Are Medicinal Mushrooms the New Kale?

Medicinal Mushrooms

If you overheard someone lauding the amazing effects of “mushroom powder,” we wouldn’t blame you if you thought they were referring to something illicit. But rather than hippie-era hallucinogens, the new ‘shrooms gaining buzz these days are, in fact, medicinal mushrooms. And they’re much different than the shitakes you might put in your stir-fry.

“[Medicinal] mushrooms are not the type of mushrooms people think,” says Tero Isokauppila, founder of Four Sigma Foods which sells a line of mushroom-based teas, powders and beverages to consumers in more than 22 countries around the world. “They often don’t grow on the ground; they grow on trees and they’re a hard, wood-like material.” That’s why they’re usually incorporated into teas, soups, smoothies or are packaged in powder or capsule form.

Touted for their anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, medicinal mushrooms have been incorporated into Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Now, a slew of companies are seeking to take mushroom supplements mainstream in the U.S. Their products are selling fast — and introducing a younger generation of health-minded people to the ancient cure-all.

So should you start mixing up your smoothies with mushroom powder? Read on to find out how this ancient remedy might fit into your life.

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The Fungus Among Us

Like kale and Brussels sprouts before it, it may be time for the mushroom’s moment in the spotlight.

“People entering the cold and flu season…can benefit from including medicinal mushrooms in their regimen.”

Mushrooms are the new kale. It’s really become such a very hot ingredient because not only have there been lots of years of traditional use, but there’s so much research behind them,” says Sandra Carter, MPH, Ph.D., and CEO of Mushroom Matrix. The company, which produces a variety of mushroom powders designed to mix with juices, smoothies or water, experienced a 200 percent growth in 2014. And it expects to see an increase in business of over 300 percent in 2015. “I started researching mushrooms and found an incredible amount of benefits for fitness, weight loss and general heath,” says Carter, who holds a doctorate in preventive medicine.

The tagline for Isokauppila’s Four Sigma Foods line of fungi? “Mushrooms were nature’s best kept secret. Until now.” Isokauppila says he thinks people are finally overcoming their skepticism about ‘shrooms, and embracing the plant as a superfood. “I hope people will give mushrooms a chance and realize they are extremely well studied… Just as there are toxic plants, there are toxic mushrooms, and just as there are good plants, there are good mushrooms,” he says.

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Do You Need a Mushroom Rx?

While nobody’s claiming mushrooms alone will cure you of disease, they might play a role in enhancing your health. “To me it’s one of those things I’ll often include as a gentle support,” says Melinda Ring, M.D., medical director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Take your multi, have probiotics, get enough vitamin D — and for immune support, I do like mushroom extract.”

“You could add them to a smoothie, just like you throw in your greens and protein powder.”

Ring says the Osher Center recommends medicinal mushrooms for people who might benefit from extra immune support — especially this time of year. “I think that anybody who struggles with recurrent respiratory infections, people entering the cold and flu season, people who work in careers that expose them frequently to infections, like teachers, all those sorts of people can benefit from including medicinal mushrooms in their regimen, whether through diet or supplements.”

Medicinal mushrooms are also known for their antioxidant, immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Ring says the antioxidants in mushrooms can help the body’s immune system recognize foreign cells and destroy them, in addition to preventing unhealthy inflammation in the body. Reishi mushrooms, in particular, are known as being health all-stars, according to Ring.

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Both Mushroom Matrix and Four Sigma Foods use various types of mushrooms, including reishi, cordyceps and chaga, to create blends that promise to do everything from increasing energy to enhancing workouts. Some animal studies have shown that cordyceps mushrooms were able to improved endurance, diminish fatigue and facilitate lactate clearance during exercise.

Yet, Ring warns that it’s hard to say exactly how different types of mushrooms will impact your health. That’s because while there’s been a lot of cell-based and animal-based research on mushrooms, there haven’t been as many human studies.

How to Reap the Health Benefits of Mushrooms

While some mushrooms can easily be incorporated into your diet (think: Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup and Asparagus, Mushroom and Tofu Stir-Fry), other varieties aren’t quite as accessible. Hence, the need for mushroom supplements.

“We’ve made these powders really user-friendly so that you could add them to a smoothie, just like you throw in your greens and protein powder,” Carter says. “They also work great with salad dressings, where they act like a thickener, or in soups and stews, or in hummus.” Carter recommends mixing one teaspoon of their powder into your food once or twice a day, to see benefits.

Ring says there aren’t many risks associated with medicinal mushroom use, but that people with other immune conditions should be cautious and talk to a physician before incorporating them into their diet. It’s also important to look for organic products, Ring notes, as mushrooms tend to absorb environmental toxins. Other than that, experts agree that medicinal mushrooms are a side effect-free dietary supplement that could help you stay healthy and strong.

Want to try mushroom powder for yourself? Try adding it to one of these 25 Three-Ingredient Smoothie Recipes.

Originally posted on December 19, 2014. Updated May 2015. 

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