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Are Mushrooms the Future of Wellness?

By Arden Fanning Andrews

Photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Styled by Suzy Kim

Even before the onset of the pandemic, which has increased the demand for all manner of so-called organic immunity elixirs, wellness-minded Americans were warming to mushrooms. To be clear, mushrooms don’t cure Covid-19, but they are thought to provide a host of other benefits, from serving as an aphrodisiac to bolstering one’s defences to toxins. As Ligaya Mishan explains in her essay earlier this month, Eastern cultures have long been enthusiastic about edible fungi, both in culinary and health contexts — mushrooms are rich in umami, the Japanese “fifth taste” that denotes savouriness, and woody species such as reishi are often prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine — while the West has been more ambivalent. Today, though, American cooks and diners delight in foraged morels and matsutakes, while others mix mushroom-based powders into shakes and teas. In an article published in 2014 — over 80 years after the British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the powerful group of antibiotics derived from the fungus Penicillium — the mycologist Paul Stamets, best known for the TED Talk “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” described mushrooms as “nature’s miniature pharmaceutical factories.”

“Fungi have the ability to soak up and escort waste from our cells, and have a digestive system almost identical to that of humans,” says Liz Smithers, who studied Ayurvedic medicine and herbal sciences before launching the sustainable Kauai-based nutrition brand Laka Living with her sister, Kate, in 2015. The line includes a chocolate-flavoured hemp protein (US$34) containing mushrooms such as lion’s mane (shown in studies to reduce anxiety and prevent cognitive decline), and Super Shroom Dip (US$30), a macadamia nut butter laced with a five-mushroom blend. “At this point, only 7 percent of the world’s fungi have been discovered, and Hawaii, the most isolated archipelago in the world, has some of the most understudied species,” says Benjamin Lillibridge, the Kailua-Kona-based founder of the wellness company Mālama Mushrooms, and of the Hawaii Fungi Project, a nonprofit dedicated to the discovery and responsible use of the islands’ native species. Of course, there are also plenty of noteworthy mushroom nutraceutical ventures Stateside — see Shizu Okusa’s brand Apothékary, which has teams in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — but Lillibridge’s wider point, perhaps, is that with so much still to discover about fungi, who knows what heretofore unknown powers they may possess? Here, a list of just some of the beneficial properties mushrooms are thought to have, and where to find the best blends.

Sarah GurrityA selection of herbal and mushroom powders from Apothékary.
A selection of herbal and mushroom powders from Apothékary.

“I grew up in a super-traditional immigrant Japanese family where my parents wouldn’t give me Tylenol or Advil,” says Okusa, who was instead given “dark, oozy drinks” of mushrooms and dried herbs that had been brewed for days in stone pots. Last year, she launched Apothékary, offering her Immunity Set (US$45), a trio of different mushroom powders that draw on the blends of her youth: One pairs reishi with ashwagandha root to reduce inflammation, while another is made purely of ground reishi and meant to be used as a concentrated booster in teas and smoothies by “advanced herb users,” she says. “Reishi by itself can be a bit more difficult, taste and potency wise.” Meanwhile, Steven Gundry, a Palm Springs-based cardiologist, has grouped what he calls “the big three” — reishi, chaga and coriolus, the latter two best known for their high antioxidant content and immune support benefits — in his Gundry MD M Vitality immune support tonic (US$66), drops of which can be applied directly to your tongue. If you’d prefer something sweeter, consider Forest Juice (US$31), a reishi- and chaga-infused maple syrup from Rainbo, a line of mushroom-based supplements and food products founded by the holistic chef and nutritionist Tonya Papanikolov.

Left: Benjamin Lillibridge. Right: Nastassia BruckinLeft: Lion’s mane mushrooms, the main ingredient in Mālama Mushrooms’s Lion’s Mane Tincture. Right: Wooden Spoon Herbs’s Mushroom Cocoa.
Left: Lion’s mane mushrooms, the main ingredient in Mālama Mushrooms’s Lion’s Mane Tincture. Right: Wooden Spoon Herbs’s Mushroom Cocoa.

Lion’s mane, which has the look of a shaggy, faux-fur ottoman, was found in a 2016 study published by the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine to promote peripheral nerve regeneration in rats. For humans, the mushroom is typically used with the goal of enhancing concentration, memory and mental clarity. “It has a mild taste and is fantastic sautéed in butter,” says Wooden Spoon Herbs founder Lauren Haynes, who gets hers from Oregon and upstate New York. For the brand’s Mushroom Cocoa powder (US$38), a scoop of which can be added to your morning coffee, fruiting bodies of lion’s mane and other varieties are extracted via a long-simmer method and flavoured with vanilla and mesquite. Another option for those hoping to improve recall is Gaia Herbs’s Mind Spring powder ($US35), which contains lion’s mane and turmeric. Cordyceps, on the other hand, whose stems often resemble Cheetos in both shape and colour, may contribute to physical acuity. “In the 1993 Olympics, three Chinese runners were screened for steroids, but all the panel found were cordyceps,” says the naturopathic doctor Nadia Musavvir. She recommends Four Sigmatic’s Instant Mushroom Coffee With Chaga and Cordyceps (US$15) — the chaga is purported to neutralise caffeine jitters.

Left to right: Courtesy of Moon Juice and Wylde One respectively.Left: Moon Juice’s Collagen Protect. Right: Wylde One’s Golden Glow Up.
Left: Moon Juice’s Collagen Protect. Right: Wylde One’s Golden Glow Up.

“Tremella is amazing for boosting gut and skin health from the inside out — it’s been revered as a beauty mushroom in Asia for hundreds of years,” Stephanie Park, the founder of the Brooklyn supplement label Wylde One, says of the vitamin D-rich variety. Wrapped in single-serving packets, the brand’s Golden Glow Up (US$29) adaptogenic turmeric latte blend contains astragalus and tremella, also known as “silver ear” mushrooms, along with cardamom, black pepper and digestion-enhancing ginger. Another option is Moon Juice’s Collagen Protect powdered creamer (US$58), which incorporates organic tremella extracts and rice bran-derived tocotrienols, or “tocos,” natural sources of vitamin E that lend a mildly malty finish. Picking up some raw shiitake mushrooms from your local farmers’ market might also be a boon: Jeannette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, says the familiar umbrella cap “contains significant levels of vitamin D, selenium and zinc, which help to maintain skin health.” And then there’s Sun Potion’s Astragalus the Great Protector (US$57), made with ingredients grown wild at high elevations, and filled with polysaccharides, which have long been endorsed as natural aids for hydration and soothing stomach ulcers.

Courtesy of Kamu LabsKamu Labs’s Dream Calming Sleep Aid
Kamu Labs’s Dream Calming Sleep Aid

The repeatedly invoked “cure-all” of functional fungi is reishi. “Its most popular and well-known benefits are its ability to reduce stress and fatigue, and, in general, help chill you out,” says Lillibridge, who suggests Mālama Mushrooms’s Reishi Mushroom Extract Powder (US$30). When taken consistently, the multitasking “queen healer,” as reishi is sometimes called, is even believed to help regulate rest cycles: “It’s been shown to increase deep delta-wave sleep,” Lillibridge says. For a soothing nightcap enjoyed half an hour before bed, try the reishi- and valerian root-filled Sleep Superfood Water Enhancer by BareOrganics (US$12), which will dissolve in liquid at any temperature, or Kamu Lab’s Dream nightly sleep drops (US$60), which enhance the mushroom’s calming effects with those of CBD and California poppy. It’s no wonder emperors of the Qing dynasty were said to exchange gifts of ceremonial ruyi scepters sculpted to resemble reishi, the so-called mushroom of immortality.