Functional Mushrooms: Exploring Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, and Reishi Benefits & Uses

More than 2,000 species of edible mushrooms exist, but only a subset qualifies as functional mushrooms. They're not hallucinogenic or magic mushrooms but pack essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and more. Their various health-enhancing compounds can boost immune and cognitive health, fight diseases and aging, improve energy, and regulate stress. 

Traditional Chinese medicine has incorporated functional mushrooms for thousands of years. Recently, Western markets have also embraced them in products such as mushroom powders, extracts, smoothies, and pills. 

Reports predict the global functional mushroom market will double by 2030, reaching $19.33 billion. 

Our inaugural functional mushrooms series blog will review functional mushroom benefits, research, and top products, with a focus on reishi, lion’s mane, and cordyceps. 

What Are Functional Mushrooms?

Many people are familiar with psychedelic, aka “magic” mushrooms. These mushrooms contain psilocybin, psilocin, and other serotonergic hallucinogens (called tryptamines) that create mind-expansive experiences. 

Functional mushrooms, on the other hand, are not psychedelic. They do not contain tryptamines that bind to the (brain and gut) serotonin receptors. Instead, they contain several medicinal compounds that strengthen gut health, immune health, and energy levels. As a result, functional mushrooms are 100% legal to consume and transport.

Ancient and indigenous cultures have heralded functional mushrooms for their health benefits for thousands of years. Rich in antioxidants and nutrients, some functional mushroom examples include lion’s mane, shiitake, chaga, and reishi. The precise effects vary between species, but functional mushrooms generally include “medicinal” and “adaptogenic” varieties. 

  • Medicinal mushrooms contain compounds that provide specific health benefits, such as antioxidative and cytotoxic properties that stop damaging oxidation and kill harmful cells. These mushrooms classify as dietary supplements, meaning the Food and Drug Administration regulates them as food, not drugs.
  • Adaptogenic mushrooms contain “adaptogens” compounds that help the body’s stress response system function properly. Health benefits include improved brain function, increased energy levels, balanced hormones, and better immune system function.

What Are the Health Benefits of Mushrooms?

Immune Defense

Functional mushrooms contain macronutrients and antioxidants that support a healthy immune system and protect cells from damage that might lead to chronic diseases. Selected functional mushroom nutrients include:

  • Selenium: Helps the body make antioxidant enzymes to prevent cell damage. 
  • Vitamin D: Assists with cell growth, boosts immune function, and reduces inflammation. 
  • Vitamin B6: Helps the body form red blood cells, proteins, and DNA.
  • Ergothioneine: This amino acid and antioxidant prevents or slows cellular damage. A review of 17 cancer studies from 1966 to 2020 revealed that eating just 18 grams of mushrooms (about two medium mushrooms) a day may lower cancer risk by 45%.

Mental Focus and Energy

Scientific studies show that functional mushrooms buffer the body’s stress response and work to support and nourish the adrenals and central nervous system, supporting mental focus and energy levels. 

  • Brain health: Regular consumption of specific mushrooms can promote nerve and brain health, proving especially useful during injury recovery and as the body ages.
  • Nerve growth factor: Compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms promote the creation of nerve growth factor (NGF), potentially enhancing cognitive abilities by regulating and renewing nervous system cells. 
  • Memory improvement: Preclinical studies suggest that lion’s mane may reduce inflammation and biological markers of Alzheimer's disease. A Japanese study showed that lion’s mane supplements provided significant cognitive improvement in older adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment.
  • Reduce fatigue: Functional mushrooms can fight free radicals and oxidative stress, accelerating energy production. 

Skin and Gut Health

Medicinal mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, helping the skin and digestive health in multiple ways.

  • Protect skin cells from accelerated aging and premature death caused by environmental pollutants and damaging free radical cells
  • Improve digestion by acting as prebiotics to stimulate the growth of gut microbiota
  • Improve skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis thanks to their natural anti-inflammatory and anti-tyrosinase activity
  • Stimulate the growth of healthy gut bacteria from mushroom polysaccharides, their most abundant carbohydrate

Stress Relief and Sleep

Mushrooms are rich in potassium and ergothioneine, which can help prevent oxidative stress and regulate nerve signals, easing anxiety symptoms. Because anxiety directly affects sleep quality, adaptogenic mushrooms can promote more restful nights.

  • Stress resistance: Functional mushrooms can support the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus. This effect may increase resistance to stress by acting similarly on some neurotransmitters. 
  • Lower anxiety: ​​A large study found that people who eat mushrooms have a lower chance of anxiety and depression. Medicinal mushrooms can reduce inflammation, a common symptom of anxiety disorders. 
  • Improve sleep: Reishi mushrooms impact systems responsible for regulating rest cycles and promoting higher-quality sleep. 

Key Physiologically Active Mushroom Compounds

Functional mushrooms contain several medicinal and adaptogenic compounds that contribute to their health and wellness benefits.

  • Polysaccharides
  • Triterpenoids
  • Sterols
  • Prebiotics
  • Antioxidant 
  • Enzymes (lactase, catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD)
  • Amino acids
  • Polyphenols
  • Proteins
  • Peptides
  • Flavonoids
  • Digestive enzymes (proteases, lipases) 

Polysaccharides are the most abundant types of carbohydrates and are present in various living organisms, including plants, fungi, and marine algae.

The polysaccharide, beta-D-glucans is the most well-researched healing compound in medicinal mushrooms. These physiologically active compounds are called “biological response modifiers,” due to their immunomodulatory, anti-cancer, cardioprotective, antioxidative, and antimicrobial qualities. 

What Are the Three Top Functional Mushrooms?

Reishi

Photo Credit: Goodnature

Many Asian cultures revere reishi as the "king of mushrooms." This multitasking mushroom modulates the body's response to environmental stressors, making it perfect for enhancing overall health and vitality. Its most popular and well-known benefits are reducing stress and fatigue and helping to regulate rest cycles by increasing deep delta-wave sleep.

Latin Name: Ganoderma Lucidum

Look: Red is the most common Reishi mushroom color, but this variety also comes in blue, yellow, black, white, and purple

Taste: Bitter

Benefits: Supports healthy and restful sleep, reduces stress, and boosts the immune system

Primary active compounds: “Ganodermic acid” and other active constituents principally polysaccharides, triterpenoids, proteins, enzymes, steroids, sterols, nucleotides, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Over 400 different biologically!

Cordyceps

Cordyceps sinensis is the quintessential “energy-boosting” mushroom. In the wild, it grows on insect hosts, specifically the head of a caterpillar in the Tibetan high plateau. 

Historically, people consumed this functional mushroom for energy, vitality, endurance, and a healthy immune system. Today, cordyceps mushrooms continue to gain traction among athletes or active individuals because they increase the flow of oxygenated blood throughout the body and stimulate energy within cells. They can boost metabolic rates and stamina and help muscle recovery, especially after an intense workout. 

Latin Name: Cordyceps sinensis 

Look: Resembles a standing caterpillar or worm, with long brown or bright orange spindly shapes and a small “club” at the top

Taste: Mild, almost undetectable mushroom flavor with a sweet finish

Benefits: Increases energy levels, immunity, lung health, and exercise performance

Primary active compounds:  “Cordycepin” and its derivatives, cordycepic acid, ergosterol, polysaccharides, nucleosides, and over 400 other compounds

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s Mane got its name from its fluffy mane-like appearance. Some would say it resembles the brain’s white matter, reflecting its primary purpose: improving brain health and cognitive function. Notably, lion’s mane boosts focus, concentration levels, and memory. A 2012 study found this adaptogenic variety had some of the highest antioxidant activity. It helps fight inflammation and oxidation in the body, potentially treating several medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases. 

Latin Name: Hericium (H.) erinaceus

Look: Furry, white appearance, like a lion's mane

Taste: Mild, seafood-like aroma and flavor

Benefits: Enhance concentration, memory, and mental clarity

Primary active compounds: “Hericenones” and “erinacines” help the brain produce more nerve growth factor (NGF). Erinacines easily cross the blood-brain barrier to boost the production of neurons. Hericium erinaceus also contains diverse phytochemicals, including polysaccharides, such as β-glucan, hericenones, and erinacines. Low concentrations of ergosterol are also present.

What Are Some of the Most Popular Functional Mushroom products?

Functional mushrooms appear as ingredients in many food products. Strolling down a health store aisle, consumers can find these unique fungi food powders, tonics, coffee, and skin creams. 

Food Powders: Some functional mushrooms, such as the reishi variety, can be less than appetizing. That’s why many protein powders are available to add these mushrooms to smoothies, teas, and coffee. 

One of our favorite immune-boosting powders is Ultimate Shrooms with Cordyceps, Reishi, Chaga, Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, Maitake, Shiitake, and Oyster.

Tonics, Juices, and Syrups: Functional mushroom-infused tonics, juices, and syrups are trendy. People can apply a few syrup drops directly to the tongue, drink them as is, or add the tonics to other drinks and foods. 

Our favorite mushroom tonic  is Odyssey, with delicious shroom-infused elixirs for energy, focus, and clarity. 

Coffee: Mushrooms such as ​​cordyceps, known for energy-boosting effects, appear in many coffee products, such as Four Sigmatic Instant Mushroom Coffee With Chaga and Cordyceps

Skin Cream: Skin-assisting mushrooms often appear as supplements for skin and beauty creams.  APChem Beauty’s magical moisturizer features adaptoGEN8™ Complex, a blend of 8 multi-benefit mushroom extracts:

  • Shiitake: Brightening
  • Reishi: Calming
  • Cordyceps: Energizing
  • Trametes: Detoxifying
  • Tremella: Hydrating
  • Wood Ear: Nutritive
  • Chaga: Protective
  • Maitake: Antioxidative

Disclosure: This author is on the board of advisors for this mushroom skincare company: 

Gummies: Gummies are one of the fastest-growing functional mushroom-infused foods because they’re delicious and healthy! Cure Mushrooms recently tested their 14 Mushroom Blend Gummies with ACS for purity. The results below showed these daily health supplements are contaminant-free and safe to eat. 

The Bottom Line

Functional mushrooms cross into various health and wellness categories, with thousands of years of use and modern research confirming their benefits. Lion’s mane, cordyceps, and reishi are three top varieties commanding store shelves and ecommerce shops alike.

ACS Laboratory, always on the cutting edge of innovation, has seen a surge in these functional mushroom products as ingredients in many formulations. In our continued commitment to consumer safety, we are testing functional mushrooms for heavy metals, pesticides, and mycotoxins. We’re also testing medicinal mushroom tinctures for residual solvents, heavy metals, and pesticides.

The ability to test functional and medicinal mushrooms for their active key compounds, and the presence of beta-glucans, will be very important to the birth of this booming industry.

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