The Health Benefits of Mushrooms That Make Them One of the Hottest New Superfoods
Here's the scoop on trendy mushrooms like cordyceps, reishi, and chaga—and whether they're worth eating.
If you're into trendy health foods, you've probably spotted mushroom-enhanced teas, smoothies, coffee, and chocolates touting benefits like reduced inflammation, less stress, and more energy. There's even an LA-based café that specializes in mushroom-enhanced drinks and tonics.
But mushrooms aren't exactly new news-so why are they booming right now? And are they worth trying if your goal is overall better health? We talked to nutrition and integrative medicine experts to find out.
Why Are Mushrooms So Trendy RN?
Popular "functional" mushroom varieties like reishi, cordyceps, and lion's mane are technically adaptogens, which might be part of the reason they're so big right now. (FYI, functional mushrooms are used for their medicinal properties rather than just their taste.) "Adaptogens have been on the wellness scene's radar for quite some time," notes Jaime Bachtell-Shelbert, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Wholly Nourished.
"Many people are more familiar with adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng, licorice root, rosemary, aloe vera, and nettles. However, there's a new class of adaptogens taking over the scene, and that's mushrooms." Adaptogens are thought to help manage stress by supporting the adrenal system, which helps to regulate your hormones, fight-or-flight instincts, blood sugar, and more. "Generally speaking, adaptogens reduce our overall response to stress, or help you to adapt," says Bachtell-Shelbert.
Although adaptogens are trending right now, mushrooms are nothing new when it comes to treating health problems naturally. "For years, mushrooms have been used in many cultures as a healing food," says Chelsey Schneider, a registered dietitian who works with cancer patients.
"There clearly has been a trend over the past few years of people seeking more information about health and nutrition," says Schneider. "This goes one step further to ask 'Okay, now how can I use food to manage stress or boost my immune system?'"
And while Schneider does think mushrooms have healing potential, she-like much of the mainstream medical community-isn't completely convinced of their adaptogenic properties. "I think there needs to be more research to support claims of mushrooms and their adaptogenic properties, but there is plenty of research on the other healing abilities of mushrooms," she says. Those abilities include things like reduced inflammation and better sports performance.
It's hard to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between mushrooms and stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues, but based on the research that's currently available, Schneider says there's no reason not to give mushrooms a shot. "If there are no contraindications (check with your doctor), why not give them a try and see how they work?" (Related: Can Smelling This Magic Mushroom Really Make You Orgasm?)
Healthy Mushrooms You Should Know
"What makes reishi so special is that it's a natural balancer and is considered to be an adaptogen that aids in reducing physical and mental stress-related symptoms," says Sandra Carter, Ph.D., integrative medicine expert and founder of Om Mushrooms. "In Eastern Medicine, they've called it the "Mushroom of Immortality" and the "Elixir of Life.'"
And because reishi has been the subject of so much research-over 1,500 scholarly articles-it's the one most experts recommend starting with. "The bioactive compounds in reishi have been shown to affect a wide variety of therapeutic health benefits including support of immune function, heart health, healthy inflammation response, and modulation of allergenic responses," says Carter.
How to eat: Reishi cannot be eaten in mushroom form but can be added to virtually anything via its powdered form. Tea and supplement forms are also available. There are also several pre-mixed reishi smoothies, coffees, and tonics on the market. Try: Check out Four Sigmatic's Reishi Mushroom Elixir Mix ($69; foursigmatic.com).
"Cordyceps is another mushroom variety that has been used for many years as a medicinal mushroom," says Schneider. It also has a decent amount of research to support its perks. "The benefits of Cordyceps are wide-reaching, including improving respiratory and renal disease, weakness, and also like reishi, strengthening the immune system."
If you're concerned with sports performance, cordyceps might be your best bet. "Today, cordyceps is highly regarded by sports professionals, recreational athletes, and fitness enthusiasts for its ability to increase endurance capacity and its anti-inflammatory effects," Carter says. Less inflammation means faster recovery.
Research has also shown that cordyceps may help increase levels of oxygen in the body, which translates into higher VO2 max and better endurance. (BTW, here's more info on the potential health and fitness benefits of adaptogens.)
How to eat: "It is unlikely to find whole cordyceps in your local grocery store, so use it in powdered or pill form," recommends Schneider. Carter suggests mixing a spoonful into your avocado toast, blending it into a smoothie bowl, or adding it to your cup of coffee. Try: Om Mushrooms' cordyceps powder ($25; ommushrooms.com)
"Chaga is definitely rising in popularity as one of the must-have functional mushrooms, particularly among women, because its antioxidant compounds may support anti-aging properties that can help retain a youthful vibrancy," says Carter.
"In research studies, chaga has been shown to have health benefits such as immune-stimulating effects (which is linked to benefits for cancer patients), anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, antiviral benefits, and so many more," explains Schneider. One thing to be cautious of, though, is that chaga is high in oxalates, which are naturally found in some foods and may interfere with absorption of minerals like calcium, according to Schneider. (Related: 9 Adaptogens That Might Boost Your Fitness Performance Naturally)
How to eat: "Chaga has a smooth, nutty flavor and is a great addition to beverages," says Carter. "It's easy to add a teaspoon to a cup of coffee or tea, smoothie or recipes like dips, sauces or soups." Try: Add Moon Juice's chaga powder ($48; moonjuice.com) to virtually any dish.
Turkey Tail mushrooms (sometimes referred to as "PSK") are also believed to have medicinal benefits. "Clinical trials of patients with gastric cancer show potential benefits of PSK, as well as some promising studies in breast, lung, and colorectal cancer patients," says Schneider.
How to eat: These are also best consumed in the form of a powder, supplement, or tincture, says Schneider. Try: Make a tasty chai latte with Four Sigmatic's Chai Latte Mushroom Mix ($20; foursigmatic.com), which contains both turkey tail and reishi.
Also known as "the smart mushroom," lion's mane is thought to help support nerve health and cognitive function. "Lion's mane is known as a nootropic, a substance that can help enhance cognition and nerve conduction, which helps with agility and coordination," says Carter. "Nootropics are also an increasing focus in sports performance and training. For athletes wanting to increase their competitive edge, improved agility and coordination are key components." (If you're curious about nootropics, you'll want to read up on biohacking.)
How to Eat It: Lion's mane comes in powder form and can be added to virtually any food or drink. Try: For a quick fix, try Ancient Apothecary's Lion's Mane Capsules ($35; draxe.com).
What to Know Before You Try
In general, mushroom supplements are safe-but like any other supplement, it's a good idea to check in with your doctor before incorporating them into your diet in highly concentrated forms.
"Mushroom varieties may induce blood thinning," says Schneider. "If you have any history of this, consult with your doctor before taking mushrooms."
Certain other medications like chemotherapy can also interact with some mushrooms. If you are on medication or in treatment for any conditions, it's a good idea to rule out any interactions ahead of time. Finally, "it's always best to consult with your doctor or dietitian to see if and which types of medicinal mushrooms would benefit you," says Schneider. As natural options are becoming increasingly popular and well-researched, more mainstream physicians are beginning to see their benefits.