One of the biggest wellness trends in the past few years has been the “rediscovery” of medicinal mushrooms (not that they ever went anywhere.)
Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine across every corner of the world for millennia. Their use almost certainly predates recorded history.
Archeologists have reported finding a mummy dating back 4,000 years with a pouch containing the remains of a mushroom species known to fight infections.
The Egyptians considered mushrooms the key to immortality. The Aztecs called them the “flesh of the gods.” There are among the first species discussed in traditional Chinese medicine.
Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used by thinkers from the ancient Greek philosophers to English poets to (some say) the Buddha himself.
You may recall that the original antibiotic, penicillin, was isolated from fungus by Alexander Fleming.
In short, mushrooms have always been with us. And now, modern researchers are starting to fully understand their benefits for the body and mind.
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are not plants. They comprise a completely separate kingdom that is distinct from both animal and plant kingdoms.
In fact, mushrooms are more similar genetically to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom.
Mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll, so they cannot produce energy from the sun. Instead, they metabolize the decaying matter on which they grow.
Because mushrooms are so different from the plant kingdom, they possess unique beneficial compounds that do not occur in herbs.
There’s a massive array of benefits from consuming various mushrooms. Most major aspects of health can potentially be improved by supplementing with the right type of shroom.
Research suggests that cardiovascular health, liver and kidney function, gut health, the immune system, some types of cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, weight, inflammation, and energy levels can all be managed by taking certain types of mushroom supplements.
However, for this list, we will focus on their nootropic effects. The mushrooms on this list have clinically backed benefits for cognition and mental health.
Lion’s mane is one of the most popular natural nootropic supplements for increasing brain power.
Notably, this fungus may be one of the most potent boosters of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the body.
NGF is a natural peptide that is critical for the survival and maintenance of neurons. It is also necessary for axon growth, which is a key factor in neuroplasticity.
This is crucial because neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways, which in turn allows it to encode and store new information.
In short, it keeps old brain cells healthy and allows you to create new ones.
Researchers have found that the organic compounds hericenones and erinacines, found only in lion’s mane, can induce NGF synthesis in nerve cells.1 Puei-Lene Lai, et al. Neurotrophic properties of the Lion’s mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia, Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013
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Chaga is an extremely powerful anti-inflammatory agent, with a well-documented ability to fight oxidative stress in the body and brain.
In fact, it has one of the highest ORAC values of any known food. The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale is used to measure the capacity of any food to scavenge harmful free-radicals from cells and prevent oxidative damage.
This means that Chaga can keep neurons healthy, which can lead to a holistic improvement in cognitive function across the board.
This is especially important as you age and your brain cells naturally begin to deteriorate. In this way, Chaga could be a potent anti-aging supplement.2Yoo Kyoung Park, et al. Chaga mushroom extract inhibits oxidative DNA damage in human lymphocytes as assessed by comet assay, Biofactors. 2004
It is also considered an adaptogen, which means that it can normalize the body’s hormone levels in response to stress.3Jong Seok Yun, et al. Inonotus obliquus Protects against Oxidative Stress-Induced Apoptosis and Premature Senescence, Mol Cells. 2011 4Jehane Ibrahim Eid, et al. Molecular insights and cell cycle assessment upon exposure to Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) mushroom polysaccharides in zebrafish (Danio rerio), Sci Rep. 2020
Adaptogens like Chaga are known to lower anxiety levels and allow you to keep a level head during difficult situations.
Chaga may also improve memory retention and learning ability.5Vijayasree Vayalanellore Giridharan, et al. Amelioration of scopolamine induced cognitive dysfunction and oxidative stress by Inonotus obliquus – a medicinal mushroom, Food Funct. 2011
Reishi is the most widely used medicinal mushroom in traditional healing practices. In fact, it is the most prized natural remedy in Chinese traditional medicine, with ginseng coming in second.
Several Eastern cultures have used this “mushroom of immortality” for thousands of years to treat a wide variety of illnesses.
It contains a class of compounds known as “ganoderic acids” that are found only in this species, and are the primary source of its therapeutic powers.
Reishi is prized for its effects on memory. Multiple trials suggest that it can improve this ability, especially in the face of cognitive decline.6Yu Jin Choi, et al. Anti-Amnesic Effect of Fermented Ganoderma lucidum Water Extracts by Lactic Acid Bacteria on Scopolamine-Induced Memory Impairment in Rats, Prev Nutr Food Sci. 2015 7ZHANG Yue, et al. Effects of ganoderma lucidum triterpenoids on learning and memory function of aging mice induced by D-galactose, Journal of Shanghai Jiaotong University (Medical Science) 2007-08 8Ming-Fu Wang, et al. Effects of Ganoderma on aging and learning and memory ability in senescence accelerated mice, International Congress Series. 2004
As an adaptogen, reishi may be able to help regulate the body’s hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response.
This could improve your response to stress and anxiety, allowing you to keep calm in difficult circumstances.
There are also clinical trials showing that reishi may fight depression and fatigue by raising mood and energy levels.9Hong Zhao, et al. Spore Powder of Ganoderma lucidum Improves Cancer-Related Fatigue in Breast Cancer Patients Undergoing Endocrine Therapy: A Pilot Clinical Trial, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012 10Wenbo Tang, et al. A Randomized, Double-Blind and Placebo-Controlled Study of a Ganoderma lucidum Polysaccharide Extract in Neurasthenia, Journal of Medicinal Food. 2005
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Cordyceps is a rare and highly prized fungus that grows in the high elevations of the Himalayas. Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese communities have long considered it a potent libido and performance enhancer, mood lifter, and anti-aging remedy.
This fungus has an energizing effect on the body and brain and can act as a cognition and mood booster. Multiple studies back this up.11Guangxin Yuan, et al. Improvement of Learning and Memory Induced by Cordyceps Polypeptide Treatment and the Underlying Mechanism, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 12Zaixin Li, et al. Cordyceps militaris extract attenuates D-galactose-induced memory impairment in mice, J Med Food. 201213Jungsook Cho, et al. NAntioxidant and memory enhancing effects of purple sweet potato anthocyanin and cordyceps mushroom extract, Archives of Pharmacal Research. 200314Zhang Tianzhu, et al. Antidepressant-like effects of cordycepin in a mice model of chronic unpredictable mild stress, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014
It’s most famous quality, however, might be its effect on libido and physical stamina. Many people have used cordyceps for its aphrodisiac qualities, especially men. This mushroom has a long history of use as a revitalizer and rejuvenator, earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.”
There is also some preliminary clinical evidence that suggest there is some truth behind this ancient reputation.15Spandana Rajendra Kopalli, et al. <a href=”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520895/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> Cordycepin, an Active Constituent of Nutrient Powerhouse and Potential Medicinal Mushroom Cordyceps militaris Linn., Ameliorates Age-Related Testicular Dysfunction in Rats,</a> Nutrients. 2019 16J S Zhu, et al. <a href=”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9764768/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis: part I,</a> J Altern Complement Med. 1998
This revitalizing effect also seems to carry over into mental health. As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory medicine, cordyceps may prevent neural degeneration as you age, keeping your mind young and agile.17Hardeep S. Tuli, et al. Pharmacological and therapeutic potential of Cordyceps with special reference to Cordycepin, 3 Biotech. 2014
This popular and tasty culinary mushroom also appears to have some nootropic qualities.
Maitake can reportedly improve levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is a crucial neuropeptide that helps your nervous system maintain old neurons and grow new ones.18Sara Sechi, et al. An Antioxidant Dietary Supplement Improves Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Levels in Serum of Aged Dogs: Preliminary Results, J Vet Med. 2015 19Vikineswary Sabaratnam, et al. Neuronal health – can culinary and medicinal mushrooms help?, J Tradit Complement Med. 2013
As you might guess, this is an extremely important function. The brain’s ability to grow and regenerate is necessary for healthy cognition across the board.
It is particularly critical for forming and storing new memories, as this process relies on physically making new neural connections.
Maitake also activates the brain’s AMPA receptors, which are implicated in many crucial cognitive functions, including emotional regulation.20Hongkun Bao, et al. Griflola frondosa (GF) produces significant antidepressant effects involving AMPA receptor activation in mice, Pharm Biol. 2017
This could have a positive wide-ranging effect on cognition and mood.
Maitake is also a rich source of beta-glucans, which have a proven anti-depressant effect.21Khawaja Muhammad Imran Bashir, et al. Clinical and Physiological Perspectives of β-Glucans: The Past, Present, and Future,Int J Mol Sci. 2017
There’s a whole world of benefits associated with medicinal mushrooms, this list is only scratching the surface.
Traditional healing cultures have harnessed the power of these fungi for centuries, and now modern science is largely confirming what they have known all along.
And you don’t have to go foraging for raw mushrooms to gain their benefits either; they are available in convenient powder and capsule form as supplements.
Hopefully, you will also enjoy some of the brain-boosting benefits of these shrooms.