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Ultimate Guide to Nootropics | Part 3 | Getting to Know Medicinal Mushroom Extracts


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 anti-cancer effects. In addition to that, they are widely used for their anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertensive, cholesterol-lowering, and liver-protecting properties. 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 found to produce rapid and robust ketamine-like antidepressant effects in animal models of depression. Like ketamine, these rapid antidepressant 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. Interestingly enough, chronic use of SSRIs down-regulates the 5-HT2A receptor, which leads to the antidepressant effects one usually associates with that class of drugs. However, cordycepin does this acutely, and without blocking the serotonin receptor from being activated in the short term. Pair this with the rapid antidepressant effects from the AMPA modulation, and one can see just how effective this compound can be for mood regulation.

While the rapid antidepressant effects from cordycepin might interest many, its anti-cancer effects have recently piqued the interest of researchers looking to treat leukemia. Cordycepin has been shown to reduce the stability of β-catenin in leukemia cells. Activation of the β-catenin pathway in leukemia stem cells is crucial for the initiation and maintenance of the leukemia, and inhibiting that pathway can prevent the disease from forming and spreading. In addition, cordycepin has been shown to directly induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in leukemia cells. Cordycepin is currently in human clinical trials investigating its possible use as a treatment for leukemia.

In addition to the rapid antidepressant effects and possible treatment of leukemia, 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 can increase insulin sensitivity, allowing your body to take up sugar from the blood more efficiently, and lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease. 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

Black hoof, or Phellinus linteus, has been used for centuries throughout China, Korea, and Japan to potentially prevent a wide variety of ailments, including cancer, 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 anti-cancer properties, including suppressing tumor growth and metastasis. Black hoof extracts may also inhibit autoimmune diabetes and help treat a form of eczema called atopic dermatitis. 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. While cordyceps attacked leukemia cells, but not solid tumor growth, Polysaccharides isolated from P.linteus inhibited tumor growth and reduced the frequency of pulmonary metastasis.What was interesting was that P.linteus was not directly toxic to cancer cells, but that its mechanism has been suggested to be through the stimulation of the immune response. This is why Phellinus linteus has been recommended to cancer patients as a natural immunotherapeutic agent without toxicity.


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 help in cancer therapy, inhibiting the growth and spread of tumors. In research, chaga elicited anticancer effects which were attributed to decreased tumor cell proliferation, motility and morphological changes induction. Like its sibling black hoof mushroom, it produced no or low toxicity in tested normal cells. This makes it a promising compound to possibly be used in cancer treatment. Chaga extract has also been shown to scavenge free radicals and protect against oxidative stress, making it a potent antioxidant.

Lion’s Mane

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 that could provide anti-cancer, neuroprotective, and wound healing benefits, 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 help in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. 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; which could be a big breakthrough for neuronal diseases.

Like cordyceps, lion's mane has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety in humans, 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 can stimulate the immune systems of breast cancer patients. 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, making it a very promising compound for fighting infectious diseases.


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 prevent chronic inflammation and inhibit tumor growth and metastasis. 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 anti-tumor and antioxidant effects, make it a unique edition to the medicinal mushroom family.

Red Reishi

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, anti-tumor effects, and 5-alpha reductase inhibition. Ganoderic acids from an extract of reishi have been shown to suppress the growth and invasive behavior of breast cancer. 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 for the therapy of invasive breast cancers.

Turkey Tail

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 as an anticancer compound and a potential treatment for breast, lung, gastric, and colorectal cancers. The compound may also inhibit tumor growth. 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, a drug used in chemotherapy. This means that PSP is a promising compound for use as an adjuvant combined with cyclophosphamide or other chemotherapy in cancer patients. Keeping the immune system healthy while on chemotherapy is crucial to not only the success of the cancer treatment, but also the quality of life of the patient.

Polysaccharide-K, the other main compound extracted from turkey tail, is also used as an anticancer immunologic adjuvant but also has evidence that it had direct anticancer effects in humans. 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. In conjunction with chemotherapy, PSK has increased the survival time of cancer patients in randomized control studies in humans. These compounds make turkey tail a very beneficial mushroom for cancer researchers and patients.

White Jelly

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 prevent tumor growth, reduce levels of bad cholesterol, fight inflammation, protect the liver, 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. Animal studies have shown that T.fuciformis can lower serum LDL cholerterol by 31%, while keeping HDL levels steady. It shows promise as an effective natural cholerterol lowering supplement.

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 for energy, depression relief, antioxidant effects, or for cancer, 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.