In this fun-guide to therapeutic mushrooms (get it?), join us as we explore some that you may not have heard of before!
Mushrooms have been consumed as part of the human diet as a food source for many centuries , yet “mushroom nutraceuticals” are only a recent development . These products use mushroom-derived agents to promote health and wellness. Of these, the most extensively studied pharmacologically active components are polysaccharides and polysaccharide-protein complexes, triterpenes, lectins, and fungal immunomodulatory proteins .
Medicinal mushrooms have been credited with over 130 health benefits and therapeutic properties, including anti-cancer, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, anti-diabetic, antimicrobial, cholesterol-lowering, and genoprotective effects [1,3]. There is also evidence that they have beneficial effects on depression, kidney and bone health, and cardiovascular function .
The scientific community is in the process of establishing the therapeutic value and pharmacological activity of medicinal mushrooms, so-called “mycotherapy,” in robust clinical trials . As of 2021, there were around 200 registered clinical trials, largely focused on cancer treatments with oral administration .
Now, let’s discuss some of the most common therapeutic mushrooms and how they work.
Perhaps the most famous therapeutic mushrooms are those referred to as “magic mushrooms,” which include the psilocybe, panaeolus, inocybe, pluteus, gymnopilus, and pholiotina classes . Humans have exploited the psychedelic effects of these mushrooms for thousands of years, as part of religious and spiritual ceremonies [7,8].
The effects of psilocybin mushrooms are a consequence of their psilocybin and psilocin content. After consuming these mushrooms, the liver breaks down or metabolizes psilocybin into psilocin, which is the key component in promoting psychedelic effects . In fact, it is this component that shows promise in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. It is thought that these effects are brought about by the stimulation of serotonin receptors .
Psychedelic use of these mushrooms was extensively associated with the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and received considerable negative stigmatization. In 1970, the United States government deemed these mushrooms as Schedule 1 drugs , which ultimately ended scientific research on them.
However, there has been renewed interest in psychedelic mushrooms since 2004 due to a pilot study from the University of California in Los Angeles that explored the potential of psilocybin treatment in patients with advanced stage cancer . The potential for psilocybin to treat mood disorders, anxiety, and drug dependence has also been investigated in the early 21st century .
Agaricus subrufescens or almond mushrooms are used in traditional and alternative medicine for their potential anti-cancer effects, however their safety has not yet been robustly established . In a study using a cancer cell line, extracts from almond mushrooms brought about autophagy or cell death .
Ganoderma lucidum or lacquered bracket has been used as a functional food and preventative medicine in the Far East for at least two millennia. It has important bioactive properties, including anti-tumor activity caused by bringing about autophagy [15,16].
Tremella mesenterica or witch’s butter is found in forested areas and is widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions. It grows on dead and decaying trees and is yellow in color. It produces polysaccharides that have immunostimulatory, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective properties . A study involving cell models has also shown anti-cancer effects with a focus on the lungs .
Cordyceps (derived from the Latin words cord and ceps meaning club and head, respectively) has a history of medicinal use across the past millennia in Asia , and has a growing presence in traditional Chinese fungal medicine . It is a rare mushroom that can be found at high altitudes on the Himalayan plateau .
Analytical results of the composition of cordyceps grown in culture media reveal a number of bioactive components, such as cordycepin, polysaccharides, GABA, ergothioneine, and many more .
Cordycepin is regarded as the most prominent bioactive component due to its therapeutic and nutraceutical potential . Research has shown its promise in fighting inflammation, enhancing immunity, and suppressing cytokine storms (such as those seen during the COVID-19 pandemic) . These anti-inflammatory effects may be brought about via the TGF-beta 1/Smad signaling pathway.
Rodent studies have shown that cordycepin can increase the level of osteocalcin, a marker of bone formation, and decrease levels of CTX, a marker of bone resorption, while restoring oxidative stress levels .
We have taken a closer look at several different types of mushrooms that have wide-ranging health effects with implications for human health and disease. While it is clear that many medicinal mushrooms have anti-tumor or anti-cancer effects, these need to be examined in further robust clinical trials. There is also good evidence from cell models that certain mushrooms have potent anti-inflammatory activity and can promote immunity alongside cardiovascular, neurological, and bone health. Others, particularly psilocybin mushrooms, have the potential to address depression, mood disorders, and other psychological health challenges.
There are many more therapeutic mushrooms out there, of course. Which ones are your favorite? Let us know in the comments! Or tag us on Instagram and let us know!
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