In recent years, adaptogens have grown in popularity. None more so than adaptogenic mushrooms—you’re probably seeing them everywhere. The word adaptogen was coined in the 1940s by Soviet scientist N. V. Lazarev, referring to a special category of plants and fungi that broadly help the body adapt (hence the name) to stress and pathogens. For this article, stress is anything threatening a stable internal balance (homeostasis) in the body.
The term “adaptogen” became more prominent in the health lexicon throughout the 1960s, popularized by Russian research into herbal medicines. Today, over 60 years later, the word is nearly a household phrase and beloved by purveyors of natural wellness goods. Yet, there’s still some debate over what plants and natural products are considered adaptogens and which aren’t—not every medicinal plant or fungi truly deserves the term.
Adaptogenic mushrooms may improve the body’s resilience to physiological and environmental stressors to maintain good health. So whether you take your mushrooms as a powder in your morning coffee or add mushroom capsules to your daily supplement regimen, incorporating adaptogenic mushrooms into your wellness routine is easier than ever. This article will help you understand everything you need to know about adaptogenic mushrooms.
What are Adaptogenic Mushrooms?
Fungi have profound effects on humans and are promising sources of therapeutic benefits. And we have more in common with mushrooms than you may have thought. Mushrooms and humans share approximately 85 percent of the same RNA and 50 percent of the same DNA, making them more closely related to humans than plants and making them highly bioavailable—as Tero Isokauppila suggests in his book Healing Mushrooms.
For a mushroom to be considered adaptogenic, it must meet a few criteria1:
- Safe to consume and does not harm the body.
- Strengthen the body’s ability to resist a broad range of adverse conditions– biological, environmental, and chemical.
- Work to maintain homeostasis.
Not only do adaptogenic mushrooms help our bodies adapt to stress, but they also help with anabolic recovery by assisting with energy regulation. Adaptability is critical to survival. When we encounter stress, the information is sent to our brain to process the stimuli via our nervous system. In response, our bodies release hormones (particularly cortisol and adrenaline) to deal with stress. This relationship between the brain and our hormonal system is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Keeping this in balance is key to our survival. Our world is filled with many big and small stressors, and adaptogenic mushrooms are potential tools to help our bodies have greater resilience to combat their negative effects.
Although the term is relatively recent, what we now call adaptogenic mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practice for centuries. Historically, these mushrooms were—and still are—used as medicines to improve the body’s defense mechanisms, boost vitality, and enhance the body’s adaptive stress response. Medicinal mushrooms contain an expansive source of powerful constituents: polysaccharides, lectins, triterpenoids, and more than 1,000 other bioactive compounds.
Their polysaccharides—complex starches—may have significant immuno-stimulating properties. Most fungi contain polysaccharides in their fruiting bodies (mushrooms) and cultured mycelium. These polysaccharides mostly belong to the beta-glucan group. Beta-glucans are soluble fibers found in the walls of yeasts, bacteria, fungi, and cereal grains. They have been studied extensively for their benefits in reducing cholesterol and improving cardiovascular health.
Are All Mushroom Species Adaptogens?
While many mushrooms are a rich source of protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and they are considered a superfood, not all mushrooms are adaptogenic. For example, if we follow the criteria outlined above, adaptogens must be safe to consume and not harmful to the body. There are 643 species of poisonous mushrooms. All of which contain toxic constituents that are often lethal when consumed. Psychedelic mushrooms are another example. While there is no evidence that psychedelic mushrooms cause physical overdose, like narcotic drugs, taking too much can create severe psychological effects; while not lethal, they do not maintain homeostasis and are not considered adaptogenic.
Benefits of Adaptogenic Mushrooms
When it comes to stress, adaptogenic plants and fungi are “non-specific,” meaning that they combat stress in a general sort of way rather than targeting specific problems or ailments. Early literature suggests that adaptogenic mushrooms may:
- Strengthen the immune system 1 2 3 – The high polysaccharide content, particularly beta-glucans, in adaptogenic mushrooms stimulate immune cell activity of macrophages, T-cells, natural killer cells, and cytokines, which make for stronger immunity and the ability to fight off infection and disease.
- Antioxidative and Reduces inflammation: Exposure to excessive, damaging free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS)—volatile compounds that damage cells— cause inflammation and oxidative stress in our bodies. Studies show that ROS damages DNA and are associated with cancer, heart disease, and other age-related health issues. Adaptogenic mushrooms are natural antioxidants that protect the body from inflammation and ROS damage. Reducing oxidative stress and inflammation protects the body from chronic disease.
- Alleviates stress and promotes relaxation: As the body builds up its ability to adapt, this allows our systems to relax and function more efficiently. Adaptogenic mushrooms can reduce fatigue, diminish feelings of anxiety, and have long-lasting effects in helping you rebound more quickly, leaving you with more energy, but also an overall sense of ease.
Best Mushroom Adaptogens
There are several popular adaptogenic mushrooms on the market. We cover a few here that pack the most punch and are easy to find either online or at your local grocery or natural food store. These mushrooms are all-around powerhouses that support wellness and strengthen immunity.
Use of reishi has been documented as far back as 502 AD in ancient Chinese medical texts. This mushroom has been used extensively in Asia and is regarded as an overall wellness tonic. It is often touted as an “herb of spiritual potency,” representing well-being, divine power, and longevity. Reishi is abundant in triterpenes which give it a distinct bitter taste. The mushrooms are believed to lower lipid levels and enhance antioxidant effects. Studies show reishi boosts the immune system in cancer patients, particularly those with prostate and breast cancers. There are over 120 bioactives and 50 various polysaccharides and peptidoglycan complexes found in reishi mushrooms.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Lion’s Mane is an adaptogenic mushroom with a long, white shag rug-like appearance. It’s considered a delicacy, revered for centuries in Asian cultures for the beneficial effects it may have on cognitive health. It has gained popularity as a natural nootropic, which means it helps to enhance focus and mental clarity and reduce restlessness or brain fog. Early research suggests that Lion’s Mane may stimulate neuronal growth factor (NGF), which can encourage the growth of neurons in the brain.
Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
Shiitake is an edible mushroom that is cultivated, exported, and consumed in countries across the globe. Its Japanese name, shiitake, is derived from the name of the tree whose dead logs it is found and harvested from. While primarily consumed as an edible mushroom, it has also gained popularity for its therapeutic value for upper-respiratory issues, improving blood circulation, enhanced liver function, and increasing vitality. Its beta-D-glucan content is responsible for its potential anti-tumor properties and inhibits tumor growth. Shiitake is also a rare and natural source of vitamin D2.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Turkey Tail gets its name from its distinctive fan shape and ringed appearance that resembles a turkey’s tail. Like many other adaptogenic mushrooms, turkey tail is rich in beta-glucans. These polysaccharides are responsible for immune-boosting benefits. They have been shown to activate immune cells like monocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, neutrophils, macrophages, and dendritic cells in test tube studies. Yet, beta-glucans aren’t the only Turkey Tail compounds with therapeutic potential. The mushroom also contains lessor-known secondary compounds such as phenolic acids, flavonoids, and terpenoids.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Maitake, commonly known as hen of the woods or sheep’s head, is an edible polypore mushroom, characterized by its clustered fruiting body. Maitake grows in clusters at the base of trees, especially oak. In Japanese Maitake means “dancing mushroom.” The fungus is commonly found in your local grocery store, although it’s native to the northeast of Japan and North America. Traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine use maitake to strengthen the immune system. It has been reported that maitake has the ability to regulate blood pressure and lipids, such as cholesterol, triglycerides, and phospholipids, and may assist in weight loss.
Adaptogenic mushrooms may improve our adaptability to stress and perhaps even our overall health by keeping our immune systems in check. They may offer support in protecting the body from chronic disease and maintaining homeostasis. Yet, to reap the benefits of these medicinal mushrooms, it is important to take mushrooms consistently and track how your body is feeling over time. You can find adaptogenic mushrooms in many forms–fresh, dried, capsules, powder, or tincture, so there are many ways to get them into your rotation as a proactive approach to wellness.