By Cliff Harvey PhD

Mushrooms have been used as food and medicine for the entirety of human existence in every geographical area and traditional medicine system. Even Neanderthal man ate mushrooms!

Many people consider that the medicinal benefits of mushrooms and the psychedelic effects of some mushroom varieties were even critical to our development of language, culture, and customs. [This is known as the ‘Stoned Ape Hypothesis’]

Mushrooms contain tens of thousands of genes that code for hundreds of thousands of different compounds, hundreds of which have already been identified as biologically and medicinally active compounds.1

More recently, since best-selling author and renowned ‘Lifehacker’ Tim Ferriss posted about Lion’s Mane Coffee, saying; “I was on FIRE for the entire day… I got more done that day than three or four days prior to that”—there has been a surge in interest in these exotic mushrooms, and how they can help to improve health and performance.

General benefits to health

Mushrooms are very nutritive as a food. They are one of the very few vegetarian foods that contain viable B12.2, 3 Even the common mushroom (white button/portobello) reduces oxidative damage by restoring glutathione and antioxidant enzyme levels,4 and might support neuronal health,5 and many other mushroom species are also indicated to aid neuronal health and reduce neurodegeneration.6, 7 The common mushroom also helped to normalise the microbiome of mice and reduce inflammation.8

Benefits to weight management

When white button mushrooms are substituted for meat, weight-loss results because people do not compensate for the reduced calories.9 and many mushrooms might improve glycaemic control and lipidaemia.10

Brain Health

Lion’s Mane has been shown to increase ‘Nerve Growth Factor’ (NGF)11 which helps nerves and brain cells to grow and repair.12-17 Because of this brain-repair effect, Lion’s Mane is being considered as one of the most promising preventative treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.18, 19 It’s also being shown to be effective for treating depression and anxiety, both being significantly reduced after 4 weeks of Lion’s Mane treatment,13 and for boosting brain power with subjects taking Lion’s Mane significantly improving cognitive function (the ability to think and focus well).20

In vitro and in vivo evidence also suggests a potential role for Reishi in neuroprotection.21, 22

Immunity and cell health

Animal studies have demonstrated that Lion’s Mane can improve immunity,23 and is effective as a treatment against drug-resistant bacteria.24

Chaga mushrooms protect cells against oxidation,25 and might help to protect against a range of stressors including UV radiation, free radicals, heavy metals, oxidised LDL and bacteria and viruses.26 In lymphocytes from human bowel disease patients, Chaga extract reduced oxidative stress.27

Combination therapy of Reishi and Turkey Tail shows promise as a treatment for herpes viruses.28

Anti-cancer properties demonstrated in animal and human studies

Lion’s Mane has been studied both in vitro (test-tube) and in animals, for its anti-cancer and anti-leukaemia properties.29, 30 It has already been demonstrated to have potent anti-cancer activity and can reduce tumour size31 in liver, gastric, skin, and oesophageal and colon cancer cells, in vitro and in vivo,18, 32 and can inhibit metastasis (the spread of cancer) in mice.33

Cordyceps has also demonstrated anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties in vitro.34, 35

In vitro evidence suggests that Reishi might be immune-modulating, and cancer-protective.36

Chaga has also demonstrated anti-cancer effects in vitro and in vivo with reductions of tumour volume of 24-34% in mice treated with 0.1mg to 0.2mg of a Chaga extract,37 and suppression of colon cancer cell growth (also in mice),38 and reduced proliferation of neurogliocytoma cells.39

Protein-polysaccharides from Turkey Tail show improvements in survival time and quality of life when used alongside chemotherapy.40 A recent English-language review concluded PSK may improve immune function, reduce tumour-associated symptoms, and extend survival in lung cancer patients.41 A further review of the efficacy of PSK for gastro-intestinal cancers showed positive trends in survival times with no increase in adverse effects.42

Doses of between 3 and 9 g of dried Turkey Tail powder effectively improved lymphocyte and natural killer cell activity in post-radiation therapy cancer patients without significant adverse effects.43

Gut Health

Turkey Tail polysaccharides demonstrate prebiotic activity and positive effects on the gut biome.44

Metabolic health

Lion’s Mane improves fat metabolism (in mice fed a high-fat diet)45 and reduces total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood glucose, and triglycerides while increasing HDL (‘good’ cholesterol).46, 47 Lion’s Mane also appears to be a strong liver-protector48 even protecting against Salmonella and alcohol-induced liver damage.49, 50

In a randomised, placebo-controlled human study of 42 people, Reishi improved total antioxidant capacity, increased glutathione levels, and significantly increased the activity of antioxidant enzymes, along with effectively reversing fatty liver disease.51

Some evidence also suggests that Chaga might improve metabolic syndrome. Improved liver enzyme profiles, reduced oxidation, and increased glutathione have been observed in rats treated with Chaga mushroom powder,52 and similarly, reduced oxidation and improved liver enzyme profiles in rats treated with a water extract of Chaga, even at low concentrations of around 10 ug/mL.53

In diabetic mice, Chaga significantly increased HDL, while reducing triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL. The extract also helped to restore damaged pancreatic tissue and increase insulin levels.54

Physical performance

Lion’s Mane can improve your physical performance by reducing fatigue, as well as increasing tissue glycogen content (stored carbohydrate fuel in the muscle and liver) and improved antioxidant activity.55

In a randomised controlled trial of 37 elderly Chinese, improved aerobic function (VO2 max) and anaerobic threshold were significantly improved after 6 weeks of use of cordyceps (3 g per day).56

Male sexual health

Animal studies show a strong effect of Cordyceps on testosterone function.57 Further research will examine the role of cordyceps in human reproductive function.

Conclusion

There is now a large body of research in humans showing positive effects from medicinal mushrooms. This backs up the huge amounts of anecdotal reports of immense health benefits and the traditional uses of these mushrooms stretching back millennia.

 

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References

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