When you think of mushrooms, what first comes to mind? Portobellos? Those little, white button mushrooms on pizza? Or the kind that people consume for hallucinogenic effects? There’s actually a whole side of mushrooms that you might not be aware of, and it lies in the world of functional mushrooms. This is where we can use mushrooms to heal ourselves.
In the documentary Fantastic Fungi, we learn about the incredible healing potential of mushrooms; from the physical and mental therapeutic benefits they have on humans, to the huge role they play in the Earth’s ecosystem. Paul Stamets, the famed mycologist and author, believes that mushrooms have the power to heal the Earth and the humans who reside within it. In the documentary, he talks about his extensive research on fungi, along with his personal connections to it. This includes an experience he had with psychedelic mushrooms in his youth, which cured him of his stutter, and how turkey tail mushrooms helped his mother beat late-stage breast cancer. As Stamets said in a 2011 interview with Huffpost: “In essence, we are rediscovering what our ancestors long ago knew: mushrooms are rich reservoirs of power medicines.”
The History of Mushrooms in Wellness
The world of mushrooms is vast. But if there’s someone who knows a thing or two about the magic of mushrooms, it’s Danielle Ryan Broida. She is a registered herbalist, holistic nutritionist, and national educator for the mushroom coffee brand Four Sigmatic. Broida works with clients who struggle with autoimmune conditions and chronic illnesses, guiding them through functional mushroom-based treatments. “The first thing to realize”, she says, “is that fungi are their own biological kingdom, which is separate from plants and animals. Within this massive kingdom, there is a very special subset of a few hundred species known as functional mushrooms. These mushrooms have well known benefits to the human body and have been used as traditional medicines for thousands of years, in cultures across the world.” As Brioda mentions, our ancestors turned to mushrooms for their healing benefits a very long time ago. Maitake mushrooms, for instance, are known to boost immune function, reduce blood pressure, contain anti-cancer properties, and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 3,000 years. And then, of course, there’s the fact that fungi produce antibiotics, just as with the invention of penicillin during the 1920’s.
The Physical Benefits of Mushrooms
Thanks to educators like Brioda and Stamets, the awareness surrounding mushrooms, and the positive impact they can have on health, is growing, and we’ve only just begun to tap into it how they can influence our wellbeing. “Literature shows that functional mushrooms, such as chaga, are rich in prebiotics that can support a healthy microbiome for optimal gut health,” explains Bryant Esquejo, a naturopathic doctor based in Los Angeles. “There are also other functional mushrooms that can potentially support brain and nerve health, such as lion’s mane; and others that can support healthy immune function, such as shiitake.” In fact, studies have shown that eating mushrooms helps lower the chances of cognitive decline.
Sarah Polansky, the founder of adaptogen wellness brand, Prismatic Plants, was introduced to functional mushrooms when she began looking into herbs for immune support related to her allergies. “I’d actually heard it from a few different sources who were in the alternative healing space. Anytime I would mention a run-down immune system, sure enough, they would ask if I was taking medicinal mushrooms,” she says. “Needless to say, I got the hint, and began incorporating them into my daily routine and eventually into our Prismatic Plants’ products.”
Then, there is of course, the benefits mushrooms have on the skin. Mushrooms, especially reishi, are loaded with antioxidants, which are great for fighting aging concerns. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, which can fight puffiness, redness, and more.
The Mental Benefits of Mushrooms
According to Brioda, one of the most impressive and unique things about functional mushrooms is that they don’t focus on one symptom, or area of the human body. “This is also why I believe they are so powerful, known as superior tonics. Rather than addressing symptoms, they work to address the cause or the root of the issue. This is from where true, sustainable, long-term benefits arise,” she says, adding, “if you continuously treat the symptom but ignore the cause, the symptom may reoccur, or manifest in new ways until the root of the issue has actually been addressed.”
You’ve heard about adaptogens before. Well, as Brioda notes, many functional mushrooms are also adaptogens, which are herbs and fungi that help your body to adapt. “Literally, they help your body deal with occasional stress, so you fight the demands of modern life with balance,” she says. “Think of your body as having a reservoir of vitality, almost like a water reservoir used by a city in times of drought. Adaptogens build and strengthen that reservoir. So, if drought (stress) strikes, you have a bank to pull from, giving you much needed support to keep you balanced in times of occasional stress. These plants have the amazing ability to bring you back to a steady state.”
Polansky says she uses reishi in her products to help people after a busy day of stress. “With reishi, also referred to as ‘spirit plant’ or ‘elixir of immortality,’ it works to strengthen our qi, support our immune system, and act as a nervine—all aspects of support we need when we deal with frequent stress,” she explains. Esquejo also points to reishi’s potential to improve mood. According to Esquejo, one particular study showed subjects who supplemented with reishi, had less anxiety and less depression.
These benefits are apparently not isolated to functional mushrooms. Psilocybin, a compound in psychedelic mushrooms, has been shown in studies to have improved depression. In fact, researchers at Johns Hopkins’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, are currently studying psilocybin, to see its impact on depression, as well as other issues such as Alzheimer’s disease. Some people like to microdose psilocybin—or use about a tenth of a normal dose—to experience benefits, such as a reduction in depression and anxiety, and an increase in energy and creativity, without the hallucinogenic effects.
Ready to receive the health benefits of mushrooms and incorporate them into your life? If you’re looking for ideas, Esquejo says he uses lion’s mane, both in cooking, and as a supplement to support brain health, and will also make chaga lattes for gut health and to support a healthy microbiome. Polansky likes to take a tincture “with about 20 different mushrooms in it” when she’s feeling run down. Either way, adding some mushroom magic to your lifestyle, will no doubt work wonders, so go for it!