Health & Fit: 5 'functional' mushrooms the wellness industry is obsessed with, from lion's mane to turkey tail

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Lion's mane mushrooms is used as a cancer remedy in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Xinhua/Yang Wukui via Getty Images © Xinhua/Yang Wukui via Getty Images Lion's mane mushrooms is used as a cancer remedy in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Xinhua/Yang Wukui via Getty Images
  • Functional mushrooms are a multi-billion dollar cash cow for the wellness industry.
  • Functional mushrooms include lion's mane, reishi, turkey tail, cordyceps, and chaga.
  • Studies indicate these mushrooms may fight disease and improve cognition, but more human testing is needed.

More and more Americans are turning to "functional mushrooms," or fungi said to help treat diseases and improve cognition, as health supplements.

Functional mushrooms, also called "medicinal mushrooms," come with claims of healing properties alongside nutritional benefits. Functional mushrooms do not, however, have psychoactive properties, which separate them from "magic" mushrooms.

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Allied Market Research estimates the global functional mushroom market generated $7.98 billion in 2020, and may reach $19.33 billion by 2030. Goop and GNC offer functional mushroom supplements that claim to increase energy and support the immune system. Kin Euphorics, Bella Hadid's buzzy beverage startup, infuses reishi mushrooms in an alcohol alternative drink to help "strengthen the adrenal system and balance your body's reactions to stress."

Though traditional cultures in Asia, Europe, and North America have used functional mushrooms as a natural remedy for a variety of diseases, few human studies have been done testing functional mushrooms as medicine.

Wellness drinks and supplements contain many different ingredients, but five major functional mushrooms come up again and again: lion's mane, reishi, turkey tail, cordyceps, and chaga.

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Lion's mane

Studies have indicated lion's mane helped improve short-term memory in mice. Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images © Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Studies have indicated lion's mane helped improve short-term memory in mice. Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lion's mane (hericium erinaceus) grows on old or dead broadleaf trees and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, according to the Journal of Restorative Medicine. The mushroom gets its name from its thin, hair-like structure.

Lion's mane has traditionally been used to promote digestion and treat cancer. Animal studies suggest consuming the mushroom may protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but there is little data on Lion's mane's effects on humans.

Some companies are experimenting with lion's mane as an alternative to coffee or Adderall due to its potential cognitive properties. A 2009 study with 30 elderly participants — one of the only non-animal studies on lion's mane — suggested people who consumed three grams of lion's mane extract for 16 weeks performed slightly better on cognitive tests than a placebo group.

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Reishi

The global reishi mushroom market could reach $5 billion by 2027. Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images © Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images The global reishi mushroom market could reach $5 billion by 2027. Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images

Reishi mushrooms (ganoderma lucidum) are found in hot and humid conditions all over the world. Wild reishi mushrooms are rare, and farmers cultivate the mushroom using  grain, sawdust, wood logs, and cork residues.

Reishi mushrooms were used in traditional medicines in East Asia to prevent aging and increase energy, according to the National Institutes of Health, and they're used in China to strengthen the immune system of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Scientists are still testing reishi for anti-tumor effects. One Japanese study of 225 patients with benign colorectal tumors found tumor size decreased in participants who took reishi supplements for a year compared to a control group, according to NIH.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved reishi mushrooms to treat cancer or any other medical condition.

Turkey tail

Turkey tail contains the cancer fighting protein polysaccharide-K. Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images © Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Turkey tail contains the cancer fighting protein polysaccharide-K. Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Turkey tail (trametes versicolor) is a concave, cup-shaped mushroom that grows on fallen logs or living trees in wet, shady areas of North America, Asia, and Europe, according to Macalester College.

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The mushroom has a high concentration of the protein polysaccharide-K, which has been used to treat cancer and infectious diseases. Turkey tail may help treat stomach cancer and help immune cells damaged by chemotherapy recover to normal function, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Chaga

Chaga mushrooms are rich in antioxidants. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images © Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images Chaga mushrooms are rich in antioxidants. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Chaga mushrooms (inonotus obliquus) are found on birch trees in cold climates in the Northern Hemisphere, and the outer layer is rich in antioxidants.

The antioxidants in chaga can decrease inflammation in the gut, which contributes to irritable bowel syndrome, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Animal studies suggest the mushroom may inhibit melanoma cell growth and have anti-inflammatory effects against colitis, but there are no human clinical trials that have assessed chaga's safety or use in treating disease, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Cordyceps

Edmond So/South China Morning Post via Getty Images © Edmond So/South China Morning Post via Getty Images Edmond So/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis) is found in the soil of Chinese prairies at elevations of 3500 to 5000 meters, according to Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects.

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The rare fungus sells for $63,000 per pound, and the value skyrocketed in the 1990s and 2000s due to the growing Chinese economy. The fungus has become increasingly rare lately due to both climate change and increased demand from the wellness industry, per Reuters.

Dubbed "The Viagra Of The Himalayas" by NPR, the fungus has been used to treat erectile dysfunction in traditional Chinese medicine. A 2016 paper showed caterpillar fungus may help increase sperm count and serum testosterone.

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