Can Mushrooms Improve Your Brain Health? Everything You Need To Know About This Superfood
Mushrooms have been revered for centuries across different cultures for their remarkable healing properties, especially when it comes to brain health. From enhancing cognitive function, to promoting mental clarity and reducing age-related cognitive decline, mushrooms offer a natural solution to nurturing our most vital organ.
As a functional medicine expert, I am obsessed with using food as medicine and learning more about the ways that different foods can keep us living long, healthy lives. And when it comes to mushrooms for brain health, there’s certain varieties that stand apart from the rest. Read on to learn more about which mushrooms we rely on in functional medicine to help take your brain health to the next level.
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How do medicinal mushrooms work?
While more research needs to be done on the exact mechanisms by which medicinal mushrooms improve brain health, studies have shown that they do wonders for improving cognitive function and memory. In fact, certain mushrooms have been linked to everything from improved neurotransmitter function, lowered inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, and supporting the growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Researchers believe that these benefits have to do with the unique combination of compounds found in mushrooms that work synergistically on these pathways in your brain.
But not all mushrooms are considered medicinal. Medicinal mushrooms contain higher amounts of bioactive compounds called secondary metabolites, such as polysaccharide β-glucans, that have been shown to offer next-level (1) therapeutic and healing properties. These are some of the most common medicinal mushrooms we know about today.
- Lion’s mane
- Turkey tail
- Wood ear
Can mushrooms improve brain health?
Incorporating mushrooms for brain health can be a transformative addition to your wellness routine. Regardless of whether or not you are dealing with a specific brain health problem, mushrooms can help maintain vibrant brain function at any age. Although most of the studies surrounding mushrooms for brain health are looking at their effects on specific conditions like Alzheimer’s, age-related brain decay, and brain fog, the same compounds found in these mushrooms that help improve these conditions, are the same compounds that can influence your brain health for the better.
Best mushrooms for brain health
There are quite a few medicinal mushrooms, but there are a handful that I come back to time-and-time again for my patients in my telehealth clinic due to the extensive research on these mushrooms for brain health.
1. Lion’s mane
When it comes to the best mushrooms for brain health, not many can hold a candle to Lion’s mane. A study published in the International Journal Of Medicinal Mushrooms (2) found that Lion’s mane extract demonstrated neuroprotective properties by promoting the production of nerve growth factors (NGFs). NGFs play a crucial role in the growth, maintenance, and survival of nerve cells in the brain for enhanced cognitive function and memory. In fact, another study found that Lion’s mane was able to enhance memory (3) - especially as you age - through its ability to support neurogenesis, your brain’s ability to generate new, healthy neurons.
Reishi mushrooms have long been revered for their medicinal properties, and their impact on brain health is no exception. Several studies have shed light on the potential cognitive benefits of reishi mushrooms for brain health problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even strokes, due to their ability to reduce oxidative stress (4) and enhance antioxidant capacity. Another recent study published in 2020 in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (5) found that reishi mushrooms were also able to improve Alzheimer’s symptoms by reducing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain which occur with the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Chaga mushrooms, known for their unique appearance and impressive health benefits, have also shown potential in supporting brain health. Similarly to reishi mushrooms, studies have found (6) that chaga mushrooms were able to also help improve learning and memory in those with amnesia due to their ability to reduce oxidative stress in the brain.
Cordyceps mushrooms, known for their unique growth on insect larvae, have gained recognition for their potential brain-boosting effects, with one study highlighting their ability to enhance (7) working memory and learning capacity.
Additional health benefits of mushrooms
While the brain health benefits of mushrooms can’t be denied, there are so many more reasons why you should be eating mushrooms on a regular basis! In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I often recommend mushrooms as a food medicine for their ability to support multiple areas of your health.
1. Immune function
Certain varieties of mushrooms, such as reishi and maitake, have been extensively studied for their immunomodulatory effects. Reishi mushrooms, in particular, have been found to enhance immune function by stimulating (8) the activity of immune cells and promoting the production of antibodies. Additionally, maitake mushrooms contain compounds that can activate (9) and enhance the function of natural killer (NK) cells, which play a crucial role in our body's defense against infections and diseases (including cancer!). Another powerful immune-boosting mushroom is turkey tail, which is rich in polysaccharides that stimulate (10) the production of immune cells and enhance their activity.
When it comes to combating the effects of aging, reishi mushrooms have long been revered for their anti-aging properties. Research has shown that reishi extract possesses potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which can help protect against (11) age-related damage caused by oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. I also love cordyceps for anti-aging as it helps to decrease (12) the pro-inflammatory monoamine oxidase and lipid peroxidation activity that causes us to age.
A lot of us go through life battling fatigue and low energy levels, relying on excessive amounts of coffee to get by. However, mushrooms offer an effective solution to this energy crisis, without the jitters or other side effects that go along with more sugar and caffeine. Cordyceps mushrooms, in particular, have gained recognition for their energy-boosting properties. They have been traditionally used to enhance physical performance and combat fatigue. Cordyceps work by increasing (13) oxygen utilization and ATP production in our cells, leading to improved energy levels and endurance.
4. Blood sugar balance
Maintaining balanced blood sugar levels is crucial for overall health, and certain mushrooms have shown potential in supporting this delicate balance. One such mushroom is the reishi mushroom, which has been studied for its hypoglycemic effects. Research has demonstrated that reishi extract can help regulate (14) blood sugar levels by enhancing insulin sensitivity and improving glucose metabolism. Another mushroom with blood sugar-balancing properties is the maitake mushroom. Maitake contains compounds that have been found to enhance (15) insulin function and promote healthy blood sugar regulation.
5. Digestive distress
Turkey tail mushrooms have been studied for their ability to help alleviate digestive problems due to their high levels (16) of prebiotic compounds that support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that have been shown (17) to help restore gut barrier function and a healthy microbiome balance.
How to add more mushrooms into your diet
As a functional medicine practitioner who believes that food is foundational, I highly recommend adding mushrooms to your meals as much as possible. You can order dried medicinal mushrooms like chaga and reishi online or find them at your local grocery store to add to soups or stir-frys. I also recommend leaning into the more commonly found mushrooms like shiitake, cremini, and oyster mushrooms that can be found fresh at most local grocery stores. These can be easily incorporated into stir-fries, salads, and soups to add a savory, umami flavor to your dishes. Not only are they low in calories but they are also rich in essential nutrients like B vitamins, potassium, and selenium, making them an excellent addition to a well-rounded diet.
In addition to cooking with medicinal mushrooms, you can also find them in various forms, including powders and extracts. Adding mushroom powders to your smoothies, soups, coffee, or tea is a convenient way to harness the healing properties of mushrooms for brain health. If you are seeking a more targeted approach, supplements in the form of capsules or tinctures offer a concentrated dose. Just remember to always source your mushrooms, capsules, and powders from reputable suppliers to ensure their quality and purity.
Potential side effects of mushrooms
In general, side effects to medicinal mushrooms are relatively rare. Some individuals may experience mild gastrointestinal discomfort, such as bloating or gas, or other symptoms like skin rashes or headaches, when consuming mushrooms. Also, certain mushrooms, like reishi or cordyceps, may have mild blood-thinning properties that can interact with certain anticoagulant medications, so it’s always important to talk with your doctor before adding any new foods or supplements into your routine. It's also important to note that some people may have allergies or sensitivities to mushrooms, which can lead to allergic reactions.
Seeking help from a functional medicine expert
The remarkable benefits of mushrooms for brain health can’t be overstated. From Lion’s mane and its ability to support neurogenesis to Reishi's ability to improve memory, it’s time we stop overlooking these powerful fungi and give them a much-deserved place on our plates.
However, it is important to remember that every person’s biochemistry is unique, and it is crucial to seek out personalized guidance when looking to overcome chronic brain health problems. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we take a comprehensive approach when looking at your health to determine the root cause of your symptoms and the best diet for you to facilitate healing.
If you are ready to take the next step, schedule a telehealth consultation today to learn more about how we can optimize your brain health with functional medicine.
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- Chaturvedi, Vivek Kumar et al. “Medicinal mushroom: boon for therapeutic applications.” 3 Biotech vol. 8,8 (2018): 334. doi:10.1007/s13205-018-1358-0
- Lai, Puei-Lene et al. “Neurotrophic properties of the Lion's mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia.” International journal of medicinal mushrooms vol. 15,6 (2013): 539-54. doi:10.1615/intjmedmushr.v15.i6.30
- Ratto, Daniela et al. “Hericium erinaceus Improves Recognition Memory and Induces Hippocampal and Cerebellar Neurogenesis in Frail Mice during Aging.” Nutrients vol. 11,4 715. 27 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11040715
- Sun, Xin-Zhi et al. “Neuroprotective effects of ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides against oxidative stress-induced neuronal apoptosis.” Neural regeneration research vol. 12,6 (2017): 953-958. doi:10.4103/1673-5374.208590
- Rahman, Mohammad Azizur et al. “Lingzhi or Reishi Medicinal Mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum (Agaricomycetes), Ameliorates Nonspatial Learning and Memory Deficits in Rats with Hypercholesterolemia and Alzheimer's Disease.” International journal of medicinal mushrooms vol. 22,11 (2020): 1067-1078. doi:10.1615/IntJMedMushrooms.2020036354
- Giridharan, Vijayasree Vayalanellore et al. “Amelioration of scopolamine induced cognitive dysfunction and oxidative stress by Inonotus obliquus - a medicinal mushroom.” Food & function vol. 2,6 (2011): 320-7. doi:10.1039/c1fo10037h
- Yuan, Guangxin et al. “Improvement of Learning and Memory Induced by Cordyceps Polypeptide Treatment and the Underlying Mechanism.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2018 9419264. 15 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1155/2018/9419264
- Guggenheim, Alena G et al. “Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology.” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 13,1 (2014): 32-44.
- Kodama, Noriko et al. “Effects of D-Fraction, a polysaccharide from Grifola frondosa on tumor growth involve activation of NK cells.” Biological & pharmaceutical bulletin vol. 25,12 (2002): 1647-50. doi:10.1248/bpb.25.1647
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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