Did you know that the Austrian glacier mummy "Ötzi" was already fond of the functional properties of adaptogenic mushrooms? According to time witnesses & experts who found and analyzed the glacier mummy, he carried two different types of adaptogenic mushrooms with him on his travels across the Alps. - As you may guess, friends of the functional mushroom world proudly tell this story to every "newbie" to the mushroom world. But there is much more to functional mushrooms than a glacier mummy testimonial. Read on.
Let's start from the beginning and the question what adaptogenic mushrooms actually are.
"Adaptogens as a whole category are defined as bioactive, nontoxic plant compounds intended to help the body resist to the effects of increased physical and emotional stress, such as anxiety, depression, intensive exercise and pollutants, and promote or restore "normal" physical functioning."
The European Medicines Agency classifies adaptogens as “traditional herbal medicines”. Adaptogenic mushrooms, or also known as functional mushrooms, form one group within the adaptogenic plant family. Classic examples of adaptogenic mushrooms are Reishi, Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion's Mane, Maitake, Shitake. But there are many more. Other, non-fungi but well-known adaptogenic plants in the traditional herbal medicine family, are Ginseng, Ashwaganda, Schisandra & Maca. Especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) adaptogenic mushrooms have a very long history.
Mushrooms, or fungi, form the basis of our life and form a "huge kingdom" by itself. And they are literally everywhere. We're stepping on fungi soil on a daily basis and if we breath in, we at least take in 10 fungi spores - anywhere around the world.
Mushrooms were one of the first organisms on earth billions of years ago. They arrived on our planet long before plants, insects or animals did. It is estimated that there are 6 times as many species in the fungi kingdom than there are plants on earth and a total of 1.5 million fungi species worldwide. Out of those, we currently know as little as 14.000 species from which we consider 2.000 as edible and 700 as "registered" pharmaceutical agents. What I find particularly interesting is, mushrooms and mammals have a comparatively “similar” DNA. We are more closely related to mushrooms than we are to plants or insects. Overall, we can classify mushrooms in three main categories: Culinary, psychedelic mushrooms and medical or traditional herbal medicine (adaptogenic) mushrooms.
Culinary mushrooms: Mushrooms used for daily consumption, such as champignons, king oyster mushroom, porcini
Psilocybin mushrooms (known as “magic mush-rooms” or “shrooms”) contain psilocin & psilocybin and may cause hallucinations.
Vitalizing, non-toxic mushrooms with health enhancing properties. - Usually hard to digest and therefore available as powders. Examples: Reishi, Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane
Mushrooms which don't only benefit our taste buds, but our entire body and immune system can be classified as "adaptogenic mushrooms". Through a particular rich nutrient profile including a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and, most importantly, secondary plant compounds, these mushrooms can help us handle our increasingly stressful everyday life, improve our mood, boost our immune system and reduce fatigue.
But why do some mushrooms contain these superpowers, while other plants don't?
Adaptogenic (vital or functional) mushrooms have typically grown under very "tough" circumstances - very rough climate condition, abundance of predictors bacteria and viruses. To survive and protect themselves from their "natural enemies", the mushrooms had to develop a certain nutrient profile - rich in "beneficial active ingredients". Mushrooms, for example, are a wonderful source of protein, fibre and a wide range of minerals, vitamins and trace elements, such as potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, Vitamin D, E. As us humans are very closely related to mushrooms - we share a 25% DNA similarity - we may be able to make use of these "special and health enhancing active ingredients within adaptogenic mushrooms".
Unfortunately there aren't many studies to quote at this point as mushrooms are a very young and unexplored research field. What researches found so far though, is that adaptogenic mushrooms contain a nutrient profile rich in polysaccharides (essential long-chain sugars) which can function as prebiotics in our gut supporting the growth of healthy gut bacteria. In this way, they support a balanced microbiome and a healthy immune system.
I personally believe that whenever we start to integrate a certain "nutrient rich food" in our diet, we replace and kick out another with a potential powder nutrient profile. Let's take coffee as an example. We all know that too much caffeine isn't beneficial and particular immune system strengthening. If however, we replace our second coffee a day with a nutritious mushroom tea, we are the beneficiaries. When we make this cup of mushroom tea a habit and enjoy it in a calm environment to destress from the day, our body couldn't thank us more I believe. So apart from the increasing number of studies in which mushrooms are tested to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases, the fact that many mushrooms contain a particular rich nutrient profile therefore have been used for thousands of years as natural plant medicines all around the world, should be enough prove to consider them as a valuable addition to our diet.
1. Four Sigmatic (2020): Mushroom Academy: Always “Shroom To Learn More (25.11.2020).
2. Adriana Ayales (2019): Adaptogens – Herbs for Longevity and Everyday Wellness. Sterling Ethos New York.
3. Matcha Mornings (2020): Medizinische vs. kulinarische vs. psychedelische Pilze (25.11.2020).
4. MRCA - Mushroom Research Center Austria (2020): Mushroom Studies (27.11.2020)