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Adaptogenic Mushrooms For Stress: Magic or Myth?

Why Supplemental Mushrooms Alone May Not Provide the Adaptogenic Benefits You’re Seeking

Key Takeaways:
  • Mushrooms like cordyceps, lion’s mane, and reishi may have adaptogenic properties.
  • In general, adaptogens may stimulate the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems gently and safely to reduce inflammation and oxidation, and promote a sense of well-being.
  • Plant adaptogens like ginseng and rhodiola have much more research than mushrooms and may improve mood, fatigue, cortisol levels, memory, immune system function, and endurance. 
  • If you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to investigate root causes like poor gut health before trying adaptogens.
  • Creating a healthy foundation with an anti-inflammatory diet, adequate sleep, healthy exercise, stress management, and spending time in nature will likely make adaptogens more effective.

Unmanaged stress can rob you of health and joy, so finding natural ways to become more resilient is always top of mind for me. You may have heard of adaptogenic herbs, like ginseng (Panax ginseng) and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), which have some good evidence for their ability to reduce fatigue, stress, and exhaustion [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. But what about adaptogenic mushrooms (which are not plants or herbs)?  Do they have the same benefits, or have the claims been overblown?

While certain types of mushrooms, like cordyceps, lion’s mane, and shiitake, appear to have adaptogenic properties [7, 8], research in this area is still lacking, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions [9].  

Adding edible mushrooms to your diet may provide health benefits like improving your immune system function and boosting your intake of protein, fiber, potassium, and possibly vitamin D [10, 11]. But using supplemental mushrooms alone to manage stress may not provide the adaptogenic benefits you’re seeking. It’s best to target the root causes of your stress with diet and lifestyle first, and then trial certain supplements like adaptogens to see how your body responds. Before we get into the research on adaptogenic mushrooms, I want to start off with some background on adaptogens.

What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are substances found in some plants and mushrooms that may help improve your resilience to emotional, physical, and environmental stress [12, 13]. While adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years, their properties weren’t formally defined until the middle of the 20th century. To be considered an adaptogen, the plant or mushroom must [13]:

  1. Reduce the damage and symptoms (like fatigue, depression, and infections) caused by stress.
  2. Have stimulating effects that allow for greater physical and mental capacity in the face of stress.
  3. Not be harmful or toxic to the body.

When you’re stressed, adaptogens may help improve your mood and energy levels, balance your hormones, and keep your immune system on track, so they sound pretty fantastic [13]. Let’s discuss possible mechanisms for how they might work.

How Do Adaptogens Work?

While we don’t know for sure why certain plants and mushrooms can have a positive impact on your body during stressful times, research on adaptogenic herbs suggests they may [13]:

  1. Modulate chemical messengers (like inflammatory mediators and hormones) to rebalance the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and stabilize the connection between the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands.
  2. Regulate various elements of the stress system and adjust how your body responds to stress.
  3. Modulate cortisol and nitric oxide to protect your cells’ ability to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP or energy).

Said more simply, plant adaptogens appear to stimulate the central nervous system gently and safely to lower inflammation and oxidation, and improve anxiety and depression. Plant adaptogens can also promote a sense of well-being, improve fatigue and cortisol levels, and boost immune system function [13]. 

Most of the research on adaptogens has been on plants rather than mushrooms [12]. So, we have to be careful about drawing conclusions with regard to how adaptogenic mushrooms might impact humans. That being said, let’s look at the available research for some mushrooms that may have adaptogenic properties.

What are Adaptogenic Mushrooms?

Some animal and cell studies suggest that certain edible mushrooms may have anti-fatigue effects, but high-quality human research is needed to confirm whether they translate into benefits for humans [9]. However, there are some edible mushrooms that meet the criteria to be called adaptogens, so they may provide benefits like helping the body adapt to stress, restoring homeostasis (balance), and regulating some biological processes [7, 8, 13]. 

Here’s a chart detailing what we know from randomized, placebo-controlled human trials about the potential benefits of adaptogenic mushrooms:

Type of Adaptogenic Mushroom Results
Reishi mushrooms
  • Significant improvements in fatigue and sense of wellness in patients with neurasthenia (similar to chronic fatigue syndrome) [14]
Cordyceps mushrooms
  • Significant improvements in the immune system function of healthy people [15, 16]
  • Possibly reduced fatigue to allow for improved aerobic performance in elders [17]
Lion’s mane mushrooms
  • Clinically irrelevant improvement in cognitive function in healthy adults [18, 19]
Shiitake mushrooms
  • Significantly greater sense of well-being in healthy adults [20]
  • Possibly improved immune system function in adults [21

Overall, the strongest human evidence we have of the potential adaptogenic effects of mushrooms is a systematic review looking at beta-glucans, the polysaccharides in edible mushrooms that are thought to promote health [10]. In this study, the beta-glucans had positive effects on upper respiratory tract infections and possibly on mental health. These outcomes could be related to the ability of mushrooms to strengthen the immune system [10].

While this is decent human research, we have a long way to go before we can draw firm conclusions about the adaptogenic properties of mushrooms. It’s also important to note that adaptogens, whether plant or mushroom-based, aren’t a panacea for managing stress. So, before trying adaptogens you may want to investigate the root causes of your symptoms first. 

Stress: Looking for Root Causes

If you’ve noticed significant fatigue, mood changes, and a lack of desire to do the things you love to do, you might consider taking an adaptogenic mushroom product (like a mushroom powder, mushroom extract, mushroom tincture, or mushroom coffee) to help mitigate your symptoms. While some plant adaptogens, like ginseng and rhodiola, can indeed be helpful, you’ll probably get better results by investigating why you’re feeling the way you are first and creating a comprehensive plan to restore balance.

In the clinic, I often see patients who have been under a high amount of stress for a long time. Some refer to this as “adrenal fatigue.” What’s going on here is essentially a disruption in their HPA axis that leads to a hormonal imbalance. The adrenal glands malfunction as a direct result of too much stress; therefore, the solution is to fix the source of the stress first. 

While stress can be related to many lifestyle factors, one type of stress that’s often overlooked is digestive stress. I discuss this in detail in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, but I’ll give you an overview here. 

Gut problems are a major source of stress for the body because they can cause:

  • Inflammation
  • Poor sleep
  • Autoimmunity
  • Nutrient malabsorption

All of these can cause chronic internal stress, contribute to “adrenal fatigue” and low energy levels, and thwart recovery from fatigue and other stress-related symptoms. If you don’t address lifestyle and gut-related stress first, you’ll probably end up spending money on supplements without getting much relief from your symptoms. Fortunately, there are many natural, inexpensive, and effective ways to address your stress.

Addressing Stress with Diet and Lifestyle

Before throwing adaptogenic mushroom supplements at your symptoms to see if something sticks, it’s important to create a healthy foundation that makes your body more resilient to stress. The first step in this process is to reset your diet and lifestyle. 

Diet-Related Changes to Reduce Stress

In my experience, diet is often the most impactful intervention for improving your gut health, which can significantly lower physical stress on your body. If you’ve never changed your diet before, then you may want to try a Mediterranean diet. But if you’re already following this type of anti-inflammatory meal plan and you’re still experiencing negative symptoms, the Paleo diet is another great option. 

Overall, the goals with diet are to:

  • Reduce allergens/intolerances
  • Consume the right amount of fuel (fiber) for your gut bacteria
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Focus on whole, fresh, unprocessed foods

I don’t want you to be super obsessed with your diet, but you should know that eliminating ultra-processed foods, added sugars, and other inflammatory ingredients can have a fairly profound impact on your symptoms. So it’s worth it to investigate what type of anti-inflammatory diet works best for you. While you’re deciding which diet is most helpful, you can start incorporating other lifestyle changes that will directly impact your levels of physical and emotional stress.

Lifestyle-Related Changes to Reduce Stress

While diet is extremely important for reducing physical stress on the body, your lifestyle is equally important. Here are some of the most impactful strategies you can use to reduce stressors and improve your overall health:

These may seem simple, but time and again, I’ve seen them be extremely effective for reducing stress, which allows your body to heal and creates room for more stress resilience. 

If you create a healthy foundation with diet and lifestyle but still feel like you need some additional support, then you may want to seek medical advice about adding in an herbal medicine like ginseng or rhodiola. One or both of these plant adaptogens may help your body cope with stress and balance your stress hormone levels [22]. 

These and some other plant adaptogens have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, and have been studied in numerous human clinical trials. They’re safe and may provide various benefits like improved mood, energy, cortisol levels, memory, immune function, and endurance. We have less evidence when it comes to adaptogenic mushrooms, but if you want to try them, it’s important to look for a quality product.

Adaptogenic Mushrooms: Safety and Quality

Research is still emerging, so we don’t have enough information about long-term effects to justify taking adaptogenic mushrooms for more than a few months. Of course, adding a variety of edible mushrooms to your diet is a great idea since we know mushrooms can modulate the immune system, have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties, and are a rich source of nutrients [23, 24]. 

If you’re looking for an adaptogenic mushroom product, be sure to seek out options with the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) stamp and other third-party certifications to ensure you’re getting a high-quality product. As with all dietary supplements, medicinal mushrooms aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they can come with side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, sensitive skin, headaches, gastrointestinal discomfort, and allergic reactions [25].

You may also want to avoid using mushroom supplementation if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or anticipate surgery [25].

Create a Healthy Foundation First

Stress has become a part of everyday life, so supplements like adaptogens that promise to help reduce stress are all the more attractive. While research suggests that plant adaptogens like ginseng and rhodiola can indeed help your body cope with stress and balance hormone levels, the research on adaptogenic mushrooms is less robust. 

If you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to first consider what’s causing your symptoms. Lifestyle stressors are fairly easy to spot, but gut stress may not be on your radar. Gut stress is a very common cause of stress-related symptoms. Addressing your gut health and lifestyle with natural therapies, like diet, sleep, exercise, and stress management, helps you lay the foundation for healing and creates an environment in the body that makes you more resilient to stress. It may also enhance the beneficial effects of plant adaptogens if you choose to try them.

If you’ve created a healthy foundation but still feel the negative effects of stress, consider completing the Great-in-8 action plan I outline in Healthy Gut, Healthy You, or contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References

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