Are Mushrooms Magical?

5 min read  |  June 21, 2021  | 
Disponible en Español |

Have you noticed some mysterious ingredients added to trendy coffees and teas? These supplements are actually mushroom extracts and have names like Lion’s Mane, Reishi, Turkey Tail, and King Trumpet.

And they come with wide-reaching claims of medicinal benefits, from improved focus and endurance to cancer recovery and heart disease support.

But do mushroom extracts live up to the hype?

“Ultimately, there will be a medicinal role for non-psychedelic mushrooms, but we don’t yet understand their full potential,” says Karen Koffler, M.D., an integrative functional medicine practitioner at the University of Miami Health System’s Osher Center for Integrative Health.

“While I can’t ignore the lack of human-tested data, this doesn’t mean there’s an absence of beneficial effect from consuming these mushrooms. But, we can’t always apply animal studies to humans.

“If someone with colon cancer, for instance, takes Lion’s Mane as a daily supplement, it’s hard to know if it alone makes an impact,” says Dr. Koffler, “because there are so many other practices the patient may be engaged in that can affect cancer disease progression and suppression. But, if it’s taken and the patient does well, then continue.”

What can mushrooms do for you?

Across Asia, there’s ancient – and incredible – lore around the power of mushrooms.

“The Chinese, in particular, have a centuries’ old interest in cultivating optimal health, longevity, and vitality through foods including a variety of mushrooms,” says Dr. Koffler. “I want to acknowledge these ancient cultures that did the research their way and came to their own conclusions. Here in the West, we haven’t yet conducted in-depth human studies on mushroom supplements. But, plants have an extraordinary way of keeping themselves healthy and protected, and when we ingest their nutrients, we can afford ourselves similar protection.”

Dr. Koffler recommends shitake and other edible mushrooms because they’re a great source of plant protein and are rich in fiber and nutrients.

“And they also have some antiaging, longevity-promoting properties, so that’s great,” she says. “Mushrooms alone aren’t my go-to recommendation for disease prevention. I believe food, including mushrooms, to be our number one medicine overall.”

Before recommending plants and herbs as supplements, Dr. Koffler tests for and considers each patient’s dietary needs.

“If patients have nutritional deficiencies, we explore extra minerals, vitamins, and other supplements to fill those gaps and address individual needs.”

The marketing for reishi mushrooms (based on animal testing) claims it can help enhance the immune system, reduce stress, improve sleep, lessen fatigue, lower high blood pressure, and build strength and stamina.

People who have taken reishi mushrooms as a concentrated supplement anecdotally report that it may help reduce the symptoms of:

  • a shingles outbreak
  • high cholesterol
  • cardiovascular disease
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • respiratory and pulmonary diseases such as asthma, cancer
  • some viral infections like the seasonal flu, HIV/AIDS
  • side effects of chemotherapy

Based on the results of animal testing and test tube research, Lion’s Mane mushrooms can purportedly help:

  • protect against Alzheimer’s disease and reduce symptoms of memory loss
  • reduce inflammation, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • regenerate brain cells and improve the functioning of the hippocampus
  • reduce recovery time
  • reduce the severity of brain damage after a stroke
  • relieve symptoms and improve quality of life for those with ulcerative colitis
  • reduce inflammation and prevent tissue damage in the intestines
  • prevent the growth of H. pylori bacteria
  • prevent alcohol-induced stomach ulcers better than traditional acid-lowering drugs
  • improve fat metabolism
  • lower triglyceride levels and reduce weight gain
  • block the activity of the enzyme alpha-glucosidase, which results in lower blood sugar levels
  • reduce diabetic nerve pain in the hands and feet
  • cause cancer cells (including liver, colon, stomach, and blood cancer cells) to die at a faster rate
  • promote beneficial changes in gut bacteria that stimulate the immune system

Other mushroom supplements on the market include cordyceps, chaga, maitake, antrodia camphorate, and agaricus blazei.

Are mushroom supplements safe?

While the actual medicinal benefits of mushrooms are promising but unproven, some of the risks are known.

If you’re taking prescription drugs, speak to your oncologist or cardiologist before taking a mushroom supplement that may contradict your pharmaceuticals. Reishi mushrooms, for example, can increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you are taking an anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs like aspirin, Advil, Warfarin, or Heparin. Reishi mushrooms may also interact with high blood pressure medications.

Dietary supplements, including mushroom extracts, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Unlike pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, the makers of dietary and vitamin supplements do not have the same onus to prove their products are effective and safe,” Dr. Koffler says. “But there are supplement companies producing high-quality products, even if the data is not completely there yet.

“If we can tap into the healing properties of plants, there’s potential to enhance our health and quality of life. We can’t reach for a pill for every ill.”

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.

Tags: coffee, Dr. Karen Koffler, functional medicine in Miami, lion's mane, mushroom extracts, supplements

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