Mushrooms have been getting a lot of airplay recently, and with good reason. Our little fungi friends are having a moment on the global health and wellness stage after emerging as far more than just an ingredient in your fettuccine alfredo.
While those supermarket varieties alone are great for you - being a low calorie source of fibre, protein and antioxidants that mitigate the risk of developing conditions like Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer and diabetes - people are now opening their minds and mouths to the superfood and psychedelic kinds, for the benefits they offer the body and mind.
The non-hallucinogenic edible types that are being referred to as ‘functional’ or ‘medicinal’ mushrooms are understood to have incredible antioxidant properties, offering boosted energy and immunity, improved brain function, and enhanced mood. And even the intoxicating psilocybin kind (what you may know as “magic” mushrooms) has gotten an image overhaul thanks to a growing pile of research indicating their ability to combat depression and PTSD.
If this story sounds like a familiar one, that’s because it is. Cannabis has shared a similar trajectory, in the sense that in recent years the non-psychoactive compound cannabidiol (CBD) has brought the multitude of everyday health benefits cannabis offers into widespread view and mainstream acceptance. In tandem with legalisation efforts, this has given way to a more nuanced appreciation and normalised interest in its historically stigmatised and vilified intoxicant cousin, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
For decades, mushrooms have either been used in western culture for eating, or for turning a trip out in nature to a trip out in nature. But thanks to a stamp of approval from the burgeoning wellness industry and the marketing steam trains of companies like Goop, we are now coming to see them in an altogether different light.
Should you buy into the hype?
Well, as is also the case with cannabis, using mushrooms for medicinal purposes is actually nothing new. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years.
Around 450 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates classified the amadou mushroom as a powerful anti-inflammatory and a means for cauterizing wounds, with the first peoples of North America also using puffball mushrooms as wound healers. The preserved body of Ötzi the Ice Man, who lived almost 5300 years ago, was discovered in the Alps of northern Italy with amadou as well as a birch polypore (mushrooms known to kill intestinal parasites) around his neck - presumably to sort out the whipworm eggs found in his digestive tract.
In East Asia in particular, mushrooms have a long history of being touted by traditional herbalists for their medicinal value. In the 5th century, Chinese alchemist and pharmacologist Tao Hongjing described several medicinal mushrooms, including ling zhi and zhu ling, having been in use centuries before. Medical texts from as early as 206BC identify reishi as a tonic against ageing, and even today medicinal mushrooms are widespread with more than 100 varieties alone being used just to treat cancer.
In western cultures, however, interest in functional mushrooms is relatively new and seems to have been struck for the same reasons as it has for cannabis. With the increasingly popular move of spurning big pharma and turning away from dependence on its chemical evils, functional mushrooms are being perceived as an all-natural alternative to neutralise the ills of modern living - stress, fatigue, compromised immune systems, burn out and Monday blues that last all the way through to Sunday.
The result is an emerging commercial market of functional mushroom products that looks very different to the dried fungi that herbalists weigh on scales for you to take home from actual markets in the east. Mushroom capsules, mushroom powders, mushroom beverages - beautifully packaged and many containing multiple mushroom varieties, are the name of the new age wellness game.
So, what can these spongy little spore supplements do for your daily wellness routine?
There are an estimated 2000 species of edible or medicinal mushrooms, with roughly 15 of these being recognised as having ‘functional’ benefits. Some of the most popular of these to emerge from ancient herbalism and find their way into wellness shop shelves are chaga, lion’s mane, cordyceps and reishi. And depending on what you’re looking to achieve by consuming them, each variant has specific properties you can expect to harness:
Chaga mushrooms are beneficial for immune function and are a source of antioxidants, fibre, vitamin D, zinc, iron and calcium. They can also help lower blood sugar, making them useful as a complementary treatment to heart disease and diabetes.
Lion’s mane mushrooms (which look exactly as they sound) are best known for their benefit to brain health. They can help boost focus and memory, and may help potentially prevent diseases that affect cognitive function like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. They are also high in antioxidants, which can help to lower inflammation in the body.
Cordyceps mushrooms are popular in the fitness community, enabling exercise fanatics and athletes to boost their metabolism, improve overall stamina and speed up recovery through increased production of the energy-generating molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Incredibly, these boosted levels of ATP also optimise how the body uses oxygen.
Reishi mushrooms have some pretty prolific benefits. Known as the “immortality mushroom” in traditional Eastern herbalism, thanks to the free radical fighting antioxidants they contain, they can help reduce stress, decrease depression symptoms and improve sleep.
They are also currently used to help strengthen the immune systems of cancer patients in China undergoing treatment, with the carbohydrates they contain (called polysaccharides) having been reported to kill cancer cells and prevent metastasis, shrinking tumors and slowing the spread of existing cancers.
Of course, to some western educated ears these health claims are understandably where doubt starts to creep in. As with cannabis, the possibility of a natural compound with the ability to fight cancer, as well as a host of other ailments, is not something many people are able to believe in blindly.
And again, as with cannabis, this is not helped by the fact that years of focus and faith in traditional pharmaceuticals has meant that there is very little research available at this stage that can prove the efficacy of functional mushrooms. A lack of clinical studies and trials means that most of these claims can’t be fully vindicated, with the Federal Drug Administration in the USA only allowing companies to promote their functional mushroom products as having antioxidant properties, and supporting the immune system and general health.
But evidence is mounting and belief is growing. And many within the community are optimistic that the future of functional mushrooms is bright, with research picking up and on the brink of significant breakthroughs.
Most recently, however, there has been a major development in using traditional medical research standards to prove the magic of mushrooms containing a hallucinogen called psilocybin for mental health.
While functional mushrooms have been believed for centuries to improve physical health, psilocybin mushrooms have long been suspected to have an incredible capacity for improving emotional well being. And on 9 November 2021, researchers behind the largest-ever clinical trial of psilocybin as a depression treatment announced that their findings had shown promising results.
Conducted by Compass Pathways, a UK-based clinical stage company, the study took place across 22 sites in 10 countries and in 7 languages. Results indicated that patients who took a single psychedelic dose of psilocybin (25mg) in conjunction with therapy reported an almost immediate, significant reduction in depressive symptoms that lasted weeks - compared with patients who were given a 1mg dose (so low that it’s considered a placebo).
And overall, 29.1% of patients in the highest-dose group were in remission three weeks after treatment compared to 7.6% of those in the control group, with more than a quarter of the patients in the 25-milligram group still in remission 3 months after receiving treatment.
To researchers, one of the most exciting things about this study was that it was conducted on 233 patients with treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Patients with TRD have tried two to four medications without success and many of them exhibit suicidal behaviour and ideation, so the fact that psilocybin was able to show such a marked improvement in many of their conditions was particularly encouraging.
"For some people who have not found relief from traditional therapies that are out there, this could be lifesaving," said Dr. Natalie Gukasyan, medical director at Johns Hopkins Centre for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. "The effects of the medication are usually evident pretty quickly, much more quickly than antidepressants."
This centre recently conducted a similar study on 24 patients with TRD, in which participants got two psilocybin pills, two weeks apart. Each time, they are placed in a comfortable room and supported by two therapists through a 4-6 hour hallucinogenic experience.
"People lie back on the couch. They have eye shades on, they have headphones on with a preset recording of music and they're encouraged to go inward," Gukasyan said. "The psilocybin allows geographically distant and functionally distant areas of the brain to talk to one another when they normally wouldn't." Some laugh through it all, some cry through it all - but in the long term, their condition seems to improve from the experience.
One month later, 71% of them had a "clinically significant" response (an improvement of 50% or more in their depression symptoms), and 54% were in "complete remission." A year later, participants were evaluated again and "The results we saw at one month, surprisingly, were persistent through a one-year period - which is pretty remarkable," Gukasyan said.
You may also recall an episode of Netflix’s Goop Lab, in which employees from Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company were followed by a film crew as they flew to Jamaica and took part in a psychedelic healing session. It included lots of laughing, crying and writhing around on the floor as they are guided through their most traumatic memories and mindscapes.
The great part is that treatments like this are becoming less and less novel - now offered by wellness retreats the world over. Psychedelics have undergone a profound shift in recent years, in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘shroom boom’. In a short space of time the general public has evolved from viewing them as recreational drugs to understanding the experiences they offer as being potentially therapeutic.
But from the magical to the medicinal, one thing is becoming clear - fungi are undoubtedly going to join cannabis as a big part of the future of wellness.
Our hope is that this increasing openness and tolerance for natural health and therapeutic solutions continues to expand, paving the way for both mushrooms and cannabis. The parallels between the two are hard to ignore, and the acceptance and legalisation of one will surely help to move the needle for the other.
In the meantime we’ll be right here, waiting and rooting to watch it happen.