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Ask a Mycologist: Do Adaptogens Really Work?

The term adaptogen was first used in 1947 by Russian toxicologist Professor Nikolay Lazarev, referring to substances which increased stress resistance. In a biological context, “stress” is a specific term that includes anything which threatens our internal processes, and knocks the body out of its normal state of functioning. 

Prof. Lazarev’s concept was refined by Dr Isreal Brekhman in the 1960s, who studied adaptogenic plants including Siberian and Asian ginseng. He stated that any adaptogen should have three key features:

  • Almost non-toxic
  • Act on multiple biological systems, increasing resistance to a variety of external factors
  • Normalise various organs and bodily systems, returning them to their non-stressed state

Adaptogens are reported to show long-lasting effects which, unlike stimulants such as nicotine, aren’t followed by a drop in capacity. By acting more gently with fewer peaks and throughs, adaptogens may protect our physical and mental processes both before and after stressful events. Most of our knowledge of adaptogens comes from studying plants, but understanding precisely how these compounds may affect us can be difficult, especially when it comes to the lesser studied fungal kingdom.

Understanding The Fungus Among Us

Whether it’s a fear of fungi, or what author Merlin Sheldrake calls a “plant-centrist” perspective, little attention has been given to investigating useful applications of fungi relative to their plant cousins. Though commercialising natural products can be a controversial topic, a study of patent applications published in 2020 found that 6.2% of all plant species are represented in patents, whereas for fungi this proportion is likely to be less than 0.4%.   

Most health claims surrounding fungi usually focus on polysaccharides – a diverse group of long chain carbohydrates that play important roles in the structure of fungal cells. As a result, it’s hard to make generalisations about any potential health benefits of fungal polysaccharides without getting into specific examples. Two such examples include krestin from turkey tail mushrooms, and lentinan from shiitake – both of which have been studied as complementary medicines for a variety of cancers. Although the initial results from these studies look mostly positive, more research is needed to understand how these polysaccharides may work, as well as their effective dosage.   

Unlike treatments of specific diseases, adaptogens are touted as having a more general effect in fortifying us against more general challenges to our health and wellbeing. Most studies into naturally-derived adaptogens have been conducted in animals, or on cells grown in a lab. While these tests are of great value to our understanding, it’s difficult to generalise effects seen in cells or animals to human beings. Though there have been some studies of adaptogen activity in humans, these tend to be conducted in small groups, which makes it harder to apply to the wider human populations.    

Frontiers In Fungal Fortification

Although our understanding of many fungal compounds is still in its infancy, there are a number of potential mushrooms of interest, emerging mostly from their rich history of use in traditional Asian medicine.

Reishi 

Reishi refers to a number of mushroom species in the genus Ganoderma. These mushrooms grow on wood, with their kidney shaped caps taking on a reddish-brown color that can look almost like it’s been varnished. Also known as lingzhi, this fungus is one of the most well-known medicinal mushrooms in Asia, and is rich in compounds such as polysaccharides and triterpenes. Research suggests these compounds may play a role in helping protect nerve cell degeneration and reduce anxiety in rats, but more studies are needed before definite conclusions can be made. 

Cordyceps

Cordyceps is an unusual group of fungal species, known for their parasitic growth on insects and their larvae in the wild, even going so far as to turn some of them into zombies. Despite their sinister origin, cordyceps have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for over 300 years, where it’s known by the name ‘Dong Chong Xia Cao’ – which translates to ‘worm in winter and grass in summer.’ When produced commercially, cordyceps can be grown on vegan friendly sources such as rice or oats. This mushroom contains a variety of interesting compounds, including both polysaccharides and cordycepin. Cordyceps extracts have shown some ability to protect liver cells and the kidneys of rats, but there’s still a lot more to learn. 

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane, or yamabushitake, is a culinary mushroom that is widely consumed in Asia. Though cultivated commercially, this mushroom is of conservation concern in its native range of North America, Europe and Asia, mostly due to habitat loss and deforestation. Like many other mushrooms, lion’s mane is rich in polysaccharides, but also contains erinacines – compounds that are currently under scientific investigation for their effects on cognitive function. One paper studied the effect of lion’s mane cookies in reducing ratings of anxiety and depression, and found that those consuming mushroom-free cookies had higher complaints of these symptoms. 

Are Mushroom Adaptogens Worth Incorporating Into Your Diet?

The natural world is the source of a wide range of useful chemicals, and there are undoubtedly more to discover. Though studies exist that appear to support the adaptogenic claims of certain compounds, most of these have only been carried out in cell cultures or animals, with some studies in small groups of humans. If each potential new adaptogen has to be thoroughly investigated on a case-by-case basis, it’s clear there’s much more for us to learn.

Despite limited evidence into various health claims, the use of many of these mushrooms as both tonics and food is far from new. As a result, when consumed in small quantities in healthy individuals, mushrooms and their extracts are considered to be relatively safe. Extra care should be taken by those who may be pregnant or have certain medical conditions – so consult your physician if you fall into this category.      

 

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