You've probably seen medicinal mushrooms creeping into drinks and onto menus for a while now, but have you wondered what they actually do, and what the benefits of medicinal mushrooms are?
So we spoke to two medicinal mushroom experts – Zoey Henderson, founder of non-alcoholic beer company Fungtn and Zain Peer, co-founder of mushroom coffee brand London Nootropics to get the lowdown on the superfood.
And yes, we did ask if medicinal mushrooms are the same as magic mushrooms...
What actually is a medicinal mushroom?
Medicinal mushrooms are classed as superfood fungi that are believed to have therapeutic benefits in human health. They're often used in the form of extracts - the best-known being Lion's Mane, Reishi, Chaga, Turkey Tail and Maitake mushroom. These, along with many others, have been used in traditional medicine and health and wellness for thousands of years.
“The fruiting body of the mushroom (the bit we see most often) is the common part that we eat but the mycelium (delicate threads of filaments inside the mushroom) also contain valuable compounds that contribute to their health benefits,” according to Zoey.
What are the effects of medicinal mushrooms?
Medicinal mushrooms are known and widely used, for their adaptogenic effects - i.e. helping your mind and body adapt to physical, mental and emotional stress. They supposedly bring you a sense of focus and clarity while making you feel calm and balanced.
Studies also suggest that those medicinal mushrooms have far-reaching benefits, such as supporting the immune system, hormone regulation and cognitive function.
So, what makes them different from regular mushrooms?
Some medicinal mushrooms can be used in cooking, similar to regular culinary mushrooms. However, they're often taken as extracts, which have a higher concentration of the active beneficial ingredients they contain.
Taste wise, medicinal mushrooms can be far more bitter and indigestible than regular mushrooms, so using them in drinks is a great and popular option. Most medicinal mushrooms are dried, and then brewed into a tea or turned into high concentrated extracts.
Are medicinal mushrooms the same as magic mushrooms? In other words, can they get you high?
In a word: no. Psilocybin mushrooms (the 'magic' ones that get you high) are psychedelics, which is what causes hallucinogenic effects. Magic mushrooms, although used in ceremony, healing and currently back in medical trials in the UK as a treatment for depression, remain illegal.
Medicinal mushrooms are not psychedelic but they can give you a high of antioxidants and balancing adaptogenic properties.
What are the benefits of medicinal mushrooms? And in particular, the benefits of medicinal mushrooms in drinks?
"Medicinal mushrooms have anti-hypertensive, and cholesterol-lowering activity, according to Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Pharmacy. "They also have powerful anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic effects. Other studies show they have antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Deborah adds, "They are also strong antioxidants. Antioxidants are very important for health, as they neutralise free radicals, potentially dangerous molecules produced in the body during metabolic processes. Plus, they have a positive effect to enhance the gut microbiome."
How can you tell how much medicinal mushroom is in a drink?
They have deep, earthy or bitter notes, so if you're consuming a product with a functional amount you should be able to taste them. If the amount is not written on the label of the product you are interested in, it might be best to speak to the company directly to find out more information about the number of medicinal mushrooms, the quality of their extracts, the ratios of active compounds within them and even where the mushrooms have been sourced.
Why have medicinal mushroom drinks become so popular recently?
Many medicinal mushrooms have actually been used in the East for thousands of years. They have been studied more widely in recent years; in fact, just this year, a study came out finding that Cordyceps mushrooms can help reset the body clock after jet lag. Along with scientific studies, people are more open-minded in trying alternatives to stimulants and are keen to try natural remedies. We believe this has helped fuel the increase in their popularity (along with other natural adaptogens) in the past decade.
Zoey says, “People really are looking more to nature for natural sources of immunity support and to help aid physical and mental health. We live in a culture that's becoming tired of chemical dependence and want to take health and wellness into our own hands. The notable rise in self-care and further research is done on adaptogens, fungi and internal systems, such as the cannabinoid system, have brought credible ingredients to market, such as CBD and adaptogens. The US has led the way and with trusted mushroom brands now established, this is coming into the UK and European markets.”
And of course, there are many new brands that have released lovely products with medicinal mushrooms in, which has helped too.
What does the future of medicinal mushrooms in the drink industry look like?
The future of medicinal mushrooms in the drinks industry looks positive with strong growth predicted over the next decade. If the CBD movement is anything to go by, the medicinal mushroom industry will undergo similar growth; offering an alternative to stimulants and making it easy and convenient for people to consume adaptogens on the go.
With many more scientific studies underway, the benefits of medicinal mushrooms are being better understood and improvements to testing the active ingredients are helping to verify and improve the extracts used in drinks.
Zoey says, “We hope more products will come to market to help grow the category and build education around these amazing fungi. More research and credibility around their efficacy will broaden consumer trust and bring these amazing natural superheroes into the mainstream.”
Always consult your GP before starting any new herbal treatments, or other products.
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