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Which Mushrooms are Right for Me?

Which Mushrooms are Right for Me?

Beyond their role as nutritious staples, rich in essential fibers, proteins, and minerals, certain “functional” mushrooms offer unique, health-promoting bioactive compounds. With a wide array of such species now available, selecting the right one for personal health goals can seem daunting. Here we focus on those select species that boast exceptional profiles of these beneficial compounds—holding special interest for researchers and offering promising avenues for health optimisation.

Overall Immune Support

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Turkey Tail, Reishi
Beta-glucans are complex polysaccharides primarily found in the cell walls of fungi, including medicinal mushrooms. Biologically, they play a crucial role in immune system modulation. Upon ingestion, beta-glucans are recognized by immune cells such as macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells. This recognition triggers a series of immune responses, including phagocytosis (the engulfing of pathogens) and the release of cytokines, which are signaling molecules that mediate and regulate immunity and inflammation. This enhances the body's ability to ward off pathogens and can be particularly beneficial in bolstering the immune response.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are particularly rich in beta-glucans. These mushrooms stand out for their profound impact on the immune system, attributed to their high beta-glucan content. Reishi, in addition to beta-glucans, contains a spectrum of bioactive compounds, notably triterpenes. These triterpenes are known for their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and potentially anticancer properties, adding to Reishi's comprehensive immune-enhancing effects.

When considering long-term immune support through medicinal mushrooms, it is advantageous to cycle through different species. This approach prevents the body from becoming too accustomed to specific compounds, which could potentially diminish their effectiveness over time. Other medicinal mushrooms that are beneficial for immune support include Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), which is rich in lentinan, another type of beta-glucan, and Maitake (Grifola frondosa), known for its D-fraction polysaccharides. These, along with others like Cordyceps and Lion's Mane, offer a broad spectrum of immune-enhancing properties and can be integrated into a rotational mushroom supplementation regimen.

Heart Disease Prevention and Support

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Reishi
Reishi has been traditionally employed and is currently researched for its cardiovascular benefits, including managing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and supporting overall heart health. The triterpenes found in Reishi, for instance, have been observed to exhibit ACE-inhibitory activity; ACE inhibitors are a class of medication that relax blood vessels and reduce blood pressure, which can help mitigate the risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Inside the body, these triterpenes work much like a thermostat for the cardiovascular system, maintaining blood pressure levels within an optimal range. By inhibiting ACE, they effectively prevent the constriction of blood vessels, which allows blood to flow more freely and reduces stress on the heart. Coupling the blood pressure-lowering effects with cholesterol management properties, Reishi provides a multifaceted approach to cardiovascular health, making it suitable for those aiming to maintain a healthy heart or looking for natural support in managing heart disease.

Cognition, Mind, and Memory Support

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Lion's Mane
Hericenones and erinacines are two alcohol-soluble terpenes isolated from the fruiting body and mycelium of Lion’s Mane. They are the primary agents responsible for it’s brain-boosting effects, due to the stimulation of Nerve Growth Factor(NGF) and the related Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor(BDNF), which play an essential role in the protection and maintenance of nerve cells(aka neurons) in the brain and, in turn, our ability to focus, learn and regulate mood.

NGF is a large molecule, which cannot pass the blood-brain barrier. This makes it almost impossible to introduce NGF itself into the brain via external supplementation. However, both hericenones and erinacines have a sufficiently low molecular weight to pass through the blood-brain barrier, from where they can stimulate the body’s own production of NGF. There are very few other natural compounds that are known to produce this effect, and it’s the reason Lion’s Mane is one of the most exciting functional mushrooms out there.

Boosting Energy

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Cordyceps
Numerous scientific studies now point to the potential of Cordyceps to enhance aerobic capacity, increase stamina, and support lung health, offering intriguing possibilities for both general vitality and athletic performance. Due to the rarity and high cost of harvesting wild Cordyceps, most supplements today use lab-grown Cordyceps militaris, which contains similar active compounds.

The star compound of Cordyceps, and indeed the subject of much scientific attention, is cordycepin (3'-deoxyadenosine). This unique nucleoside analogue is structurally similar to adenosine, a molecule integral to many biological processes, including the production of ATP - our bodies' main energy currency.

Cordycepin's structural resemblance to adenosine allows it to engage with the same cellular pathways. It has been shown to enhance the body's ATP production, promoting energy efficiency at a cellular level and potentially translating into increased endurance and resistance to fatigue during physical activity.

Moreover, preliminary research suggests that cordycepin may also support lung function by reducing inflammation and dilating bronchial tubes, thereby improving airflow. This, combined with its ability to enhance energy metabolism, may help explain the traditional use of Cordyceps for respiratory health and the increasing popularity of its use among athletes as a performance-enhancing natural supplement.

Promoting Sleep

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Reishi
Reishi, particularly when standardized to include a significant amount of triterpenes, is effective for supporting healthy sleep patterns and mitigating chronic sleep issues. Triterpenes in Reishi potentially act on the central nervous system by enhancing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that naturally promotes relaxation and can facilitate the transition to sleep.

The impact of Reishi on sleep is similar to setting a cruise control for the mind, subtly moderating neurological activity to a state that is conducive to rest. This gentle modulation allows for a centred and calming influence, which over time and with consistent use, can significantly improve sleep quality. Individuals with sleeping problems may find that incorporating a standardised Reishi extract, as part of their nightly routine, aids in establishing a more regular and restful sleep pattern.

Weight Management

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Shiitake, Oyster Mushroom
Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms have been identified as beneficial for those managing their weight. The dietary fiber in these mushrooms provides a feeling of satiety. Moreover, the fiber content in these mushrooms has a tangible impact on the digestive process. Consuming them before meals can slow down the body's absorption of carbohydrates and fats. This can lead to more moderated blood sugar levels and prevent the peaks and troughs that often lead to snacking and overeating.

Regular inclusion of Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms in the diet could complement a weight management strategy by aligning with the body's natural rhythms—offering a controlled and sustained feeling of fullness and optimal nutrition absorption. 

Cancer Support

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Turkey Tail
One of the most significant contributions of Turkey Tail to cancer support is the presence of polysaccharopeptide (PSP) and polysaccharide-K (PSK), known to bolster the immune system's ability to combat cancerous cell growth. In Japan, PSK, known commercially as Krestin, has been approved as an adjuvant cancer therapy since the 1970s, and substantial evidence from clinical trials supports its use, particularly in prolonging survival rates post-surgery for patients with stomach and colorectal cancer.

The polysaccharides found in Turkey Tail have been observed to stimulate immune responses that are critical in the body's defence against tumour development and progression. These responses include the activation of various white blood cells such as macrophages, lymphocytes, and natural killer cells, which collectively function to identify and eliminate neoplastic cells.

Moreover, Turkey Tail's immunological support extends beyond mere therapy to potential cancer prevention. By maintaining an active and responsive immune system, the compounds in Turkey Tail may help ward off new cancers. Incorporating Turkey Tail into a health-focused lifestyle might be advantageous for those seeking natural adjunctive options in their cancer care plan, based on the mushroom's revered status in oncological research

Cancer cells are notorious for their ability to adapt and evade the immune system's defences, including one of our most crucial protective actions: opsonisation. Opsonisation involves the binding of a protein fragment, known as iC3b, to the surface of tumour cells, flagging them for destruction. However, fungi-derived beta-glucans have the capacity to circumvent cancer cell resistance by activating natural killer cells, crucial components of the immune system's arsenal.

Furthermore, cutting-edge research indicates that fungal beta-glucans may have a synergistic impact when combined with monoclonal antibodies in the treatment of certain aggressive cancers. These include, notably, melanoma that has metastasised to internal organs and the brain. This synergy could usher in new therapeutic strategies in the fight against formidable cancers that have remained challenging to manage with existing treatments.

Preventing and Treating Infections

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Reishi, Shiitake, Agarikon, Chaga
In the realm of infection prevention and treatment, the potency of an individual's immune system in combating microbial attacks is paramount. Fungi that are particularly rich in beta-glucans are among the most beneficial due to their intensive immunostimulatory characteristics. Moreover, research indicates that other constituents, including chitin, mannans, phenolics, and terpenes, contribute significantly to the overall enhancement and modulation of immune function. Certain mushrooms, for instance, Turkey Tail, Oyster, Agarikon, Fu Ling, Chaga, Reishi, Red-Belted Polypore, Birch Polypore, and externally applied Russulas, exhibit intrinsic antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Particularly intriguing is the growing body of evidence suggesting that proactive "pretreatment" with fungal beta-glucans, which involves consuming these compounds to prepare the immune system in advance of exposure, can provide a shield against a spectrum of infections. These infections include those resulting from bacterial, parasitic, and viral agents, with specific studies highlighting protection against illness caused by coronaviruses and the seasonal flu. This preventative strategy underscores the potential of medicinal fungi as a natural fortification measure in immunological health.

Species to Start With

Functional Mushroom(s) of Choice: Reishi, Shiitake
For those new to medicinal mushrooms and looking to integrate them into their health regimen, Reishi and Shiitake are often recommended as starting points. These two species have a long history of traditional use, and a growing body of scientific literature attests to their health benefits.

Reish is valued for its broad spectrum of potential health benefits, including immune modulation and stress reduction. Its adaptogenic properties make it an ideal supplement for those looking to support their body's stress response and overall wellbeing. With a variety of bioactive components, Reishi can help newcomers experience the wide-ranging possibilities that medicinal mushrooms offer.

Shiitake, or Lentinula edodes, is another excellent choice for beginners. Known for its role in supporting immune health and providing a source of vitamin D, Shiitake's benefits are easily accessible due to its culinary use. Individuals can incorporate Shiitake into their diet not only as a supplement but also as a nutrient-rich food, doubling the opportunity to reap its medicinal properties.

Starting with these two well-established species allows individuals to become accustomed to incorporating functional mushrooms into their daily lives, setting the stage for exploring other varieties as their comfort and interest in medicinal mushrooms grow.