Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, of which there are several different types. These include common edible varieties such as Fairy Rings, Shitaake, and Morel, and poisonous varieties such as Death Caps. There are also “magic” mushrooms such as Psilocybin Cubensis which produce psychedelic effects. Then there are functional mushrooms which are commonly found as herbal supplements.
Functional mushrooms are very different from the psychedelic variety. Firstly, functional mushrooms are sold legally as herbal supplements, whereas psychedelic mushrooms are currently a Schedule I banned substance. Their effects also differ greatly. Psychedelic mushrooms produce a powerful psychoactive effect in the brain which can last for hours. Functional mushrooms are non-psychoactive. They are consumed for their long-term health benefits, which studies have proven to be myriad.
Varieties such as Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, and Maitake can provide various health benefits. Many of these species are considered adaptogens, compounds which help the body and mind cope with stress in numerous ways. They can also provide an energy boost, enhance cognitive function, strengthen the immune system, yield neuroprotective effects, and nourish the body with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
These mushrooms’ adaptogenic properties affect multiple systems in the body, most notably the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This helps to modulate the release of cortisol, the body’s primary stress response hormone. A 2014 study using Rhodiola and Cordyceps revealed positive results linking stress response and functional mushrooms. Stress and fatigue levels in 18 different men were reduced during high altitude training after two weeks, compared to a placebo group. A similar study on Reishi and Cordyceps mushrooms in cyclist athletes suggested that the combination could reduce stress-related damage from over training.
Certain varieties of functional mushrooms have shown to have positive effects on brain and nervous system function. Lion’s Mane contains two compounds, hericenones and erinacines, that studies have revealed can stimulate the growth of brain cells. This mushroom has also been shown to protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Lion’s Mane may also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Animal studies have shown that it can improve the functioning of the brain’s hippocampus, which serves to modulate emotional responses to stimuli. In an animal study, recovery time from nervous system injuries was expedited by 23-41%. Although more in vivo studies are necessary to confirm some of the science behind functional mushrooms, their potential benefits are extremely promising.