disease and slowing down ageing.

Tremella mushrooms are high in dietary fibre, helping you feel full for longer, and aiding diet control and weight management. They contain strong concentrations of Vitamin D and polysaccharides called beta-glucans, which boost your immune response. They may also hold the potential to reduce your LDL (bad cholesterol) and offer neuroprotective benefits, aiding in the protection and maintenance of brain health. There is also some early research suggesting that Tremella mushrooms can help fight lung cancer.

Disclaimer: While functional mushrooms offer a range of health benefits, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare provider before incorporating them into your diet, especially if you have pre-existing conditions or are on medication.

Final Thoughts on Functional Mushrooms

With their growing popularity, functional mushrooms have increasingly found their way into our daily lives, not just on our plates but also in the form of supplements, teas, and coffees. Celebrated for their potential to alleviate stress, boost cognitive function, and possibly aid in managing chronic diseases, these adaptogenic wonders also add new and varied tastes to our jaded palates.

However, while these fungus can be a valuable addition to our health regimen, they're not a panacea for all ills. They can help support good health, but you still need to do the groundwork in terms of following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and managing stress! Plus, if you're a food enthusiast, they can help expand your repertoire in new and exciting ways.

Portobello mushroom burger anyone?

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1. Do functional mushrooms really work?

Based on early clinical research, functional mushrooms show a lot of potential to boost immunity, fight cancer and inflammation, improve mood and cognition, and improve digestive health, depending on the specific mushroom variant. Scroll up to read more about the science-backed benefits of individual mushroom types.

Q2. How do you eat functional mushrooms?

Functional mushrooms can be had in many different ways. These mushrooms can be enjoyed fresh in your pastas, soups, breads, quiches, and so on. You can have them powdered, sprinkled on your meals, or blended into your favourite greens beverage. You can even consume them in the form of supplements, teas, or coffees.

Q3. What functional mushrooms are good for focus?

Lion's Mane mushrooms are known for helping boost cognitive abilities such as focus. Ashwagandha is another adaptogenic variant known for helping improve concentration.

Darcy Ogdon-Nolan

Holding a Bachelor Of Science (Hons.) combined with close to a decade now in the health food and wellness industry, I believe I'm uniquely positioned to provide a depth of knowledge and first-hand experience on emerging health products, trends and ideas! From greens powders and medicinal mushrooms through to protein powders and workout nutrition - I'm particularly interested in what modern science can uncover about what human cultures have been using to treat ailments for millennia!

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