Medicinal mushrooms, not magic – okay? They’re the new superfood celebs are raving about and companies are putting them into teas, capsules and serums – Vanessa Chalmers finds out more
Science tells us mushrooms have been growing on the planet for 1300 million years. Today the study of mushrooms (mycology), is finding evidence of distinct and powerful benefits for health and wellbeing and it’s been reported that A-listers such as Katy Perry and Kelly Osbourne are among enthusiasts for the new superfood.
Mushrooms contract the same diseases as humans, however are more adaptable and efficient in fighting them off
Mushrooms have a long history of medicinal uses dating back over 5,000 years, and have been highly valued in many cultures. In ancient China, only the emperor was allowed to use them and they were worth their weight in silver, due to the belief they can enhance such things as the immune system, digestion, anti-ageing, and strength. It’s believed that mushrooms’ ability to provide such profound health benefits to humans is due to the fact they share 30 per cent of their DNA with humans, as opposed to 10 per cent with other plants. They also contract the same diseases as humans, however they are more adaptable and efficient in fighting them off.
Only the surface has been scratched in terms of published research looking into the health benefits of mushrooms, but now their potential is beginning to emerge. Over the last century, mushrooms have provided two of the most profitable drugs developed in pharmacy – penicillin (antibiotics) and statins (medicine to lower cholesterol.
Graham Botfield, a mushroom expert of ten years and founder of Living Nutrition says, ‘While mushrooms have played a key role in healthcare up until now, they are likely to play an even more important role in the future’. As well as the traditional uses of mushrooms throughout history, Botfield says there are a growing number of studies emerging with even wider applications and relevance to different health states. ‘Research in areas as diverse as epigenetics, pharmaceuticals and natural medicine are looking to the field of mycology as one of the next important frontiers in healthcare,’ he says.
Mushrooms and weight loss
Most recently, a study published in the journal Nature Communications found medicinal mushrooms can reduce weight gain. The mushroom, reishi (see below), is non-edible due to its woody consistency and bitter flavour, and is flat with a red top. It is known as the ‘immortality fungus’ in China, but was also found to reverse the symptoms of obesity in a laboratory study on mice.
In the study, researchers from Chang Gung University and other institutes in Taiwan, and the University of the Pacific and Rockefeller University said they wanted to see whether the reishi mushroom can decrease obesity.
The study was done on six groups of mice, who were fed either a diet high in fat or a normal diet for eight weeks. Different amounts of reishi were given to the mice before their weight and body fat was measured. Insulin resistance, a condition in which cells fail to respond to the hormone insulin, was also measured, as evidence shows its association with obesity.
All mice on the high-fat diet gained a lot of weight and body fat, but those given reishi did not gain as much. The most weight gained was 18g, and the least weight gain in mice given the highest dose of reishi was 12g. The reishi did not have any effect on mice fed a normal diet, with both groups gaining around 4g.
The researchers concluded the reishi reduces obesity and inflammation in mice fed a high-fat diet. They say that this may be due to changes in the gut bacteria, evidenced by the fact that the effects were replicated when they transplanted these gut bacteria (through faeces samples) into other mice.
Mushrooms help the body restore biological harmony, especially when the body is under stress
So how do the little sponges of nutrition work? ‘Mushrooms help to regulate bodily functions and are described as ‘biological response modifiers’ or ‘adaptogens’. This means that they help the body to restore biological harmony, especially when the body is under stress,’ says Botfield.
Each mushroom contains unique active compounds making them useful for specific jobs
According to scientific data, mushrooms contain more than 150 active compounds, which can be attributed to five key groups of nutrients: polysaccharides (including beta-glucans), proteins, triterpenes, phenols, and sterols – that’s a mouthful. Each mushroom contains unique active compounds within these groups, making them useful for specific jobs.
Here are the most common medicinal mushrooms and their uses:
The Chinese refer to reishi as the ‘immortality fungus’ as it has been found to contain several antioxidant properties, which help to protect our cells and tissues against damage from oxidative stress, thought to be the primary cause of skin ageing.
Reishi was found to have the strongest anti-inflammatory activity.
Reishi has been examined for anti-inflammatory properties many times to assess its potential for helping conditions associated with inflammation, such as arthritis, heart disease, and dementia. A lab study that compared 20 extracts from five commercially available medicinal mushrooms. Reishi was found to have the strongest anti-inflammatory activity. Research also shows reishi can increase chemicals to regulate the body’s immune response.
It’s proven in studies, such as one published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms that reishi may have cardiovascular-protecting properties. Patients with coronary heart disease received supplements for 12 weeks, and were found to have reduced symptoms of chest pain, palpitations and shortness of breath, and also showed reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Reishi has also been found to be an anti-histamine, helping those who suffer from hayfever.
Hifas da Terra, a biotechnology company using mycotherapy innovation, have used reishi extracts as a key ingredient in their face serum, to target scars, stretch marks, psoriasis, and ageing skin.
Mycologist and co-founder of Hifas da Terra Catalina Fernández de Ana Portela says ‘we harvest and dry the mushrooms under strict climatic conditions to preserve all the levels of concentration of the main active ingredients, proteins, amino acids, enzymes, minerals and vitamins. This enables us to obtain a higher concentration of all the healing benefits in a capsule rather than consuming lots of fresh mushrooms every day.’
Mico-Serum is £89.50 available at Hifas da Terra and Harrods
Traditionally, cordyceps has been used as an aphrodisiac and to support sexual stamina as it is believed to produce sexual hormones. An article in Life Extension Magazine reported a study that showed taking Cordyceps for 40 days improved sexual dysfunction in 66 per cent of women.
The mushroom, which can grow to a height of 5000 metres, is used by Tibetan people, who consider it as a fatigue fighter and vital source of energy. Several studies have investigated its effects on exercise and performance, including a study carried out at the Center for Human Nutrition, University of California on 20 healthy 50-75 year-olds that found taking a Croydceps supplement for 12 weeks showed improved exercise performance compared to those taking a placebo.
cordyceps has been used as an aphrodisiac and to support sexual stamina
Like many mushrooms, cordyceps has been found by studies to be immune-supporting, stimulating activity of cells fighting invading or infected cells. But it has unique respiratory and lung health properties, with the potential to help those who suffer from asthma or bronchitis.
Warrior is £29.99 from Rivital
Also known as the ‘dancing mushroom’ in tradition, which stems from its extreme value in the old days, as it would make anyone who found the specimen dance with joy. It mainly grows in autumn on oak, chestnut, and beech stumps in Japan and North America. With a particularly complex structure, maitake’s immune supporting properties can activate more of our immune cells with a more powerful effect.
Despite a lack of human trials, there is good evidence maitake can support healthy blood glucose control. In a study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences, mice were fed a high-sugar diet, but one group was given extracts of maitake mushroom. The mice given the extract showed enhanced insulin sensitivity (the ability of cells to respond to insulin and remove glucose from the blood) compared to the control group.
Other animal studies have found maitake has the potential to reduce cholesterol, as well as reducing weight gain
Other animal studies have found maitake has the potential to reduce cholesterol, as well as reducing weight gain. A small human study on 30 overweight patients given a maitake supplement equivalent to 200 grams of fresh mushroom found that all the participants lost weight even though they made no changes to their diets.
Hifas da Terra’s Mico-Mai capsules aim to activate metabolism and protect the liver.
Mico-Mai is £55.50 available at Hifas de Terra and Harrods
Vegetarians and vegans can benefit from the nutritious food source to keep their daily diet healthy and balanced
Purearth, a cold pressed juice delivery company, uses the mushroom chaga – largely popular as a tea – in their medicinal cleanse. The hard mushroom grows on birch trees in cold Northern climates and is claimed to benefit the digestive system. Director and juice expert Tenne Annette says ‘we brew chaga chunk for making medicinal tea but also use it in form of dehydrated/ blended powder in our superfood medicinal milks. We believe that chaga is one of the most powerful herbs we can find, rich in natural antioxidants and enzymes – all great for longevity. It has great levels of vitamin D (which most of us don’t get enough of), necessary for building new cells, bones, teeth and hair’.
With such a variety of medicinal mushroom products, can we be positive there is something suitable for everyone? Graham says: ‘the diverse range of mushrooms used in foods or food supplements are safe in most conditions, and can be used in combinations with other food supplements and can usually be taken long term without side effects.’
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