Fungi have existed for millions of years longer than plants and humans, but it’s only recently that scientists started to uncover their magical properties in improving cognitive function, immune system response and more. So, how can fungi help you?
Fungi were one of the first organisms on Earth billions of years ago, before humanity even existed. One of the five biological taxonomy kingdoms that also include plants, animals, protists, and bacteria, for a long time, fungi were classified as part of the plant kingdom, But as fungi were studied it became apparent that they deserved their own kingdom; they actually share more similarities with animals than with plants. It’s estimated there are more than 1.5 million types of fungi, with over 90 percent of those varieties yet to be recognised or named. Under the fungi umbrella are moulds like those found on cheese, yeasts used to make bread and beer, and lesser known varieties used for their antibiotic properties like penicillin. The most widely known fungi are mushrooms.
WHAT IS MYCELIUM?
Not all fungi are mushrooms, but all mushrooms are fungi. A typical mushroom consists of two parts: the fruiting body which includes a stem, spores and cap, and a root system called mycelium. Mycelium is the original internet. It guards the forest’s overall health, budgeting and multi-directionally allocating nutrients. It allows plants to communicate among themselves. It shares information about possible intruders and pathogens and can create a fungal defence system by releasing toxins to fight them off. Mycelium absorbs water and other nutrients from the surrounding environment and transfers them to needy plants, allowing them to thrive. Mycelium also releases enzymes that break down dead or decaying plants. It absorbs the nutrients to form a fruiting body, and the plant decomposes into healthy soil ready to welcome the growth of new flora. It’s an essential element of the ecosystem’s circle of life.
Fungi are a kingdom of their own, just like the animal kingdom. And just like animals, there are some that can feed you and there are some that can kill you. We’ve all heard of poisonous mushrooms found in the forest, but these mushrooms only make up a tiny portion of the whole kingdom. Fungi have way more benefits to us and our environment than downsides. Fungi can be used to clear oil spills, remove diesel from soil, and scientists have recently discovered a fungus that can eat plastic – a solution to a decades-old problem no one has been able to solve. Additionally, if you put all the food in the world on a chart according to nutritional value, of the 50 foods scientists have identified as superfood, 10 of them are what we call functional/medicinal mushrooms.
Every part of the world has its food that has been elevated to sacred status over multiple generations. Some cultures have consistently used fungi for health, healing, and general wellbeing. Mushrooms have been relied on for myriad beneficial purposes in Asia for centuries, and today, 40 percent of pharmaceuticals use fungi. Western medical practitioners are starting to recommend mushrooms as preventative or adjunct therapies for fortifying health and dealing with different medical conditions.
Functional mushrooms are often called adaptogen, which is also currently a trendy concept. They are naturally occurring nontoxic substances that protect the body from stress by stabilising and optimising its physiological functions. In other words, adaptogen helps you to adapt to stressors.
Many species of mushrooms are highly nutritious. The following four functional mushrooms are the power players, easily accessible and widely accepted in the East and the West.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) – Also named ‘Queen of mushrooms’, reishi has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than two thousand years and has been revered as a miracle elixir reserved exclusively for use by emperors and nobility. According to the Chinese ‘bible’ of medicinal plants, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (Materia Medica), Emperor Yan wrote about reishi, “If eaten customarily, it makes your body light and young, lengthens your life, and turns you into one like the immortal who never dies.” Historically used as a source of longevity and vitality, reishi is one of the most well-studied and widely researched mushrooms to date.
Reishi contains over four hundred different bioactive compounds, which provide support to bodily systems that help them function at their best on a cellular level. It is a natural adaptogen that helps relieve mental and physical stress. Reishi helps to increase the body’s number of white blood cells and promote balanced blood sugar levels. It supports lung and respiratory health and increases the quality and duration of deep, restful sleep and a calm mind. It has also been credited with lowering cholesterol and increasing natural cancer-killing cells and destroying viruses. It also works to achieve hormonal balance and supports our immune system among the many benefits. It is no accident that this mushroom is also named the ‘mushroom of immortality’.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) – If Reishi is the queen of mushrooms, then chaga is often referred to as the king. However, it does not have the typical mushroom form of stem and cap but is instead a chunky mass. It is a parasitic fungus which feeds off its host tree and develops into a scab-like protrusion with remarkable medicinal properties. Chaga has a diverse array of over two hundred different bioactive metabolites. It is very high on the ORAC scale, which is a measurement of antioxidant power, and is one of the single richest sources of antioxidants found in nature. Chaga’s bioactive metabolites are capable of acting as potent free radical scavengers, which benefit DNA health by protecting it from oxidative stress damage, one of the main reasons for ageing and cancers.
Chaga has incredible skin-protecting properties too. It contains more antioxidants, zinc, and melanin than any other single natural source. Melanin is a key element for the health of our skin, hair, eyes, ears and the nervous system. It also protects us against harmful
Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) – Cordyceps are having a moment in mushroom and wellness communities. They are adaptogens and a top superfood, valued for their extraordinary ability to increase energy and reduce fatigue. Cordyceps have been used widely in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Their spores land on insects and germinate. Hyphae begin to grow inside the insect and turn into mycelium, which then consumes the insect (usually a caterpillar) and steals all its nutrients, hence the English nickname, ‘caterpillar mushroom’.
Cordyceps have a unique ability to boost oxygen flow and increase ATP (the body’s main energy supply source, required for all cellular processes). Therefore, it has a tremendous impact on respiratory issues such as asthma. It helps the bronchial tubes and lungs relax, allowing more air to pass into and out of the lungs; this mushroom is consumed regularly by professional athletes. It increases muscle cell energy production, athletic performance and efficient breathing and decreases lactic acid production. Cordyceps support healthy inflammation response, maintaining blood sugar balance and heart health, and may also impact libido for both men and women among many other benefits.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) – Lion’s Mane earned its name for its striking appearance: long, thin tendrils with a cluster of cascading white strands. It is also an ancient mushroom that has been used medically in Asia for thousands of years. Though it has as many health properties as the other functional mushrooms, its effects on the brain truly distinguish it. Lion’s Mane is a nootropic – a substance that can enhance brain performance. It can repair and regenerate neurons in the body, improve memory affected by ageing and improve cognitive function. It is therefore also called the ‘smart mushroom’.
Lion’s Mane can also help in supporting the health of nerve tissue and increase the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which protects existing neurons and stimulates new growth. In other words, it supports short and long-term memory, and it improves the symptoms of brain fog.
Apart from all these medicinal properties, Lion’s Mane is delicious, and because of its meaty texture, it has always been a popular meat replacement.
CONSUMPTION OF FUNCTIONAL MUSHROOMS
The most effective way of consuming these mushrooms is by drinking them. Most functional mushrooms have a component called Chitin – the same as lobster shell – which people do not have the enzyme to break down; we should not eat mushrooms raw. The most nutritious way to consume them is in the form of a supplement. These supplements aim to provide the maximum benefits of adaptogenic mushrooms in a highly concentrated form. The global medicinal mushroom market is projected to grow exponentially in the coming years, and this mushroom boom goes beyond internal health too. Beauty brands such as Origins, Fresh and Tata Harper are also getting in on the trend with mushroom-formulated skincare collections.
So, whether you love mushrooms or not, scientists are discovering new species of fungi every day, as well as new properties and benefits of different kinds of mushrooms. It is time to incorporate this magic into your life and get the ‘fun’ out of these fungi.
Q&A for Simon Yuen, expert and co-founder of mushroom supplement brand MM+
How and when did you find out about the benefits of mushroom?
I first noticed the benefits of mushrooms about 10 years ago when I was researching on supplements for longevity. Growing up in Hong Kong, I didn’t know that I was in fact surrounded by these mushrooms that are sold at traditional Chinese grocery stories.
Reishi mushroom was the first mushroom that appeared in my research. It was believed that they carried the spirit of immortality. This caught my attention and so I researched deeper into the world of mushrooms. I was intrigued by its benefits, especially with other types of mushrooms that enhanced sports performance and promoted optimal wellbeing.
What is the best way to consume functional mushroom?
One of the best ways to consume mushroom supplements is in extracts using only the fruiting body of the mushroom, which is their purest form, without any fillers added. During my research on mushrooms, I realised a lot of supplements on the market were not using the actual mushroom, the fruiting body. Instead, the mycelium – the roots of the mushrooms – is widely used in these supplements where grain residuals were also not filtered out from the final product.
How can we incorporate these mushrooms into our daily lives?
Consuming mushroom supplements in powder form is the most convenient and versatile way to enjoy these ancient mushrooms. Either just add hot water and consume it as a hot tea or add it to any hot beverage – most commonly coffee and matcha – or smoothie recipes to enjoy the benefits as part of your daily diet. I also take them during my practice of breathwork and animal flow.
Tell us about your mushroom supplement brand MM+.
At MM+, we prioritise sourcing and just one of the most potent mushroom supplements in the market. We ensure all our mushrooms are at their highest quality by consistently analysing and testing our final products so that you can enjoy and experience the optimal benefits of each of these powerful mushrooms.
Whether you’re looking to find optimal productivity in the office or improving your energy levels working out in the gym, or your quality of sleep, MM+ will provide the highest quality and most potent mushroom supplement suitable for your needs. MM+ will be launching in December, so stay tuned on social media at @mmplusmushroom.