Introduction to the Healing Power of Functional Mushrooms
Functional mushrooms, sometimes called medicinal mushrooms are a powerful, and often underutilised tool for health. Used for centuries in traditional medicine systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, they are shaping up to be one of the hottest functional food and supplement trends right now. And for good reason! Rest assured this isn’t just a fleeting trend. With so many tangible benefits for our well-being, functional mushrooms are here to stay, offering a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern wellness that will stand the test of time.
Unlike culinary mushrooms which are primarily used for their taste and nutritional qualities, functional mushrooms are unique in that it’s their pharmaceutical rather than the nutritional value that is paramount. Functional mushrooms are specifically cultivated and used for their health-promoting and medicinal benefits. This is because functional mushrooms offer a rich and diverse array of therapeutic benefits derived from nature’s own pharmacopoeia. Mycotherapy is the application of functional mushrooms specifically for the benefit of health, well-being and quality of life. A wide body of research (not to mention centuries of traditional use) supports the power of mycotherapy for health through a variety of mechanisms including immunomodulation (more on what that means in a moment), adaptogenic potential (I’ll explain this more too) and of course prebiotics which is great for our gut health.
Functional mushrooms contain some of the most powerful bioactive compounds in nature. In fact, over 150 bioactive compounds have been identified, each with specific health benefits supported by traditional knowledge, modern scientific studies and clinical success. While functional mushrooms can be prepared in the kitchen and used in the same way as culinary mushrooms, they are more often used in various supplemental forms, including capsules, powders, extracts, teas, tinctures and even as ingredients in functional foods. If you are new to mushrooms it can be confusing. How do you know which one to choose, what therapeutic dosing to try and what to look for on ingredient labels? Ancient + Brave has you covered in this comprehensive guide.
First, let’s explore a few of the amazing bioactive compounds that give them therapeutic properties.
Polysaccharides. Mushrooms are one of the highest dietary sources of immunomodulating complex prebiotic carbohydrates known as polysaccharides. These provide mushrooms with their dense meaty texture and earthy flavour but they also feed and fertilise our gut microbes and contain a variety of immune-modulating and health-promoting properties. Functional mushrooms vary in the type and concentration of polysaccharides they contain, with species like shiitake, reishi, and maitake being particularly rich sources. The best-studied polysaccharides are beta-glucans which are renowned for their immunomodulating properties. This means they are able to both enhance immune function (helping you fight infections when you need it) and regulate immune function (calming and restoring balance). This property makes them valuable for optimal immune function. Beta-glucans are the most well-studied polysaccharides but there are other immunomodulating polysaccharides including chitin and cellulose in functional mushrooms too.
Myconutrients. Beta-glucans are not the only interesting compound in mushrooms, they also contain an abundance of myconutrients. This is the term for mushroom-based phytonutrients (phyto meaning plant) and includes carotenoids, phenolic acids, terpenes and terpenoids, flavonoids, glycosides, ergosterol and ergothioneine. Each variety will have its own notable profile which will affect not only taste and texture but also function.
Some mushrooms, like reishi, are particularly bitter owing to their unique myconutrient composition which is high in triterpenoids. These triterpenoids might be bitter, but have been linked to this mushroom's wonderful calming, relaxing and anti-inflammatory properties. Whilst the bitterness of reishi mushrooms is linked to their potential health benefits, it can be a new experience for some people and may take time to tolerate the taste. Bitterness can also help to stimulate certain digestive and metabolic pathways making it good for gut health too.
Vitamins, minerals and more. Like culinary mushrooms, functional mushrooms are a source of essential vitamins and minerals including selenium, zinc, potassium, choline and phosphorus. They are also a source of vitamin D which we know is very important for immunity especially in winter when we cannot make enough from sun exposure. Mushrooms are a great source of highly digestible plant-based protein, containing all nine essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) that we cannot manufacture in our bodies. This makes them unique among plant-based protein sources. Compared to other foods, mushrooms have high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids making them a great source of essential fats in the diet.
Each type of functional mushroom harbours a unique combination of polysaccharides, myconutrients, vitamins and minerals, which give them their unique medicinal properties whether it be immune system modulation, anti-inflammatory effects, anti-cancer properties or adaptogenic properties. Let’s take a closer look at some examples:
The relaxing one - Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi is often deemed the "Mushroom of Immortality" in Traditional Chinese Medicine as it is believed to enhance longevity. Reishi has one of the highest concentrations of beta-glucans of all edible mushrooms, which is one reason why it is immune-supportive and antimicrobial. It has also been shown to support blood sugar regulation, liver function and cognition. But reishi is probably most well known for its adaptogenic qualities. This means it helps the body and mind adapt to stress, providing grounding and calming effects. Amidst the backdrop of busy modern living. Reishi supports balance within our nervous system, helping with a healthy stress response, taking the edge off anxiety and promoting sleep and deep relaxation. This is one of the key reasons why we love it here at Ancient + Brave and why we choose to include it in our new Cacao + Reishi. A relaxing bedtime ritual that not only tastes good, but helps you feel good too.
The one for focus, cognition and concentration - Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lion's Mane mushroom has a unique appearance with creamy white tooth-like spines that hang down in clusters, resembling the mane of a lion, and unique effects on the brain. Sometimes referred to as "Nature's gift to your nervous system", Lion's Mane is said to give you nerves of steel and the memory of a lion. Long before we had scientific evidence to support its key role in cognition, Buddhist Shaolin monks used the Lion's Mane mushroom in meditation practices to enhance their concentration, enabling them to better cultivate focus. Amongst the myconutrients in Lion's Mane Mushroom are the cyathane derivatives hericenones and erinacines which act as nerve growth factors (NGFs). Scientific research demonstrates these NGFs are crucial for the growth and maintenance of nerve cells. This is why Lion's Mane is considered neuroprotective, supporting brain health and memory. It also has shown potential in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another benefit of Lion's Mane is its positive effect on digestion through the prebiotic beta-glucans. Here at Ancient + Brave, we love our Lion’s Mane as part of our Rise Ritual for optimal focus and concentration. Give it a try in your rise ritual with our new Matcha + Collagen blend.
The energetic one - Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Cordyceps mushrooms have a long history of use in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine for their energy-boosting properties. Cordyceps enhance stamina, endurance and athletic performance. Folklore suggests that the native herdsmen in Tibet observed yaks eating the grasses with cordyceps mushrooms and became very energised. Observing this change in yak activity, the herdsmen would then put it in their hot milk or water to create an energising tonic. Modern research indicates that Cordyceps supports energy production through oxygen utilisation leading to improved exercise performance. It also exhibits potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
The protector for metabolic health and immunity - Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
On the outside, Chaga looks like a lump of burnt, craggy charcoal growing on the bark of trees but don’t let that put you off, this mushroom is an antioxidant powerhouse and highly regarded in Siberian and Russian folk medicine for their immune-enhancing properties. Traditionally used to support overall health and vitality, Chaga’s antioxidant content is down to the high amounts of polyphenols in the outer portion. Chaga also has compounds like betulinic acid, inotodial, and ergosterol peroxide that help reduce inflammation, support healthy glowing skin and promote gastrointestinal health.
Getting to know these four powerhouse functional mushrooms is a great starting point. While certain mushrooms lend themselves to specific health benefits, there is some overlap between the benefits of each and there can be additional benefits from stacking them together. For example, cordyceps pairs wonderfully with Reishi for gentle energy while balancing stress. But how should you take them? Here are a few things to look out for when sourcing mushrooms.
While it is possible to eat them fresh and you may be able to forage for some in the UK (Reishi, for example) they can be hard to get a hold of and some can be tricky to prepare in a way that makes it easier to access their active compounds which are tightly bound up into the structure of the mushroom. Powdered mushrooms are one of the most accessible ways to consume these. These also have the advantage of a longer shelf life. Combining functional mushroom powders with well-thought-out blends like our Matcha + Collagen or Cacao + Reishi which use synergistic ingredients at a meaningful dose is a great way to introduce these to your wellness routine.
As you dive into the world of functional mushrooms you might find heady discussions about the different methods to derive mushroom supplements—fruiting bodies versus mycelium. The fruiting body is the above-ground part of the mushroom, whereas the mycelium is the underground network of fibres that support and produce the fruiting body. Some mushroom powders will contain only the fruiting body, while others will contain both the fruiting body and mycelium. Fruiting body powders are often considered to be the most comprehensive in terms of their myconutrient composition. In fact, some believe the fruiting body is the only part with any value. But a mushroom’s mycelium contains a wealth of beneficial substances, some bioactive compounds are unique to or, in some cases more plentiful in the fruiting body.
In some cases, it is more beneficial to incorporate both parts of the mushroom rather than opting for one over the other. Take Lion's Mane, where studies have identified specific compounds in both the fruiting body and the mycelium of this mushroom. The reishi mushroom is another good example. The mature fruiting body contains higher levels of triterpenes but getting the full benefit of these is optimal when consuming both the fruiting body as well as the mycelium. Some extracts undergo an extraction process to serve up a concentrated dose of the key functional nutrients of interest. These are often sold as liquid tinctures and are considered a type of mushroom extract. While they won’t have all the benefits of a whole mushroom powder, they can be a handy way to take your mushrooms with you.
So there you have it, the Ancient + Brave introduction to functional mushrooms. Try incorporating functional mushrooms into your wellness rituals with our new Rise + Rest collection featuring our Rise Ritual adaptogenic Matcha + Collagen and Rest Ritual Cacao + Reishi.