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Posted on September 13, 2016
Mushrooms have been used medicinally for centuries. The oldest human mummy, dated at over 4,000 years old, was found with a medicine kit that had remnants of Piptoporus betulinus, a mushroom still used today as an antibiotic and parasite killer. In Ancient China, special mushrooms, including the reishi fungi, were used as tonics and reserved for royalty. The Egyptians were also one of the first people to use mushrooms for their medical properties. They associated mushrooms with immortality, and included them as a regular addition to the diets of the Pharaohs and royal family. They loved them so much, they called them “sons of the gods” and thought that the storm god Set created them by hurling lightning bolts coated in mushroom-seed to earth. We may no longer believe the mythology behind their arrival on Earth, but modern scientific studies are showing just how many uses mushrooms have, and the amazing compounds found within them.
While the use of beneficial compounds in fungi has been around since prehistory, the modern movement to identify and extract those active ingredients started with Alexander Flemming in 1928, and his discovery of penicillin. Since then, many other beneficial compounds have been identified, extracted from, or synthesized by fungi for use in medicine. Some of the most common benefits from medicinal mushrooms are their immune-boosting and healthy cellular function effects. In addition to that, they are widely used for their potential ability to support healthy cellullar function, promote healthy cholesterol levels, and work as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Let’s take a look at some of the common medicinal mushrooms, and their benefits.
The Cordyceps genus comprises several species of fungi described as endoparasitoids, meaning they essentially grow and feed on other organisms; mainly insects, arthropods, and sometimes other fungi. “Cordyceps” comes from the Greek word kordyle, roughly translating to “club head,” which describes the elongated shape of the fruiting body. The two most common species used today are Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris. C.sinensis is traditionally only found in the mountainous regions of the Himalayas, and is highly sought after in traditional Chinese medicine for its rarity and perceived value, but is very difficult to cultivate and hard to find in the wild. C.militaris is more widely distributed, can be cultivated and grown in controlled environments, and also have been reported to contain higher levels of active ingredients than C.sinensis.
Cordyceps have been used throughout traditional Chinese, Tibetan, and other Asian pharmacologies, and studies suggest that the mushrooms contain several biochemical compounds, including cordycepin, or 3'-deoxyadenosine. Cordycepin has been shown to promote healthy stress levels in animals. These effects are dependent on AMPA receptor regulation. Cordycepin also up-regulates BDNF receptors, while at the same time down-regulating 5-HT2A receptors and inflammation in the hippocampus. Cordycepin does this acutely, and without blocking the serotonin receptor from being activated in the short term. Pair this with the calming effects from the AMPA modulation, and one can see just how effective this compound can be for mood regulation.
In addition to promoting healthy stress levels, Cordyceps has often been used as an energy booster and immune-modulating compound. If you look at the full name of cordycepin, 3'-deoxyadenosine, you can see a possible reason for why that is. Your body uses ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, for cellular energy. Cordycepin, being a derivative of the nucleoside adenosine, can participate in some similar biochemical processes, and boost ATP levels in the process. Mice given cordyceps supplements had their liver ATP levels boosted by 18.4%. Cordyceps also reduces the buildup of lactic acid, which is the substance that your muscles produce when fatigued. Studies have shown that rats supplemented with cordyceps were able to increase their swimming time by as much as 88%. In addition to that, cordyceps may support a healthy metabolism and blood sugar levels. Cordyceps mushroom is a serious contender for one of the most amazing mushrooms out there, which is no wonder why it is so prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
Black hoof, or Phellinus linteus, has been used for centuries throughout China, Korea, and Japan to potentially prevent a wide variety of ailments, including allergic reactions, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, and any form of gastroentric dysfunction. True to its name, black hoof mushrooms are shaped like a hoof, and bitter in taste. Phellinus linteus grows naturally in trunks of willow, paper mulberry, and elm trees that are more than 100 years old, and grows for minimum 30 to 40 years to make a fruiting body able to be used for medical applications. Because of this, P.linteus is very rare in nature.
Based on several studies, the mushroom extract has been shown to offer potential healthy cellular function. Black hoof extracts may also support healthy blood sugar levels. Polysaccharide fractions isolated from P. linteus were found to increase the activity of immune cells, such as the production of cytokines by macrophages and B-cells, and increase the cytotoxic activity of natural killer cells. P.linteus mechanism has been suggested to be through the stimulation of the immune response.
The Chaga mushroom, scientifically known as Inonotus obliquus, looks more like burned wood than a traditional mushroom. It grows on birch trees all over the world, including Korea, Russia, and northern areas of the United States. The parasitic conk appears as a black burn due to its high melanin content. This is one mushroom that does not form traditional fruiting bodies, but instead forms sclerotia, or masses of mycelium. The name chaga is derived from the Russian word of the mushroom, which is purportedly derived from the word for the fungus in Komi-Permyak, the language of the indigenous peoples in the Kama River Basin, west of the Ural Mountains.
Chaga has been used in Russian and Northern European folk remedies for centuries. Research suggests that chaga can potentially provide a variety of health benefits, including positive effects on the immune system. Studies show that the mushroom extract could also act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Extracts may also support healthy cellular function. Like its sibling black hoof mushroom, it produced no or low toxicity in tested normal cells. This makes it a promising compound to possibly promote healthy cellular function. Chaga extract has also been shown to scavenge free radicals and protect against oxidative stress, making it a potent antioxidant.
Hericium erinaceus, also known as satyr’s beard and bearded tooth fungus, grows on hard woods as a single body of dangling spines. It is usually found at sites with a long history of beech (Fagus sylvatica) presence where old, collapsing trees and large-diameter limbs are present. Lion's Mane was once reserved exclusively for the Chinese royal family, and is often used in modern Chinese vegetarian cuisine to replace pork or lamb.
Studies of lion’s mane extracts show that it is rich in numerous polysaccharides may support healthy cellular function, act as a neuroprotector, among several other therapeutic properties. One study showed that the fungus’ compounds offer antioxidant effects and may help reduce blood glucose and regulate blood lipid levels. Another study found that lion’s mane extract may support brain health as we age. Lion's Mane has been shown to increase nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Studies have shown that there can be improvement in cognitive abilities of the elderly if the mushroom is incorporated in their daily diets. A recent Japanese studied showed that a specialized extract, standardized to Nerve Growth Stimulant Factor (NGSF), was able to regrow neurons in the brain.
Like cordyceps, lion's mane has been shown to support healthy stress levels when used daily for 4 weeks.. What's interesting is that this effect seem to be mediated by a different mechanism than the NGF effects. Lion's mane has also been shown to attenuate glutamate overexcitability and promote neuronal prolongation and formation of myelin. It's these varied effects that make it one of the most popular medicinal mushroom extracts out there.
Grifola frondosa, or maitake mushroom , is commonly known among English speakers as hen of the woods or ram's head mushroom. Maitake is native to Japan and North America, and mainly grows in clumps at the base of trees; especially oak trees. The fruiting bodies appear as clusters of multiple curly or spoon-shaped caps. G.frondosa is a perennial fungus that often grows in the same place for a number of years in succession. It occurs most prolifically in the northeastern regions of the United States, but has been found as far west as Idaho. In Japan, maitake can grow to more than 100 pounds. It is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its ability to balance out body systems.
Maitake extract has been shown to be rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins. Studies have shown that maitake may enhance immune activity, regulate blood pressure, and support weight loss. Phase 2 human trials in 2009 showed that maitake may support healthy cellular function. In vitro research has also shown that maitake can stimulate both the innate immune system and adaptive immune system. The innate immune system is always present and ready to mobilize to fight microbes at the site of infection. It consists of physical epithelial barriers, phagocytic leukocytes, dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and circulating plasma proteins. The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is called into action against pathogens that are able to evade or overcome innate immune defenses. There are two types of adaptive immune responses: humoral immunity, mediated by antibodies produced by B lymphocytes, and cell-mediated immunity, mediated by T lymphocytes. Maitake is able to stimulate both types of immune systems.
Wolfiporia extensa is a species in the family polyporaceae, and is a wood-decay fungus that is most prized for its sclerotium. The sclerotium, which is a mass of the fungus’ mycelium, resembles a small coconut and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.It's used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine for promoting urination, to increase digestive function, and to calm the mind.
Studies show that poria; contains pachymic acid, a compound that may possess anti-inflammation properties and may support healthy cellular function. Pachymic acid is known to inhibit the phospholipase A2 (PLA2) increases from snake venom. Snake venom is largely composed of melittin, which stimulates PLA2. Due to the increased PLA2 activity around the site of the snake bite, arachidonic acid is released from phospholipid membranes, causing inflammation and pain. The pachymic acid found in poria inhibits PLA2, potentially preventing the inflammation and pain caused by the snake bite. In addition to this, pachymic acid is known to inhibit the Epstein-Barr virus, also known as human herpesvirus 4 (HHV-4). These actions, paired with its antioxidant effects, make it a unique edition to the medicinal mushroom family.
Ganoderma lucidum, also known as Lingzhi, are soft, flat, and feature a red, kidney-shaped cap. First used by the Han Dynasty, red reishi has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. It is one of the oldest mushrooms known to be used medicinally, with over 2,000 years of history. Hundreds of early Chinese texts refer to reishi as the "mushroom of immortality" or "elixir of life." The generic name Ganoderma derives from the Greek ganos γανος "brightness; sheen", hence "shining" and derma δερμα "skin". It lacks gills on its underside, and releases its spores through fine pores, leading to its morphological classification as a polypore.
Research shows that reishi extract may help to inhibit allergic reactions, including asthma, contact dermatitis, and stiff joints. Studies also showed that red reishi extracts supported chemotherapy regimens and improved immune functions of chemotherapy patients. Ganoderma lucidum produces a group of triterpenes, called ganoderic acids, which have a molecular structure similar to steroid hormones. Ganoderic acids have been found to possess biological activities including hepatoprotection, and 5-alpha reductase inhibition. It did this through the inhibition of transcription factors AP-1 and NF-kappaB, resulting in the down-regulation of expression of cyclin-dependent kinase 4 (Cdk4) and the suppression of secretion of urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA). Red reishi could be a very promising natural agent to support healthy cellular function.
Trametes Versicolor, commonly referred to as turkey tail, gained its name from its resemblance to the colorful tail plumage of a wild turkey but is also known as Coriolus versicolor and Polyporus versicolor. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for therapeutic effects as a tonic for thousands of years. The top surface of the cap shows typical concentric zones of different colors. The cap is rust-brown or darker brown, sometimes with blackish zones. The pore surface is whitish to light brown, pores round and with age twisted and labyrinthine.
Based on research, turkey tail contains numerous polysaccharides that offer a wide range of potential benefits. In preliminary human research and lab studies, polysaccharide-k has been shown to support healthy cellular function. The turkey tail extract may also act as an anti-inflammatory. Another compound extracted from turkey tail, polysaccharide peptide (PSP), restores immunosuppression induced by cyclophosphamide.
Polysaccharide-K, the other main compound extracted from turkey tail, may also support healthy cellular function. PSK is a protein-polysaccharide consisting of a beta-glucan β-1,4 main chain with β-1,3 and β-1,6 side chains.
Tremella fuciformis is a tropical mushroom that grows on hardwoods after a storm. White jelly mushrooms appear as translucent white fungus and is one of the most popular mushrooms used in Chinese medicine and cuisine. It is widespread, especially in the tropics, where it can be found on the dead branches of broadleaf trees. Tremella fuciformis was first described in 1856 by English mycologist Miles Joseph Berkeley, based on collections made in Brazil by the botanist and explorer Richard Spruce.
Research shows that the fungi may support healthy cholesterol levels, fight inflammation, promote healthy liver function and slow the aging process.
Other studies found that white jelly extract may boost overall immunities by enhancing antibody effectiveness, increasing natural killer cell activity, and stimulating production of macrophages.
With their use spanning thousands of years, and the recent scientific push to understand the compounds in them that give their varied effects, it's no surprise medicinal mushrooms are a big part of many people's supplement regimen. Whether you are looking to promote energy, healthy stress levels, antioxidant effects, or healthy cellular function, there is a medicinal mushroom out there that might help. Nootropics Depot offers a wide range of mushroom extracts, in powder and capsules, including two sample packs. If you’re a beginner, consider the common sample pack (featuring cordyceps, lion’s mane, red reishi, and maitake) or the uncommon sample pack (featuring chaga, black hoof, poria, turkey tail, and white jelly) to figure out what works best for you.