Up until a few months ago, mushrooms meant one of two things to most people: a psychedelic or a veggie you chop up in a salad. Fast-forward to now and we're seeing everything from mushroom lattes to mushroom hot chocolates and teas, most of which are blended using powders made from varieties like reishi, cordyceps, chaga and lion's mane. These functional mushrooms are said to help with a long list of wellness-related issues, including focus, immunity and relaxation, but are they all they're made out to be? This is an especially important question because medicinal mushroom powders are considered supplements, meaning there are no regulations for them.
"Many supplements contain substances not listed on their labels — possibly even contaminants — and with mushrooms the quality could vary greatly. Even tilling of the soil when the mushrooms are made can cause them to have 25 percent less ergothioneine (an antioxidant with a lot of cell protectant benefits)," say The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT. "It can be difficult to navigate medicinal mushrooms on your own."
The twins point to a late 2017 analysis by the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (a third party testing for supplements) that found that 75 percent of reishi mushroom supplements don't even contain reishi mushrooms! If you're wondering how this could be, the twins say that while the FDA prohibits manufacturers from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded, they don't actually test the products. "The FDA can take action to remove products from the market, but the agency must first establish that such products are adulterated or misbranded — and they must have reasons to do so. Meaning, a harmful product could be on the market for a long time before the FDA has reason to test it."
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Are medicinal mushrooms for you?
While there may be plenty of great reasons to drink mushrooms — and we'll get into those shortly — anyone pregnant or with health issues should make sure to consult with their physician. In fact, many medicinal mushroom products explicitly say that pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid them. "One of the biggest issues is that there's a lack of research, particularly on pregnant women, and you never want to be the guinea pig," say The Nutrition Twins. "Also, if you suffer from an autoimmune disease or have a bleeding or blood clotting disorder, checking with your doctor is imperative since medicinal mushrooms can sometimes worsen these conditions."
Let say that you're healthy and get your hands on reliably sourced mushrooms — Four Sigmatic, Moon Juice and OM Mushrooms are the leaders in this space — how much do you need to consume to boost your wellness game and which types should you opt for? "Traditional practitioners recommend 0.5 to 1 gram per day for healthy people and between 2 and 5 grams for chronic illnesses for reishi mushrooms (the most popular), but each variety can have a different recommendation," say The Nutrition Twins. "Be very careful to stick to the serving size as overdoing it has been linked to toxic effects on the liver, upset stomach, nosebleeds and more."
Here's a breakdown of the top four fungi and what their purported benefits are, according to Tero Isokauppila, the founder of Four Sigmatic (all of the brand's mushroom products are tested in a third-party lab for heavy metals, allergens, bad bacteria, yeasts, molds, mycotoxins and pesticides and they're USDA Organic certified):
· Reishi helps you to chill out by providing stress and sleep support. It's a powerful adaptogen and a key part of Isokauppila's bedtime ritual.
· Chaga is your skin's and immune system's best friend due to its antioxidant properties. It's native to Isokauppila's home of Finland, and Finns have been brewing chaga tea for years.
· Lion's Mane helps you to focus and concentrate. Whether you're tackling a huge to-do list at work or really honing your creative side-hustle, Lion's Mane is there for you.
· Cordyceps helps support athletic performance, endurance and stamina. Cordyceps got Isokauppila hooked on functional mushrooms when he was first training for marathons.
It's also important to remember that consistency is key. "Medicinal mushrooms have a cumulative effect and typically it takes around two to three weeks to see results if they're taken on a daily basis," says OM Mushroom founder Sandra Carter. "You need to allow time for your body to make the adaptation naturally, which will then result in greater benefits over time."
As for the taste, Isokauppila notes that functional mushrooms are very different in taste than culinary mushrooms, like cremini or portobello. "They don't taste mushroomy, but rather they have a bitter, earthy taste, which brings up another important point: people often consider medicinal mushrooms to be a Band-Aid. You can't load your mushroom powder with sugar and white chocolate nibs and expect to see a strengthened immune system.
"Sugar causes inflammation — basically the opposite of what you want the mushrooms to do — so be careful what beverages you opt for," says Jaimie Bailey, nutritionist at NAO Wellness and an instructor at Flywheel.