What are functional mushrooms?

Suddenly, it seems mushrooms are everywhere—and not just in places you might expect, like risotto. They’re appearing in products like gummies and energy bars that capitalize on claims that functional mushrooms have natural health properties: they stimulate the brain, reduce stress, boost immunity and improve mood.

Perhaps mushroom lattes have recently appeared on the menu at your local coffee shop, leading you to wonder: what are functional mushrooms? And should I drink them?

“It’s still the next darling, until people spend the extra $3 and have their mushroom coffee only to wake up the next day to find they’re not healthier, not smarter, and not younger,” Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, told TODAY.com.

When it comes to functional mushrooms, “there’s a lot of speculation and assertion, but not a lot of science,” he adds.

What are functional mushrooms?

The health benefits of mushrooms — the kind you buy at the grocery store and cook yourself — are well documented. They contain protein, fiber and vitamins that can prevent cell damage, support your nervous and immune systems, boost energy and help maintain normal blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Some mushrooms also contain “plant substances” that provide no nutritional value, but have been found in cell and animal studies to possibly have “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects,” according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health – although “the exact mechanism is still unclear and is an active area of ​​research”.

The term “functional mushrooms” refers to those mushrooms that proponents of functional medicine believe have properties beyond their nutritional composition that may be beneficial to your health. While chaga, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and reishi aren’t the most delicious mushrooms to fry, you may see them packaged as a powder or another form that claims to bring their supposed superpowers into your daily routine.

Will Cole, who holds a doctorate in natural medicine and a doctorate in chiropractic and specializes in functional medicine, told TODAY.com that he believes that different functional mushrooms can provide “a wide range of health benefits, depending on what you want to achieve. For example, lion’s mane is great for boosting cognitive function, while chaga can help support immune function.”

Cole is the wellness director at Kroma, a company that sells “functional foods and beverages” (many of which are packed with mushrooms) that claim to “nourishes, heals, and transforms the entire body.” Cole is working on a new book, “Gut Feelings,” about the connection between our health, what we eat and how we feel.

Friedman told TODAY.com that he has concerns about any specific health claims related to functional mushrooms.

Similarly, TODAY contributor Maria Shriver, a long-time advocate of Alzheimer’s research, told TODAY.com that when it comes to brain and functional mushrooms, “You have to be very careful what you say. . .. You can’t say, ‘This prevents Alzheimer’s disease.'”

Still, Shriver adds, “I think mushrooms are having a moment.”

Indeed, there is no shortage of options for the newly mushroom-crazed. Rachel Bukowski, senior leader of the product development team at Whole Foods, told TODAY.com that she’s noticed the trend growing slowly but surely in recent years, with more functional mushroom products on menus and in stores.

“These mushrooms are making their way out of the supplement aisles into exciting new food and beverage formats, and we expect to see this trend grow even more in the coming years,” she says.

Benefits of Functional Mushrooms: What Research Shows

“The medicinal or functional benefits of mushrooms, promoted for thousands of years in the East, are gaining recognition in the United States and other parts of the world,” Akua Woolbright, who holds a Ph.D. in nutritional science and is the national nutrition program director for Whole Foods Market’s Whole Cities Foundation, TODAY.com said.

Unlike many viral food fads that do nothing for health, Woolbright says this is one she can put behind her. “While I don’t promote foods made with functional mushrooms as a cure-all, less processed or refined products can be part of a healthy lifestyle. The food choices we make on a daily basis have a compounding effect. The positive changes we make, big or small, add up over time.”

Woolbright points to a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in June 2020. Participants with mild Alzheimer’s disease showed a significant benefit in reducing cognitive decline after orally taking three capsules containing lion’s mane all days for 49 weeks when compared to the placebo group.

Another review of the literature on the medicinal properties of mushrooms (an aspect that makes them “functional”) published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences noted: “Many clinical investigations have shown very encouraging or promising results, thus underlining the great potential of mushrooms in therapeutic applications. ”.

However, the same review warned that a single functional mushroom species can be sold in varying doses and preparations with different manufacturing practices and have different claims associated with it. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve claims or labels on dietary supplements before they are marketed, and takes action on misbranded products only after they reach the market.)

“In the absence of standardization, significant differences can be found even across different batches from the same manufacturer,” the review authors wrote.

Friedman also cautions that studies that have found that higher mushroom intake may have protective effects on brain cognition in older adults don’t necessarily prove that mushrooms are the cause of better cognition, he says.

“Perhaps people with better cognition like mushrooms and eat more of them, or does eating mushrooms improve cognition?” he explains. “That’s the problem with observational studies, and all of nutrition has this problem. And even if you try to control for all those factors, they’re mostly short-term studies that are a snapshot in time. So it’s impossible to know.”

What to Know If You’re Thinking About Trying Functional Mushrooms

Having realistic expectations about what functional mushrooms can and cannot do can be the key to deciding if these products are for you. Even proponents of functional mushrooms agree that you shouldn’t expect to be inundated with immediate, noticeable benefits from just one snack.

Cole says the average daily dose — between 1,000 to 2,000 mg — is a common serving size you’ll see in most functional mushroom products. But he believes taking them consistently is the most important part. (In the previously mentioned study that found improved cognition in Alzheimer’s patients, they took lion’s mane capsules every day.)

Cole recommends picking a specific problem you want to address and targeting it with a specific functional mushroom that aligns with your goals. You should not, however, take functional mushrooms instead of seeking help from your doctor. As Cole’s website notes, his advice is “not intended to replace or replace those of a physician” but rather “to work in tandem with them.”

Talk to your doctor before adding new supplements, mushrooms or otherwise, to your diet.

A final word on functional mushrooms

In the early months of the new year, when health comes first for millions of Americans, even a skeptic like Friedman doesn’t want to deter anyone from enjoying functional mushrooms and says there’s no harm in giving them a try.

“Mushrooms are delicious. By all means, eat them. But if you want to claim that they’re going to lower your risk of dementia or make you smarter or live longer… man, you’ve got a big scientific problem,” she emphasizes. “That shouldn’t stop you from enjoying them. What it should do is stop you from making health claims.”

Friedman’s best advice is decidedly old-fashioned: “If you want health, you should spend that money on a gym membership.”

What are functional mushrooms?

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