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From lion’s mane to turkey tail, from shiitake to chaga, medicinal mushrooms consistently make news because of the many ways you can eat them, grow them, or take them as supplements for a widely reported variety of potential health benefits. Yet, Jon Carver, co-founder of the mushroom supply, and educational company North Spore, tells DoubleBlind that, despite their popularity, mushrooms are a bit intimidating for many people—outliers in our understanding of the natural world. “Most people can relate to animals,” he says, “and a lot of people garden. But mushrooms are just kind of these strange things.”
North Spore seeks to change that perception by educating the myco-curious on medicinal mushrooms and providing products and supplies to develop a relationship with them. What started in 2014 as a small business founded by three college friends selling oyster mushrooms to local restaurants in Portland, Maine has grown into a full-fledged hub of mushroom supplements, products, growing supplies, and educational resources. Today, North Spore does business primarily online and serves the needs of anyone from professional mushroom growers to first-time consumers. For the uninitiated, the time, investment, and learning curve involved in growing mushrooms at home might feel like a bit much. Fortunately, medicinal mushroom capsules are a low-stakes way to step into the wider world of mushrooms.
Mushroom Supplement Benefits
Mushrooms have been utilized for their culinary and medicinal attributes for thousands of years—including in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilizations—and references to mushrooms as medicine date back at least as far as Hippocrates. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners made use of reishi, the “mushroom of immortality” and related species, for boosting chi, improving memory, and sharpening the intellect.
More recently, clinical research in Asia and the U.S. has noted antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects of numerous mushroom species in humans and animals that may be helpful for conditions as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, in addition to many others. The wide variety of beneficial compounds found in medicinal mushrooms include polysaccharides (of which beta-glucans may be of particular interest), indoles, polyphenols, and carotenoids. You can find references to medicinal mushroom research for a variety of conditions in the sections below.
Mushroom Supplements: North Spore Formulas
When it comes to medicinal supplements, concentration matters. Most of North Spore’s extracts are eight to ten times more concentrated than the industry standard; extract potency is of primary importance to North Spore so that customers feel the product’s intended benefit—and, potentially, feel called into a more dynamic partnership with the fungi. Some of North Spore’s products are extracted in alcohol, and some in water—or a combination of the two, depending on which method is most effective for the particular compounds present. The liquid extract is then flash-dehydrated to form a soluble powder, which is distributed in capsules and bottled. The process, says Carver, makes the active compounds more bioavailable than those in non-extracted dried mushroom powder.
North Spore’s supplements are vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, lab-tested for beta-glucans (beneficial compounds found in mushrooms), free of molds, yeasts, and heavy metals, and always made from certified organic mushrooms. (For the discerning, certificates of analysis are available on the North Spore website.) Further, all of North Spore’s capsules are formulated using fruiting bodies or sclerotia (when applicable) because the founders believe that that’s where the most beneficial compounds are found. See the section, Mushroom Supplements: Mycelium vs. Fruiting Body, below for more information.
Spectrum 10, North Spore’s most popular formula, is a go-to for people seeking to incorporate a broad range of medicinal mushrooms (including lion’s mane, chaga, cordyceps, reishi, maitake, shiitake, and four others) into their lifestyle—a multivitamin of mushrooms, so to speak. It’s a great product, says Carver, because “you’re getting a little bit of benefit from a wide variety of different species with Spectrum 10.” There may even be an entourage effect, similar to that of cannabis, where various mushroom compounds work together to produce a more robust effect than singular compounds do.
But, because of the broad-spectrum approach, these capsules may not be as effective for focused outcomes, such as improving the immune system or energy levels. In the targeted formulas (Immunity, Energy, Cognition, described below), Carver says, “you’re getting a larger amount of the compounds you’re trying to work with.”
The leading ingredient in North Spore’s Energy formula is a 300-milligram dose of cordyceps. Following a story from the 1993 Olympics in which the Chinese women’s running team swept the games and reportedly credited some of their success to supplementation with cordyceps, the mushroom became one of the more studied in the scientific community. Specifically, high doses of cordyceps have been shown to increase tolerance to high-intensity exercise and potentially boost blood oxygenation—both of which can enhance athletic performance.
Formulated for focus, memory, mental clarity, and nervous system support, lion’s mane is the heavy-hitter in the Cognition formula. Lion’s mane is one of the newest mushrooms of interest for cognitive support and comes with a handful of studies to back it up. For instance, a double-blind, placebo-controlled Japanese study from 2019 found that supplementing with lion’s mane “significantly improved cognitive function” on three separate metrics. The study authors suggest that hericenones, compounds found in lion’s mane, may have a variety of beneficial effects on the brain’s neural networks. Supplementation with lion’s mane has also been shown to promote nerve growth factor, which is essential for brain health.
Each Cognition capsule contains 300 milligrams of lion’s mane along with 100 milligrams each of cordyceps and reishi, two other medicinal mushrooms being researched for their potential neuroprotective, memory-boosting, and cognition-enhancing properties.
Immunity is top of mind for a lot of people these days, coupled with a proliferation of purported immune-boosting supplements. North Spore’s Immunity formula blends 100 milligrams each of the top five medicinal mushroom players that are backed by research on immunity and stress resiliency: turkey tail, maitake, reishi, shiitake, and chaga. Clinical research into the immunomodulating effects of these medicinal mushrooms shows different but interrelated ways that their compounds may assist a person’s overall resistance to viruses, bacteria, unhelpful fungi, and other toxins.
Mushroom supplements: Mycelium vs. Fruiting Body
In the mushroom world, debate over which part of medicinal mushrooms are the most medicinal continues: mycelium (mushroom’s underground network), or fruiting bodies (the aboveground, often bell-shaped, main body of the mushroom).
Benefits of Fruiting Body Mushroom Supplements
It would have been simpler, says North Spore co-founder Matt McInnis, to formulate their capsules with mycelium (“it’s a very fast, easy process that’s also easy to scale”), but because of the way mycelium is cultivated using grain or soy, many of the extracts in that product would derive from the growing medium, not necessarily from the mushroom. “The mushroom itself,” says McInnis, “is where a lot of the active compounds are stored in the organism.” North Spore’s products contain a high concentration of beta-glucans, beneficial compounds found in mushrooms—but not in grains.
There’s also the fact that, in the storied history of medicinal use, fruiting bodies have long been the favored ingredient. “Traditional practitioners have been using these mushrooms for, in some cases, thousands of years,” says Carver. “[Lab-cultivated] mycelium is a new product that we can do interesting things with—but it doesn’t have the thousands of years of track record as a medicinal substance.”
Sustainability, Fungi, and North Spore
In the last several years, North Spore has seen increased demand for medicinal mushrooms and related products. “People want them for medicine and for food,” says McInnis, “and to cultivate them to provide a livelihood.” Mushrooms and mushroom-derived products can also further sustainability efforts by offering viable alternatives to meat and leather.
The North Spore founders believe that learning about mushrooms can also prompt a better understanding of ecosystems—specifically the ongoing process of recycling nutrients and energy from dead plants to produce energy for the next generation. “That’s where mushrooms play a role,” says Carver. “I think that as people start working with mushrooms more, it unlocks a lot of potential for designing intentional agricultural systems that are more sustainable in the long term.”
North Spore’s mission doesn’t end with getting people to consume more mushrooms. They see themselves as facilitators for customers—from hobbyists to professionals—to enter into a more profound and nuanced kinship with the natural world through mushrooms. To that end, North Spore has a research partners program in which they supply free mushroom growing supplies to anyone conducting research, academic or otherwise. “Adding to this broader community of mushroom enthusiasts, and a broader understanding of mushrooms, is really core to Northspore’s mission,” says McInnis.
While some customers come to North Spore solely in search of an easy-entry mushroom product, such as a tincture or a bottle of capsules, they may end up learning a lot more about fungi along the way. For instance, says Carver, a customer might begin their journey by taking North Spore’s Cognition capsules. Learning that it’s relatively easy to grow lion’s mane, one of the key components of the cognition stack, may then prompt them to grow their own with one of North Spore’s indoor grow kits. The next step might be leaning into the site’s educational resources and purchasing a kit to grow lion’s mane on logs outside, establishing what Carver calls, “a forever source” of the valuable mushroom. Through the connection to the company and its resources, some customers even go on to myco-entrepreneurship, becoming medicinal or culinary mushroom suppliers for farmer’s markets and restaurants.
“We can help with any way you want to interact with mushrooms,” says Carver. “Deepening the appreciation of fungi,” adds McInnis, “is key to our story and who we are as a business.”