Do mushroom supplements have real wellness benefits?

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Mushroom supplements have become a highly trendy wellness movement - but do they have real health benefits? (Getty Images)

Pills, powders and potions containing mushrooms have become all the rage in the wellness space recently, with numerous brands and fungi names like ‘Turkey Tail’, ‘Reishi’ and ‘Lion’s Mane’ popping up everywhere you look.

There is a huge variety of edible mushrooms that humans have enjoyed and cultivated for centuries. But studies into the nutritional value and health benefits that mushrooms can impart have increased significantly over the past few years, leading to a ‘shroom boom’ in mushroom-based supplements.

From dried mushroom powders to add to protein shakes to ‘functional coffee’ blends, to daily vitamin gummies and even chocolate bars, the pharmaceutical applications of mushrooms have been predicted to be the fastest growing segment in the wellness market in coming years, according to market research company Grand View Research.

These products come with dozens of health claims attached, including improved immunity, better gut health, and cancer risk prevention, as well as improved blood pressure, slower ageing, reduced inflammation and more.

However, as with many wellness trends, it’s important to take a step back from all the noise and ask ourselves: is it a fad? What are the real facts about mushroom supplements, and do we really need them?

Are there actual benefits from mushroom supplements?

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Mushroom supplements can come in the form of pills and powders, as well as in other food products. (Getty Images)

Some studies have indicated that mushroom supplements can indeed provide health benefits - but it depends on the type of mushroom they contain. As part of a healthy diet, mushrooms are full of nutritional goodness and are a good source of B vitamins, phosphorus, vitamin D, selenium, copper, and potassium.

There are thousands of different types of mushrooms, but not all of them are edible. Some can be fatally poisonous, so it’s important to be careful and know what you are looking for if you go foraging for mushrooms - alternatively, stick to what’s available in the supermarket.

Explaining how mushrooms can benefit our health, Damien Bové, scientific adviser and founder of ADACT Medical, a medical product regulation firm, tells Yahoo UK: "Mushrooms contain beta glucans, which are dietary fibres (natural polysaccharides) strongly linked to improving cholesterol levels, boosting heart health and supporting the human immune system."

The use of mushrooms as a medicinal food has long existed in Chinese culture, with Chinese medicinal text dating back to 206 BC detailing how Reishi mushrooms have anti-ageing properties, Bové adds.

The two types of mushrooms that have received the most attention when it comes to consuming them as a health supplement are Lion’s Mane and Reishi mushrooms. Reishi mushrooms are better suited to be consumed as a powder due to their tough, woody texture, but Lion’s Mane is delicious when cooked.

Bové refers to research that shows that Lion’s Mane mushrooms "may improve recognition memory and very preliminary evidence suggests a possibility that Lion’s Mane mushrooms may reduce cognitive decline too".

Rare Lion`s mane mushroom on white background.
Lion's Mane mushrooms are said to carry a host of health benefits. (Getty Images)

This particular mushroom - which gets its name from its shaggy, mane-like appearance - has also been shown to "help lower cholesterol, reduce blood glucose and may have anti-Helicobacter pylori effects". The latter is a bacteria linked to stomach ulcers.

Meanwhile, Reishi mushrooms are rich in polysaccharides, peptides and triterpenoids, which Bové says "may be responsible for some of their reported health benefits".

"Reishi mushrooms have antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory actions," he explains. "They have also been shown to increase the immune response and laboratory studies have also indicated that ingredients in Reishi mushrooms might help weight loss and improve glucose metabolism.

"Reishi mushrooms have been investigated for benefit in a range of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma and bronchitis, HIV, prostate cancer, alleviating stress, chronic fatigue syndrome, urinary tract infection and poor sleep, but more research is needed."

Ganoderma Lucidum - Ling Zhi Mushroom,close up
Reishi mushrooms have been used for centuries in Chinese herbal medicine. (Getty Images)

Is it better to eat mushroom supplements or fresh mushrooms?

It might appear that the easiest way to add nutrition or vitamins to your diet is to take a pill. But dietitian Lucy Kerrison, from King Edward VII’s Hospital, in London, tells Yahoo UK that many people would benefit from improving their diet rather than taking supplements.

She warns that many studies on mushroom supplements, in particular, have been done on animals or human cells, but not in human trials. "We can’t necessarily depend on that data," she says. "The other thing with supplements is that the amount of concentrated mushroom in them may not really amount to that large a portion of fresh mushrooms, which means you might not be getting that much benefit from them anyway.

"We know that when you’re eating fresh mushrooms, you’re getting a lot more fibre. The studies into supplements are potentially promising, but it’s really early days and we haven’t had many good quality studies yet.

"What we tend to see with these types of studies that compare supplements versus whole foods is that the whole food product is much more beneficial compared to the concentrated component."

Preparing Vegan Mushroom Stroganoff
Eating whole, fresh mushrooms can provide dietary fibre, as well as all the nutrition and vitamins that mushrooms have to offer. (Getty Images)

Whole mushrooms have high concentrations of prebiotics, which are said to be beneficial for the gut microbiome, as well as vitamins and minerals. When exposed to the sun, mushrooms absorb vitamin D that get passed on to the consumer.

Dr Pamela Mason, researcher, nutritionist and advisor to ADACT Medical, adds that while laboratory studies into mushroom supplements suggest that they support immune function, act as anti-inflammatories, and help with sleep, stress and anxiety, "clinical studies in human beings are needed to evaluate these laboratory findings".

"The best way to consume mushrooms is the way in which you enjoy them, either cooked or supplement," Dr Mason says. "The benefits of specialist mushrooms such as Reishi and Lion’s Mane are most easily obtained in the form of a supplement. Do check with your doctor before taking a mushroom supplement, particularly if you have any health conditions or are taking any medication."

Kerrison adds: "As a whole, some supplements are useful and I do recommend them sometimes to clients, but it’s like the icing on a cake. Big dietary changes have a bigger effect on health.

"When these types of trends happen, word gets out that there’s a potential for these products and then everyone wants to add them in as an easy addition to their diet - whereas changing your whole diet is a lot harder.

"Supplements are also not well-regulated by any standards that regulate actual medication. So quality varies a lot with supplements, and I’m always semi-cautious with them because you can overdo them."

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