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Should You Take Medicinal Mushrooms for Brain Health?

The New Science on an Ancient Healing Food 

Key Takeaways

  • Certain kinds of mushrooms, called medicinal mushrooms or adaptogenic mushrooms, have healing properties, especially for brain health and mood stability.
  • While we’re still conducting research on these mushrooms, studies show that reishi, lion’s mane, shiitake, and turkey tail mushrooms displayed improvements in mood, including improved sense of well-being and reduced fatigue.
  • Lion’s mane specifically improved cognitive function and prevented cognitive decline.
  • We’ve only just scratched the surface of the therapeutic benefits of mushrooms, and many more varieties than the ones studied so far are likely to have health benefits.

There are estimated to be between 150,000 and 160,000 species of mushrooms in the world. Of these, only about 2,000 are considered safe to consume, and of those about 700 may have potential therapeutic benefits [1].

While Chinese medicine has been utilizing the benefits of medicinal mushrooms (also called adaptogenic mushrooms or simply adaptogens) for centuries, Western and functional medicine has just begun to explore them in the last few years. You might have heard of products like mushroom coffee, which claims to give you all of the focus and energy benefits of a cup of coffee without the jittery side effects of caffeine — all thanks to mushrooms. 

So the question is: Should you take medicinal mushrooms for brain health? What are their therapeutic benefits, and how might those with cognitive issues use them to improve their mental acuity? Can mushrooms even help healthy people improve their everyday brain power? Let’s dive into the research to find out. 

Note: We’re talking about functional medicinal mushrooms here; we’ll save the psychedelic variety for another time.

Which Kinds of Mushrooms Are Medicinal?

Let’s start with a little background info on mushrooms in general. 

Mushrooms are low in calories and fat, yet rich in certain nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and vitamins. Mushrooms have high levels of riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folate, and small amounts of vitamin C, B1, B12, D, and E [2]. Interestingly, mushrooms are the only non-animal food to contain vitamin D [2].

The three main parts of the mushroom are [3]:

  • The mycelium: Thin fibers located underground that are similar to the roots of a plant 
  • The fruiting body: The part of a mushroom that’s above ground and visible
  • Spores: Tiny reproductive cells that are released from mushrooms and contain the necessary genetic material to form new mushrooms

Each of these parts contains different bioactive compounds, such as polysaccharides like α- and β-glucans, terpenes, and ergothioneine, a naturally occurring amino acid. Edible mushrooms are the most abundant food source of ergothioneine. 

Medicinal mushrooms may have compounds like erinacines and hericenones that provide certain cognitive benefits [4]. Erinacines are isolated from the mycelium of lion’s mane mushrooms, while hericenones are isolated from the fruiting body of lion’s mane mushrooms.

This brings us to the types of medicinal mushrooms [5, 6, 7, 8]:

Common NameScientific Name
Reishi mushroomGanoderma lucidum 
Caterpillar mushroomCordyceps 
Maitake or hen of the woodsGrifola frondosa
Lion’s mane, monkey’s head, or yambushitakeHericium erinaceus
Shiitake mushroomLentinula edodes 
Tunzhi or turkey tailCoriolus versicolor
White button mushroomAgaricus bisporus
Chaga mushroomInonotus obliquus
Bitter tooth or bitter hedgehogSarcodon scabrosus
Oyster mushroomPleurotus ostreatus
Giant oyster mushroomPleurotus giganteus
EnokitakeFlammulina velutipes
Wood earAuricularia auricular-judae
MatsutakeTricholoma matsutake

You may be familiar with some of these. For example, you can find white button mushrooms at your grocery store. But many medicinal mushrooms will only be found commonly in medicinal mushroom blends, tinctures, teas, or supplements. 

Medicinal Mushroom Benefits for General Cognitive Function

Since this is a growing area of research in the medical world, all of the studies so far (10 clinical trials and four observational studies) have focused on just four of the medicinal mushrooms listed above: reishi, lion’s mane, shiitake, and turkey tail. But it’s highly likely that other types of mushrooms that have yet to be studied in humans also have beneficial effects on brain health. 

Studies showed that lion’s mane specifically improved cognitive function and prevented cognitive decline [9, 10]. In one study, researchers looked at 31 healthy participants over age 50 in Japan and found that those who took oral lion’s mane supplements for 12 weeks had significantly better cognitive function and less short-term memory loss than those who took a placebo [9].

All four studied mushrooms (reishi, lion’s mane, shiitake, and turkey tail) displayed improvements in mood, including improved sense of well-being and reduced fatigue [11, 12, 13, 14, 15].

Research even found that consuming mushrooms as part of one’s regular diet may be associated with improved cognitive function [16], reduced risk of cognitive impairment [17], and reduced risk of dementia [18].

A total of 13,230 elderly Japanese adults (age 65 and older) were surveyed about their mushroom intake, and the results showed that frequent mushroom consumption was significantly associated with a reduced risk of having dementia [18].

Compared to those who consumed mushrooms less than once per week, those who consumed mushrooms three or more times per week appeared to have the lowest risk of having dementia, followed by one or two times per week.

How Do Medicinal Mushrooms Work?

We’re still researching the mechanisms of medicinal mushrooms for brain health and how they actually support focus, memory, and clearheadedness, but we have a few ideas about how they work. Some of the ways mushrooms might improve cognitive function include:

  • Increasing antioxidant enzyme levels [15]
  • Reducing oxidative stress [15]
  • Reducing inflammation [12]
  • Restoring neurotransmitters that have been depleted under stressful conditions [12]
  • Increasing nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [4, 10, 12, 19, 20].

One study in mice even found that lion’s mane increased expression of genes that code for NGF in the hippocampus [19]. So mushrooms may be able to change our genetic expression in positive ways.

Overall, mushrooms appear to have several different mechanisms by which they may promote brain health. However, much more research is needed to fully understand these mechanisms in humans.

Medicinal Mushrooms for Brain Fog, Anxiety, Depression, and More

Certain overt symptoms have shown to be improved by mushrooms, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, and sleep issues [11, 12, 13, 21].

One study found that scores for depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, fatigue, and tension all improved in those who received turkey tail mushroom compared to no treatment [15].

In more detail, a nonrandomized clinical trial wanted to see if turkey tail mushroom could improve Meniere’s disease (MD), an inner ear disorder that involves ringing in the ears, vertigo, and hearing loss. 

A total of 40 adults with MD and hearing loss were assigned to receive either 1,500 mg/day of turkey tail mushroom or no treatment for two months. The results found that the turkey tail mushroom group had significant improvements in mood scores, tinnitus (ringing in ears), hearing loss, oxidative stress levels, and antioxidant enzyme levels compared to the no-treatment group [15].

Additionally, one study found that mushroom supplementation was associated with improved feelings of well-being in people with chronic fatigue syndrome [13].

Medicinal Mushrooms for Neurodegenerative Conditions Like Alzheimer’s Disease

Research is still ongoing, but we have some evidence to suggest that medicinal mushrooms may benefit those with neurodegenerative conditions. 

A randomized controlled trial wanted to see if lion’s mane could improve cognitive function in patients with early, mild Alzheimer’s disease. A total of 41 Alzheimer’s patients were randomly assigned to receive lion’s mane (three 350 mg capsules per day, enriched with erinacine A) or a placebo for 49 weeks. The results showed that the lion’s mane group had better cognitive function and less cognitive decline than the placebo group [10].

The lion’s mane group had a significantly greater ability to perform important daily tasks (cooking, cleaning, etc.) compared to placebo. The lion’s mane group also had significantly better contrast sensitivity, which is the ability to visually distinguish objects from their background, compared to placebo.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) increased in the lion’s mane group, but decreased in the placebo group. BDNF is a key molecule that promotes learning, memory, and neuron health [22].

Can Mushrooms Help Optimize Brain Health in Healthy People? 

You don’t have to be experiencing debilitating symptoms to enjoy the potential benefits of mushrooms for brain health. 

Mushroom supplementation in healthy adults has been associated with better cognitive function and less short-term memory loss [9], greater feelings of well-being [14], and improved symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders [12].

We also know that mushrooms have anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antivirus, anti-cancer, anti-microbial, and anti-diabetic effects, as well as the ability to modulate the immune system [23], all of which are beneficial for anyone regardless of their health status.

Medicinal Mushroom Side Effects

Mushrooms have a very long history of beneficial use with few side effects, and mushroom supplements are likely to have the same low risk level as consuming dietary mushrooms. However, some side effects are possible, mainly in the GI category. These may include: 

  • Bloating
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Skin rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Dizziness
  • Headache 
  • Insomnia

Additionally, one literature review about mushroom use in cancer patients also noted a decrease in platelet count still within the normal range, however most of the studies indicated that mushrooms can reduce the side effects of chemotherapy treatment [24].

These side effects are relatively uncommon, but consult your practitioner before beginning a mushroom supplement or including more mushrooms in your diet. 

How to Add Mushrooms Into Your Routine

There are a few ways you can add more mushrooms for brain health into your daily routine. 

The first is simply eating more mushrooms in your diet. Mushrooms are an easy addition to soups and salads, or even “hidden” in dishes like meatballs, burger patties, and tacos. You can chop them up very finely as a mix-in ingredient, or slice them and saute with spices for a simple side dish. 

A second option might be using a powdered mushroom supplement or coffee alternative as a replacement for your morning brew. Dr. Joe Mather, medical director of the Ruscio Institute, has tried a supplement like this himself and experienced some promising cognitive benefits.

A third option would be a regular oral supplement. There are many brands out there to try, so use your best consumer judgment to find a high-quality option. You may also want to consult a Chinese medicine practitioner who can recommend a brand or a mushroom supplement tailored specifically to you.

The Potential of Mushrooms for Brain Health

We’re still learning about these therapeutic fungi, but medicinal mushrooms seem to have significant benefits for cognitive health, improving mood and sleep, and even slowing the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

Consider adding more mushrooms to your diet or taking supplemental mushrooms for brain health, along with following the healthy-gut principles I outline in Healthy Gut, Healthy You to target better brain and cognitive 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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