Optimizing the Benefits from Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms have been part of traditional Chinese practices for thousands of years and have recently become more mainstream in Western culture. Positioned to become leaders in health and wellness, these power-packed fungi require specific processes to access therapeutic benefits. Equally as important and challenging is trusting that a manufacturer’s product is of high quality, in a very unregulated industry.
Medicinal mushrooms contain therapeutic compounds like polysaccharides—including beta-glucans—triterpenes, amino-acids, and trace minerals. Widely studied, beta-glucans are soluble fibres that may lower the risk for heart disease, prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol, boost the immune system, and help regulate blood glucose levels. Early studies indicate that they may even decrease the risk of developing some types of cancer. But these therapeutic compounds are not easily accessed.
Locked in Chitin
Mushroom cell walls are made up of diverse compounds, including glycoproteins and layers of microscopic chitin. Chitin is the same substance that makes up the hard structural component of crustaceans, crabs, and shrimps. Most medicinal compounds within the mushroom are locked inside these hard cell walls. Unfortunately, our bodies lack the enzyme chitinase that could digest chitin. Not breaking into the chitin means that we only get macromolecules from the mushroom, some insoluble fibres, but not the therapeutic compounds medicinal mushrooms are famous for.
Medicinal Mushroom Extracts
Extracts contain higher levels of certain active ingredients that medicinal mushroom are known for. They come in liquid tinctures or powder form, and the extraction process typically requires the use of water, alcohol, or both.
Hot-water extraction is the traditional method used in Asia, and the most proven, efficient way to extract a mushroom’s therapeutic compounds. It requires temperatures between 80 and 175 °C (high temperatures occurring when pressurized hot-water extraction is used) for predetermined periods of time, depending on the mushroom. This method allows chitin to dissolve and the water-soluble molecules of the mushroom to be liberated into the liquid. beta-Glucans found in reishi, turkey tail, lion’s mane, cordyceps, agaricus, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms are water-soluble, making the hot-water extraction technique ideal. The final product can either be consumed as a liquid or an extract powder, whereby the liquid extract undergoes dehydration and a spray-drying step to evaporate all the water.
Alcohol extraction is not favourable, since polysaccharides precipitate in alcohol and are removed from the final liquid in the filtration process. Alcohol essentially removes lots of the sought-after beta-glucans. So, it should be avoided, especially for shiitake, maitake, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and agaricus mushrooms. Some mushrooms containing non–water-soluble triterpenes and sterols, particularly reishi and chaga, could benefit from a secondary extraction process involving alcohol, to gain access to both water and non–water-soluble active compounds.
What About Ground Mushroom Powders?
Grinding, no matter how finely, does not remove the ingestible chitin and can damage the long-chain polysaccharides the mushrooms contain. Ingesting powders severely limits the therapeutic benefits available and would not allow for standardized dosage. However, like many other functional foods, mushroom powders can have a place in your kitchen.
Using mushroom powders in slow cooking methods is a great way to discover their flavours and reap some benefits. Mushroom powders can be an alternative for those who don’t appreciate a mushroom’s texture. As long as it is used in recipes involving hot liquids, such as soups or teas, simmered or steeped over a long period.
Mycelium v. Fruiting Body
It’s important to understand the fungi’s lifecycle when choosing mushrooms or a mushroom supplement. The mushroom is the fungus’ fruit, whereas the mycelium is the underground branching-colony part of a mushroom (think roots), with a complex network of cells that are usually out of sight. The major difference between them is their concentration of active medicinal compounds, with the fruiting body providing higher concentrations.
Selecting a hot-water medicinal mushroom extract will provide you with the most these mushrooms have to offer. Products that contain primarily fruiting body—not mycelium—are a better option. Look for confirmation on the label, showing the amounts of active compounds, like polysaccharides and especially beta-glucans. Reputable companies will have their mushrooms tested in accredited laboratories, to ensure you get the variety expected and provide accurate medicinal content information.
Hopefully, this article sheds some light on the importance of choosing the correct type of medicinal mushroom supplement. If you made the sound decision to include medicinal mushrooms as part of your wellness routine, be sure you get their full benefits.
- Chilton, S. “The art of mushroom extraction: Methods for maximum extract potency.” RealMushrooms.com · https://www.realmushrooms.com/mushroom-extraction/ · Updated 2021-11-10.
- Sayner, A. “How to make a mushroom tincture.” GroCycle.com · https://grocycle.com/make-a-mushroom-tincture/ · Updated 2022-02-18.
- Dennett, C. “Medicinal mushrooms—An exploration of their purported health benefits in the form of powders and liquid extracts.” Today’s Dietitian, Vol. 23, No. 3 (2021): 20. · https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0321p20.shtml
Tammy-Lynn McNabb, RHNC
A registered holistic nutrition counselor and television host/producer of Health Wellness & Lifestyle TV, she believes that eating healthy shouldn’t be difficult and should never compromise taste.