Functional mushroom supplements are the latest celebrity wellness trend, adored by the likes of Meghan Markle, Gwyneth Paltrow and Elle Macpherson, but does the science behind them stack up? We took a deep dive into the world of functional mushrooms. Plus, why you need to try ‘shroom stacking’
Meghan Markle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elle Macpherson — these are just a few of the celebrities who are evangelical about spiking their morning lattes with ‘shrooms — just not the variety you think.
Functional mushrooms are the latest wellness trend to take over, with the purported benefits of this 'supplement' variety spanning everything from beating burnout to boosting libido and getting gorgeous glowing skin. The Duchess of Sussex gave the trend her seal of approval last year via an investment in Clevr Blends, a powdered coffee brand which combines medicinal mushrooms, adaptogens and probiotics and, naturally, she’s got Hollywood pal Oprah on board, who publicly endorsed the brand on her own Instagram. This side of the pond, London just landed its very own adaptogenic coffee bar in Piccadilly Circus, Shroom Town.
So is this the year functional mushrooms are going to take off? And what’s the science behind them? If any? We’ve done the hard work for you and taken a deep dive into the world of super shrooms. You’re welcome.
Medicinal mushrooms, a brief history
Mushrooms have been used medicinally in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Today in Japan, mushroom active compounds called polysaccharides, which include beta-glucans, are used to treat digestive cancers. But closer to home, many western medicines, like penicillin are derived from the mushroom kingdom, too.
What makes a medicinal mushroom ‘medicinal’?
While you will certainly reap health-supporting nutritional benefits from packing your diet and meals with the paper bag variety, like button, chestnut, oyster and portobello, medicinal mushrooms — also known as "functional" mushrooms — simply contain more potent levels of antioxidants and beta-glucans.
Like CBD, medicinal mushrooms are non-psychoactive, meaning they won't get you high, but there is a surprising amount of research supporting their therapeutic use. "Medicinal mushrooms have been studied and used, specifically in the form of extracts, for prevention, alleviation, or healing of multiple diseases and conditions," says Esteban Sinde Stompel, chief research and innovation officer at Spanish mushroom specialist brand Hifas da Terra. "They are great immunomodulators, prebiotics which balance the microbiome and adaptogens that regulate stress." Some, like reishi, which is considered the “queen of mushrooms” for its associations with longevity, have been found to contain more than 400 active biomolecules in a single mushroom, he adds. “Multiple clinical trials have demonstrated the immune-modulatory effect of mushroom active compounds, in particular beta-glucans and triterpenes."
There are many different kinds of medicinal mushrooms but four of the most common are reishi, chaga, lion’s mane and cordyceps. In the last couple of years there has been an explosion of new supplements and adaptogenic coffee brands containing these antioxidant powerhouses. But as with any supplement, not all are formulated equal, in fact, Stompel points to a 2017 US study that found 75 per cent of reishi products on the market contain only traces of or no fungi at all.
So how to tell the great from the dud? We asked experts for what to look for in a quality 'shroom supplement.
What should you look for in a good quality medicinal mushroom supplement?
Whether in capsule or coffee form, quality supplements should contain the fruiting body of the mushroom, explains Clarissa Berry, a holistic nutritionist for supplement brand Dirtea. “This contains the highest concentration of active ingredients which offer natural, health-boosting properties.” Another thing to look for is the extraction process used to make the supplement. “This can define the bioavailability of (or how easily your body can absorb) the active compounds and therefore their potency,” Berry continues. “ Ideally, you should be looking for a dual-extraction process which uses both an alcohol extraction and water extraction. This is because some of the active compounds in functional mushrooms are soluble in water (at high temperatures) and others in alcohol, so using both will ensure you get the maximum benefit.”
Opt for fruiting bodies extracts over raw powders, they are far more bioavailable, adds Zain Peer, co-founder of London Nootropics, one of the companies co-hosting London’s Shroom Town pop-up cafe. “You want an extract rich in active compounds. Although some medicinal mushrooms, like lion's mane, are culinary, our digestive system cannot break down the cell wall of mushrooms (like we break down plants to extract the valuable compounds), hence using an extract means the active compounds have been made bioavailable for us to absorb. The fruiting body is rich in active compounds, and is considered better than a mycelium extract - although there are also some active compounds in mycelium.”
Earths Secret founder Amy Peacock echoes this advice. “If it states that it’s ‘full spectrum,' or some combination of mycelium and fruiting bodies, then it’s impossible to know the ratio. The product could be 99 per cent grain and 1 per cent mushrooms. Generally speaking, you want a product to be as transparent and specific about its ingredients as possible. “Also, if you can, check the colour of the product. Mushroom blends (depending on which species they contain) should be a rich, dark colour. reishi and chaga specifically are dark in colour.”
Next, look at where the mushrooms have been grown. “Wild harvested mushrooms are the best as they will contain a greater number of active compounds, but they’re also the most expensive as they are harder to obtain,” Berry says. “Mushrooms grown on natural substrates, such as trees and logs (similar to how they grow in the wild but cultivated for larger scale production) are the next best thing, so are perfect if you’re looking for superior quality but an affordable mushroom supplement. I would steer away from a mushroom powder or supplement which has been cultivated on grain because this isn’t the mushrooms’ natural food and therefore those mushrooms won’t have the same concentration of active ingredients and beneficial medicinal compounds.” Finally, she suggests checking whether the supplements have been third-party tested and whether the concentration of active ingredients has been verified.
Always buy organic, to ensure they are free from pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals.
Why you should try mushroom ‘stacking’
Mushroom supplements are often combined with other adaptogens (herbs believed to help the body’s response to stress). “Combining medicinal mushrooms with other adaptogens they work synergistically with can be beneficial — this is called a 'stack',” Peer says. “For example, in our Flow blend we have lion's mane, the brain mushroom, and rhodiola rosea — a mighty adaptogen known for both its physical and cognitive benefits. They pair well in giving us mental clarity and focus for the day.”
Another example is reishi which works particularly well alongside ashwagandha. “If you’ve decided to take reishi to improve your sleep, and you also want help with stress and anxiety, it would work synergistically with ashwagandha, to improve overall health, balance mood, increase stress resilience and help promote sleep,” Berry says. Other herbs reishi blends well with, include holy basil, maca and turmeric. “Stacking mushrooms with other adaptogens or antioxidants is a great way to get multiple benefits.”
What are the main medicinal mushrooms and what are their benefits?
All medicinal mushrooms are great for supporting healthy immune function, and each also has its own unique set of benefits, many of which overlap.
Reishi — take for sleep, stress relief and longevity
Reishi is known as the "mushroom of eternal youth," according to Stompel. "It is one of the best known and most studied medicinal mushrooms and is recognised for its benefits for immunity, nervous and immune regulation."
It is considered one of the best supplements for stress and anxiety, Berry adds. "Reishi has a soothing effect on the nervous system, stimulating the brain to produce calming neurotransmitters, and studies have shown it to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. There’s also evidence that it can improve sleep quality and duration, as well as help with hay fever, thanks to its natural antihistamine action.” Other studies suggest it may support a healthy gut microbiome, and generally helps to balance your system.
Lion’s Mane — take for focus, memory and all-round brain health
Lion's mane is the “brain mushroom,” Peer says. “Its active compounds are known to cross the blood-brain barrier and can increase the growth of new neurons in our brain.”
It is associated with enhanced mental performance, memory, and focus, Berry elaborates. "Making it a wonderful addition to your morning routine. It’s also mood-balancing, reduces inflammation and supports healthy digestion, as well as helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Research suggests it may also be protective against dementia, given its ability to stimulate the growth and repair of nerve cells.”
Chaga — take for immunity, anti-ageing and great skin
Often referred to as the "king of mushrooms," chaga is particularly high in antioxidants. "Chaga is an immune supporting powerhouse,” Peacock says. “It has been proven to help fight off viral infections by increasing cytokines, the protein that supports the immune system. Chaga mushrooms are charcoal-coloured funghi that live symbiotically with trees in cold Taiga forests. Studies show they are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to help calm oxidative stress by countering free radicals – hello anti-ageing!”
In fact, chaga is particularly good for the skin, Berry adds. “Working from the inside out to enhance skin health, longevity, radiance, and immunity, it has the highest antioxidant potential of all foods known, with one spoon of DIRTEA’s Chaga extract powder containing more antioxidants than 600 blueberries. It is also a very rich source of melanin which is the skin pigment which helps to improve skin quality and protect skin from the sun from the inside out. Mixed into hot water it has a pleasant, earthy flavour, or it can be added to other hot drinks and smoothies. I recommend taking it daily for a least one to two months to experience the full benefits, although its effects may be noticed after just a few days.”
Cordyceps — take for energy, sport performance and libido
Cordyceps is associated with improving energy levels. “It is known to improve aerobic capacity, oxygen flow around the body and to boost ATP, our energy molecule,” says Peer. “It's also a great immune supporter and a recent study found it can help our body clocks reset after jetlag — perfect for when travelling.”
“Cordyceps can provide a natural, caffeine-free energy boost without the crash that we associate with other stimulants,” Berry adds. “ Alongside its stress-relieving properties, it supports the body’s energy systems, oxygen delivery and respiratory health. It’s a popular pre-workout as it can enhance both endurance and athletic performance, and studies show it may be beneficial for those with asthma. It can also boost libido, help fight fatigue, and is packed with antioxidants that offer protection against the effects of ageing. In short, cordyceps can naturally make you a better version of yourself.”
7 good quality mushrooms supplements to try now
DIRTEA Mushroom Coffee Super Blend, £39.99
DIRTEA's Mushroom Coffee contains Arabica coffee, 1,000mg of pure and potent lion’s mane, chaga and cordyceps, as well as maca for digestion and ashwagandha to help address stress. The brand'sorganic mushroom extract powders are taken from the fruiting body and are dual-extracted before being third-party tested for active compounds.
Mico Rei contains the most potent concentration of active ingredients from reishi. It is a vegan-friendly organic extract that has been certified by CRAEGA (certified organic production at European level). Hifas da Terra has conducted a number of studies to back up the efficacy of its products. In 2019, a clinical trial it conducted found Mico-Rei improved anxiety, stress and insomnia in 100 per cent of participants.
London Nootropics Flow Coffee, £15 for 12 sachets
London Nootropics' adaptogenic coffee is formulated with dual-extracted lion's mane and rhodiola rosea to support short and long-term memory, and help beat brain fog and procrastination.
Earths Secret’s Thrive complex, £35 for 60 capsules
Earths Secret’s Thrive complex contains organic reishi with antioxidant-rich spirulina black elderberry and hydrocurc turmeric and ginger root to support overall wellbeing.
Wunder Workshop's Superior Chaga is ethically and sustainably wild-harvested from birch trees in the Greater Khingan Mountains and is dual-extracted in order to create a high potency mushroom powder with a 10:1 bio-active concentrate.
Anatome Cognitive Focus + Memory Support Supplement, £24
This botanical blend combines bacopa monieri, lion’s mane, cordyceps and guarana. Vitamins B6, B5, B12 and niacin to support the normal functioning of the nervous system and brain function.
The Nue Co. Nootro-Focus, £65 for 60 capsules
NOOTRO-FOCUS contains l-theanine and lion's mane to help sharpen short-term focus and improve cognitive health.