Adaptogenic Mushrooms - A Beginner's Guide

Beginner’s Guide to Adaptogenic Mushrooms (aka “Functional Mushrooms”): Unpacking Their Potential Benefits & Uses

Adaptogenic mushrooms have existed in nature for many thousands of years, hiding in plain sight from most people (indigenous communities and herbalists aside) until very recently.  These “functional mushrooms” are now in the spotlight because of their intriguing potential to enhance and optimize our well-being. But are the claims and hype legit? Are these fungi being exploited by mainstream media?

As a clinical herbalist, functional dietitian, and holistic nutritionist,  I work closely with mushroom adaptogens on a daily basis, both personally and in clinical settings – and felt compelled to share my insights and perspectives with you!

In this article, we’ll go down the rabbit hole and take a deep-dive into the fascinating world of adaptogenic mushrooms.  We’ll cover the different types, their unique benefits, and how you can start incorporating them into your holistic lifestyle, if you so choose.

Disclaimer: This article was written for general educational purposes only.  Consult a qualified healthcare practitioner who is trained in herbal medicine for custom recommendations tailored to your individual needs.

Affiliate disclosure:  This article contains affiliate links*.  If you make a purchase through my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you!

What are adaptogens?

Before we dive into adaptogenic mushrooms, let’s quickly touch on adaptogens!

Adaptogens are medicinal plants or plant parts, such as whole herbs, leaves, roots, and/or “fruiting bodies” (i.e berries or mushrooms), which may help us physiologically, mentally, and emotionally respond and adapt to stressors with more ease and resilience. (1)

Adaptogenic herbs work by beneficially altering the mechanics of our stress response system on the cellular level.  They also help us through modulating (balancing) an overactive or underactive immune system by beneficially altering our white blood cell activity. (1)

What makes adaptogens extra appealing is that they work with each of us uniquely and synergistically in ways that promote more “homeostasis” (balance). They also have little to no unwanted side effects or “collateral damage” compared to many of their pharmaceutical counterparts.

What are adaptogenic mushrooms?

Adaptogenic mushrooms are a specific group of medicinal mushrooms that hold adaptogenic properties, meaning they work synergisticlly with your body to bring you more into balance.  These mushrooms have been used for centuries (if not millenia) in traditional medicine practices, particularly in Eastern cultures.

Today, these functional mushrooms are gaining recognition worldwide due to their wide array of potential mental, emotional, and physical health benefits. 

Functional mushroom adaptogen benefits and uses

Research is uncovering how these special plant allies can potentially help us to combat inflammation, promote healthy microbial diversity, balance our immune systems, adapt better to stress, enhance cognition, and lots more.  Let’s unpack each of these benefits and see what the research has to say! 

Antioxidant-rich

All types of functional mushrooms are naturally high in antioxidants. (2, 3)  Antioxidants help protect the body’s cells from damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals, thereby delaying the aging process (who doesn’t want to age more gracefully?!) and even reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Prebiotic

Adaptogenic mushrooms are also all high in special prebiotic polysaccharides, which have been shown to help to improve immune function and fight inflammation, support gut health by feeding and promoting the growth of healthy (“probiotic”) microbes, and more. (2, 3)

May help us better adapt to stress 

Adaptogenic mushrooms exert their stress-reducing effects through various mechanisms, such as regulating stress hormones, optimizing the immune system, and protecting against cell damage. (2, 3)

Those actions translate to improved resilience, enhanced mental and physical performance, and reduced anxiety and fatigue, making these fungal allies valuable assets for managing stress – mentally, emotinoally, and physically. (2)

May enhance immunity

All types of adaptogenic mushrooms contain beta-glucans (β-glucans). These are a type of polysaccharide found to stimulate branches of the immune system that are under-active in certain people, promoting better resilience against infections and unwanted pathogens. (2, 3)

May help improve cognition

Certain types of adaptogenic mushrooms, especially lion’s mane, have “nootropic” (cognitive-enhancing) benefits, which can be attributed to certain chemicals called hericenones and erinacines. (2)  

Lion’s mane is also being clinically shown to help people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2017 study published by the International journal of biological macromolecules. (4)

May reduce inflammation 

Mushroom adaptogens are a natural gold mine of special antioxidants which help to protect the body from damage caused by free radicals. (2, 3)

May help optimize gut health

According to a 2017 review published by International journal of molecular sciences, “Mushrooms are rich in carbohydrates, like chitin, hemicellulose, β and α-glucans, mannans, xylans, and galactans, which make them the right choice for prebiotics.” (5)

This could be key for people struggling with dysbiosis, aka abnormal (unhealthy, imbalanced) gut flora.

May support a healthier heart

According to Frontiers in pharmacology (2022), certain mushroom adaptogens including cordyceps and reishi contain significant levels of cardioprotective adenosine.

  • Adenosine is a naturally-occuring medicinal constituent which has “long been known for its cardioprotective properties,” by binding key receptors and protecting the heart from the negative consequences associated with poor circulation. (2)

May help fight cancer cell growth 

Research has suggested that adaptogenic mushrooms such as chaga, reishi, and lion’s mane may have anti-cancer properties, although more studies are needed to confirm this effect in humans. (6, 7, 8, 9)

Now that we’ve uncovered the many reasons functional mushrooms are worth checking out, it’s time to dive into the different types! (Let’s just say you’ve got options, my friend.)

Types of Adaptogenic Mushrooms

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

Known for its immune-boosting properties and high antioxidant content, chaga mushrooms can be found on birch trees in cold climates – if you know how to spot them. 

Unlike most other types of mushrooms, which are relatively similar in appearance to one another, chaga blends in with the wood so it can be easy to miss! It has a distinctive appearance, with a black, rough outer surface and a brownish-yellow interior that is dense and woody.

Benefits of chaga, according to research

Chaga mushrooms contain a special combination of polysaccharides, polyphenols, triterpenes and melanin –  four different types of constituents which have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anticancer, and/or prebiotic health benefits. (6)

An animal study from 2021 actually showed that chaga extract can slow the growth of tumors and reduce the spread of cancer cells, possibly by stimulating the immune system or by interfering with the signaling pathways that promote breast cancer growth. (9)

If you as me, this is groundbreaking to say the least!  Still, more research is needed.

(Learn more about chaga mushroom benefits here!)

Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)

Cordyceps (derived from Latin words “cord” and “ceps” which collectively translate to ‘club head’) are a genus of ~500 species of mushrooms unlike other types of adaptogenic mushrooms in that they’re parasitic and lethal to certain types of insects, while simultaneously being very beneficial for humans. (7)

On the one hand, these “entomopathogenic” (insect-harming) mushrooms actually hack the central nervous system of certain types of insects (like moth/caterpillars and ants), killing them so that it can colonize the head on the larvae – hence the name “club head.” (7)

Benefits of cordyceps, according to research

On the other hand, clinically speaking, cordyceps mushrooms are well studied and prized for being anti-diabetic, anti-hyperlipidemia, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-aging, anticancer, antiviral, hepato-protective… antimalarial, anti-osteoporotic, anti-arthritic, cosmeceutical” and cardio-protective, according to a 2020 review by Molecules. (7)

Needless to say, cordyceps mushrooms are a bit ethically controversial among herbalists, vegans, and insect-lovers worldwide.

Fortunately, there are lots of wonderful alternatives to cordyceps if you’re among those of us who would rather not harm the insects! Do your research either way so you can make informed decisions. 😉

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) 

Lion’s mane mushrooms (named quite literally due to their resemblance of a lion’s mane) are revered for their cognitive benefits, such as improving memory, focus, and mental clarity.  

Mild tasting and edible, this particular class of mushrooms is versatile in that it can be added to soups or pastas, while also making a great addition to a mushroom coffee or functional mushroom blend. It’s also relatively safe for most people.

Benefits of lion’s mane, according to research

According to a 2020 review published by the International journal of molecular sciences, lion’s mane contains “antioxidative, antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antihyperglycemic, and hypolipidemic effects” as a nootropic, nervine, and adaptogenic herb. (8)

Furthermore, lion’s mane has been well studied as a natural complementary alternative medicinal herb for successfully treating cognitive impairment, psychiatric conditions (specifically depression and ADHD), and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)

Lion’s mane also has a special affinity for supporting a healthy gut, being shown to provide relief for people with irritable bowel disease – likely due to its prebiotic polysaccharides.  (10)

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

Maitake mushrooms are a type of delicious edible mushroom which grow in clusters, with distinct caps. They have a smooth and mild taste and soft texture, which makes them great culinary add-ons and functional mushrooms for soups, stews, broths, sautes, or even mushroom coffee.

You can often find these at many local supermarkets in farmers markets or the refrigerated mushroom section, or you may also sometimes encounter maitake mushrooms in dried or powdered form.  

Benefits of maitake, according to research

Maitake’s medicinal benefits are similar to the benefits of certain other types of edible mushroom adaptogens (like shitake) – which may likely be attributed to a special water-soluble constituent ergothioneine. (11, 12)

This special constituent has been studied for its potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, immune-modulating, and cardioprotective benefits, to name a few! Still, more research is needed in order to better understand mechanisms in human health.   (11, 12)

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Ganoderma lucidum is a type of adaptogenic mushroom also known as lingzhi or “reishi.” It’s been used for medicinal purposes in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. This mushroom has a distinctive reddish-brown color and a shiny, hard surface. 

While reishi isn’t edible (just medicinal) and it has a pretty unpleasant bitter taste, it’s still highly regarded for a wide array of potential health benefits worth knowing about!

Benefits of reishi, according to research

The latest research is revealing that reishi mushrooms contain special bioactive compounds that are believed to have anti-inflammatory, prebiotic, antioxidant, cardioprotective, liver-supporting, anti-viral, immune-enhancing, blood sugar lowering, and even wound-healing properties.  (13, 14, 15, 16, 17)

Still, more studies are needed to fully understand its effects and potential side effects. 

Shiitake (Lentinus edode)

Shiitake mushrooms are a type of edible fungus native to East Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea. They’ve been cultivated for over 1,000 years and are now popular all over the world.

They have a distinctive appearance, with a brownish cap that can grow up to 10 cm in diameter. They have a meaty texture and a rich, earthy flavor that can be described as umami, or savory.

Whether you go with fresh or dried, it’s fun and easy to add these timeless edible mushroom adaptogens into soups, broths, stews, stir fry dishes, or noodles!

Shiitake mushrooms aren’t just delicious and nutritious; they’re revered for lots of potential health benefits.

Benefits of shiitake, according to research

Much like maitake mushrooms, shiitake offer similar health benefits primarily in the realm of being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune-balancing, and cardioprotective. (18

  • These benefits are likely due to their polysaccharides and other water-soluble and alcohol-soluble constituents, according to the International journal of medicinal mushrooms. (18)

Shiitake is also now being studied for potential antiviral and anticancer benefits. (19)

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey tail mushrooms, scientifically known as Trametes versicolor, are a type of fungus commonly found in forests worldwide. They have a unique appearance resembling the colorful tail feathers of a turkey, hence the name.

These adaptogenic mushrooms can most often be found in mushroom powders and adaptogenic herbal blends (whether as capsules or tinctures), and you may also recognize turkey tail as an ingredient in certain types of mushroom coffee.

Benefits of turkey tail, according to research

Turkey tail mushrooms are rich in beneficial compounds, particularly polysaccharides and beta-glucans, which are known for their antioxidant activity and immune-modulating properties. (20, 21)

These constituents seem to help stimulate the activity of natural killer cells and other immune cells, subsequently enhancing your body’s natural defense against infections and diseases.

Furthermore, turkey tail mushrooms have been linked to potential anti-inflammatory benefits. (22) Chronic inflammation is generally associated with various health problems, including arthritis, diabetes, and certain cancers. 

  • By reducing inflammation, turkey tail (like all other types of adaptogenic mushrooms) can help you to improve your overall health and well-being on many levels!

Where to find adaptogenic mushrooms

Depending on the type of adaptogenic mushrooms you’d  like to try, you may be able to find them fresh or dried, powdered, encapsulated, or bottled (as a tincture or double extraction).

If you’re a hiker, you may even someday encounter certain adaptogenic mushrooms growing in nature! (A friend of mine recently found reishi and lion’s mane while hiking the Appalachian trail.)

You may also find these mushroom allies such as maitake and lion’s mane locally at farmer’s markets or  in the mushroom section of grocery stores.

If you’re seeking adaptogenic mushroom supplements, these are readily available in dried/powdered/tinctured form, via local or online herbal stores. 

  • See below for details on my favorite herbal apothecaries!

Local or online herbal stores & apothecaries

Numerous reputable local and online retailers offer a wide selection of adaptogenic mushroom products. 

To find an herbal apothecary near you, type this into the search engine and check reviews. There are a few key considerations you should be thinking about:

Not all herbal apothecaries and dispensaries will deliver the same level of quality when it comes to ethical and sustainable harvesting, cultivating, and storage practices.

For example, “organic” herbs are not sprayed with harmful herbicides or pesticides. It’s also considered best practice to store herbs in a cool, dry place – since light and heat are said to degrade potency.

I’ve done this heavy lifting for you!  Here are my favorite organic online herbal stores worth checking out:

Private online supplement dispensaries

If you work with a functional nutrition or functional medicine healthcare provider, you’ll likely have the option to receive recommendations and order supplements directly through a private online dispensary such as FullScript

(Join my online FullScript store here to access high quality, practitioner-grade supplements for 15% off!)

Farmers’ markets

Farmers’ markets often have vendors selling fresh or dried adaptogenic mushrooms such as lion’s mane, maitake, shiitake, or others.  (Do your research and ask around if you’re unsure where to find these hidden gems!)

This can be a fun way to start getting to know them better, by adding them into your next omelet, stir fry, pasta, chicken soup or bone broth recipe – or by trying your first mushroom double extraction.

Health food stores

Look for dried mushrooms, dried adaptogenic mushroom powders, extracts, or supplements in the supplement section of a natural food store such as Natural Grocer, Sprouts, Whole Foods, or a specialty health food store unique to where you live.

Note:  If you’re looking for a tincture or double extraction, I recommend going with one of the above options (apothecary, private online dispensary, or farmers’ market) instead of buying a mushroom tincture at a health food store. 

  • In my experience, herbal tinctures tend to sit on the shelves of grocery stores in direct light for longer periods of time (i.e. years).  Light and time degrade potency!

How to Take Adaptogenic Mushrooms

When it comes to consuming adaptogenic mushrooms, there are several effective delivery methods to choose from. Therapeutic doses are key!

Capsules

Convenient and easy to incorporate into your daily routine, capsules offer a precise dosage of adaptogenic mushroom extracts. 

Make sure you’re choosing a product that is organic and pre-extracted (versus just powdered and encapsulated).

Consult a qualified practitioner to receive custom dosing protocols tailored to your specific health goals.

Powders

On the one hand, functional adaptogenic mushroom powders can be easily added into smoothies, teas, or recipes to reap some of the benefits. 

Here are a few ways you can easily incorporate mushroom powders into a daily routine:

  • Smoothies: Blend adaptogenic mushroom powders with fruits, vegetables, and your favorite liquid for a nutrient-packed smoothie.
  • Lattes: Create a cozy and comforting adaptogenic mushroom latte by mixing powdered mushrooms with warm milk or plant-based alternatives.
  • Soups:  Throw an adaptogenic mushroom powder blend into your next homemade soup recipe.

On the other hand, since powders aren’t usually pre-extracted, they may not be as medicinally potent as their extracted counterparts which will give you more bang for your buck. 

  • Check labels and ask the retailer or practitioner if you’re unsure.

Hot cocoa

Make a delicious functional hot cocoa or cacao drink recipe by infusing it with some chaga or lion’s mane powder!

“Mushroom coffee”

Companies are now offering adaptogenic mushroom-infused coffee blends which combine the energizing effects of caffeine with the benefits of functional mushrooms.

There’s a wide range of options readily available on the market, with some containing caffeine and others being 100% herbal.  Each variation of mushroom coffee has a different profile of adaptogenic mushrooms.

As a self-proclaimed mushroom coffee connoisseur, my favorites so far are MUD/WTR and Four Sigmatic’s “THINK” blend*.

(Learn more about mushroom coffee here!)

Tea decoctions

Herbal tea decoctions are made by simmering the dried medicinal plant parts on low heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, or up to a few hours.  These can be a nice way to extract the water-soluble prebiotic polysaccharides and other water-soluble constituents from the mushrooms.

Certain types of herbal mushrooms are better suited for tea than others, depending on the taste.  

  • For example, I don’t recommend brewing reishi as a tea, since it tastes very bitter and unpleasant! (I speak first-hand having learned this the hard way.)

In my opinion, the best mushrooms to add into a tea detection (whether on their own or in a blend such as this adaptogen chai tea recipe) are those which are more mild-tasting, like lion’s mane, maitake, chaga, or turkey tail.

Soups and broths

Adding dried or powdered mushrooms into a soup or broth recipe is easy and relatively effortless!  It’s also a wonderful way to infuse more benefits into a simple and easy, timeless “comfort food”.

Simmering these herbs in soup or broth will give you a similar level of extraction to the tea decoction method.

Tinctures

An herbal tincture is an alcohol extract of a medicinal plant.  Tinctures are an effective way to extract the alcohol-soluble medicinal constituents of adaptogenic mushrooms (such as the triterpenes). (23)

However, if you’re taking functional mushrooms exclusively in tincture form, you’ll miss out on the beneficial polysaccharides which are water-soluble and best extracted in water.

Enter… double extractions!

Double extractions

This type of herbal preparation is specifically meant for adaptogenic mushrooms, since they all contain a wide range of medicinal constituents that are both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble.

Double-extracted mushroom tinctures are made by simmering the mushrooms in water and then extracting the remains as a tincture in 50% alcohol + 50% mushroom decoction. 

These special dual-extraction tinctures can be added to various beverages or taken directly.  

You can usually find double-extractions of adaptogenic mushrooms at farmers’ markets or online – but if you’re feeling ambitious, you could also try DIY!

Sauté and add to cuisine

Sauté adaptogenic mushrooms with other vegetables, herbs, and spices for a flavorful and healthful side dish, a delicious pasta, a stir fry, or noodle dish of your choice.

Taking mushroom adaptogens: how much, when, and for how long?

Your ideal dosage, timing, and duration of adaptogenic mushroom consumption will vary depending on the individual and the specific mushroom. 

More isn’t always better!   It’s generally recommended to start with a very low dose, and gradually increase as needed. You can also check the package or bottle to see what they recommend as a general standardized dose.

Regardless of your individualized dose, based on my experience and understanding, herbs from this category of herbal allies are more helpful and effective when taken consistently on a regular basis, versus once in a while.

Consulting a qualified healthcare professional who is formally trained in herbal medicine is always the best way to receive personalized guidance tailored to your specific needs!

Side effects & contraindications

Okay, so at this point you may be wondering: how do I know if these incredible elixirs are safe for me?!

While adaptogenic mushrooms are generally safe, it’s still important to be aware of potential side effects and contraindications. 

Digestive discomfort 

Even though these mushrooms are prebiotics and generally beneficial for gut health, some folks may still experience mild digestive discomfort. (One size never fits all!)

For example, mushrooms are considered a high FODMAP food and aren’t allowed in the early stages of a low FODMAP elimination diet.  It’s also entirely possible for anyone to have a food sensitivity to mushrooms.

Allergic reactions

There are people out there who are allergic to mushrooms. If that’s the case, this goes without saying – but please avoid all types of adaptogenic mushrooms if you have a mushroom allergy! 😉

Other precautions

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and/or you’re navigating specific health conditions or taking medications, consult with your healthcare provider before incorporating adaptogenic mushrooms into your routine.

What about autoimmune disorders?

Since adaptogenic mushrooms balance the immune system, some practitioners may not want you to take them if you’re on an immune-suppressing drug.  

However, since adaptogens generally balance and modulate (versus over-stimulate) the immune system, I haven’t seen any interactions with these types of medicine in my clinical practice. 

Either way, you’ll need to consult your doctor and get permission first, before giving adaptogenic mushrooms a try if you have an autoimmune disorder.

More resources

To deepen your knowledge about adaptogens and functional mushrooms, consider checking out the following resources!

Recipes & blog articles

Books

Final thoughts

Incorporating adaptogenic mushrooms into your lifestyle can be a valuable addition to support your overall well-being. From immune-boosting properties to cognitive benefits, adaptogenic mushrooms offer a wide range of advantages!

Whether you choose capsules, powders, or incorporate them into your food, experiment with different types and methods to find what works best for you. 

Remember to start with lower doses, be aware of potential contraindications, and consult a healthcare professional if necessary. 

Embrace the power of adaptogenic mushrooms and experience the positive impact they can have on your health and vitality by getting to know each one individually, so you have a better idea of which ones are your best plant allies.

Sharing is caring!

Help me spread the good word about the many wondrous potential benefits of adaptogenic mushrooms!  

If you found this article interesting or helpful, please share it with your fellow herb-loving, holistic-minded friends. 😀 

XO – Jenna

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