Medicinal Mushrooms

Move over golden lattes and aloe vera water, mushroom coffee is the new darling of the superfood world and it has come with more hype than a crate of Kombucha. And it’s not just a standard cup of joe that mushrooms have taken over, between mushroom shakes and fungi facials, the mushroom market is in full shroom boom.

According to Hitwise, there has been a 3099% increase in mushroom searches over the last three years, with popularity shooting up at the beginning of 2018, in particular, suggesting mushroom enthusiasts are interested in incorporating this new superfood in their New Year’s health resolutions. Food Navigator found that year-on-year sales for food products incorporating medicinal mushrooms have risen between 200-800%, depending on the variety, with the mushroom market expected to exceed $50 billion in the next six years, according to Grand View Research.

Paul Stamet’s TED talk titled ‘6 ways mushrooms can save the world’ has been viewed nearly 5 million times and Whole Foods have listed medicinal mushrooms as a top food trend for 2018. The retailer has seen significant uptick in mushroom broths, coffee, and chocolate powders, even body-care products like soaps and shampoo

 So why is the wellness world going loco over fungi?

As consumers increasingly look to incorporate food products with purported healthy attributes, ‘functional foods’ (foods that have health benefits beyond basic nutrition) are having their moment. Meanwhile, adaptogens (chemicals that allegedly possess anti-stress properties) are also somewhat taking over the wellness world, making headlines from here to Goop.  The claims surrounding mushrooms, meet at the nexus of these trends.

Depending on the variety, medicinal mushrooms are said to regulate blood sugar levels, support digestive health, ward off bacteria and viruses, energise and beautify, increase mood levels and even fight cancer, all of which begins to explain the hype and headlines.

But is the mushroom power real? The hyperbole surrounding the fungi may sound like total marketing spiel, but there is at least some research to back up some of the health claims of medicinal mushrooms. With so many different types of medicinal mushrooms, it’s difficult to speak for all of them. So let’s break it down and talk numbers and data, starting with Chaga.

 Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

Rich in a wide variety of nutrients (B-complex vitamins, calcium, manganese, potassium, amino acids, copper, zinc and iron to name a small portion) and many antioxidants, Chaga helps primarily with boosting and regulating the immune system. As noted by Medical News Today, it increases the body’s ability to produce antibodies and helps destroy abnormal cells. It also fights free radicals (the source of numerous diseases) and inflammation.

2010 study found that Chaga could slow the growth of lung, breast, and cervical cancer cells in a petri dish, and also slow the growth of tumours in mice. A 2011 study found that Chaga decreased tumour cell proliferation and a 2009 study found that triterpenes, the compounds found in Chaga and some other mushrooms, cause tumour cells to self-destruct. Unlike other cancer treatments, however, Chaga does not appear to harm healthy cells.

 Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Otherwise known as Ganoderma lucidum, Reishi mushrooms contain plant sterols that can act as precursors to hormones in the body, polysaccharides that fight cancer cell development and acidic substances called triterpenes that turn off the body’s response to allergies. A 2013 study found that the bioactive components found in Reishi mushrooms "have numerous health properties to treat diseased conditions such as hepatopathy, chronic hepatitis, nephritis, hypertension, hyperlipemia, arthritis, neurasthenia, insomnia, bronchitis, asthma, gastric ulcers, atherosclerosis, leukopenia, diabetes, anorexia, and cancer."

 Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake is used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine to enhance the immune system. Studies have shown that Maitake is anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective (prevents damage to the liver), cancer-fighting and an effective anti-depressant in mice. A 2017 study reports that Maitake helps generate a less aggressive cell behaviour in cases of breast cancer.

 Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Lion's Mane, has a seemingly infinite list of medicinal properties. Its energizing properties make it a great alternative to coffee. It is also said to be an immunity booster, a digestive aid, a mood booster and a protective agent in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis according to a  2016 study. Another study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry lists the benefits of Lion’s Mane, stating that the mushroom is “antibiotic, anticarcinogenic, antidiabetic, anti-fatigue, antihypertensive, anti-hyperlipodemic, anti-senescence [anti-aging], cardioprotective, hepatoprotective, nephroprotective, and neuroprotective, and improves anxiety, cognitive function, and depression.” Quite a list then.

That all said, the scientific community still has qualms about the efficacy of medicinal mushrooms.

The field of medicinal mushrooms is still in its infancy, and all things considered, mushrooms remain poorly understood. While many studies have proved that some varieties of medicinal mushrooms have been able to reduce inflammation and depression in mice, studies in humans are lacking. Paul Stamets, a leading mycologist and the Invention Ambassador of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, clarifies that medicinal mushrooms support immunity, but do not necessarily prevent, cure, or treat any disease complex. It’s an important distinction to bear in mind.

With much more data to back up the claims than most passing fads, this new health trend undoubtedly has legs, and we are interested to see what the next set of data suggests. Keep your eyes peeled!