What Exactly is a Functional Mushroom?

By now you’ve probably heard of functional mushrooms - the hottest “new” health trend that’s been around for millennia. You may wonder: why the paradox? Why is something that has been used by ancient cultures around the world and written about since writing existed, only now suddenly exploding on everyone’s Instagram feed?

Let’s back it up. We in the West are considered, on the whole, to be “mycophobic.” That means our collective psyche has an irrational fear of mushrooms, and thus the appreciation and use thereof never interwove itself into our cultural fabric. Prior to the 21st century, most people in America’s sole interaction with mushrooms were Mario Brothers and those nasty ones that come sliced in a can, ready to make a nice little soggy spot on your thick-crust pizza. 

Not exactly the most gourmet cuisine, if you know what I mean.

 

woman with long braid and cloak walking through the forest using a skull on a stick with light shining out of the eyes as a flashlight with there are more skeletons and a house behind her

Figure 1. Some cultures, most notably Chinese and Slavic, are considered to be “mycophilic,” meaning that collectively they appreciate and utilize fungi. This relationship is reflected in all manner of cultural artifacts, here for example in an image of Vasilisa the Beautiful (by Ivan Bilibin) is a scene in which she approaches the cabin of Baby Yaga, a Russian boogeywoman of sorts. Photo by Ivan Bilibin. (Wikimedia Commons).

 

Thankfully that’s been changing rapidly of late, and the Western mycophobic slumber has come to an end. We no longer irrationally “fear what we do not understand,” because we no longer do not understand it! We’re starting to understand, and, so far what we’re understanding is that functional mushrooms are awesome!

They play an amazing array of roles in helping you maintain general health and wellbeing (“covering all the bases,” as it were), and possess none of the negative side-effects we’ve now come to expect by what we consider to be “medicine.” You can’t take too much, they won’t get you high, you can’t get addicted, they’re remarkably non-toxic, et cetera.

Furthermore, this ever-expanding body of scientific analysis not only validates most of the historical claims regarding the therapeutic prowess of certain mushroom species, but indeed also paints a portrait of entirely new avenues of untapped potential

So rejoice! For the stars in the Science Sky signal the arrival of the Age of Mycophilia, and we all stand to benefit a great deal by making functional mushrooms a permanent part of our everyday lives. And so I’m happy to report that, unlike the majority of trends, this one is here to stay.


black and white cave drawing of shaman with bee head and mushrooms sprouting all around body

Figure 2. This image, aptly referred to as Bee-Headed Mushroom Shaman from Tassili-Ajjer, may very well be the oldest anthropological representation of psychedelic mushrooms used. Dated to between 7000 and 9000 BC, a series of cave drawings were re-discovered by Henri Lohte in the late 1950s in Northern Algeria. Image drawn by Kat Harrisson McKenna from a photograph by Lajoux (1991). (Botanical Dimensions).

 

But like all trends, the sudden arrival of the term functional mushrooms in our digital zeitgeist has arrived with equal parts excitement and confusion. I think I’ve already made my case for the former, that was the easy part. Now, in a series of articles starting with this one, I’m gonna do my best to resolve some of this confusion. 

We’ll be exploring some common questions throughout this series such as:

  • What are the benefits of consuming functional mushrooms?

  • What is the best way to consume them? 

  • What should I look for in a functional mushroom product?

  • What are the best functional mushroom products to consume?

...And MUCH more.

 

Here we’ll pick up the first bread crumb and begin with the most basic question: What exactly is a functional mushroom

 

Scientific Classification

As part of our perpetual quest to make sense of an ineffable Universe, we humans have become quite adept at classifying things. We construct mental boxes, and then, through a set of predetermined rules, place various related objects into these boxes. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in science, where classification is not some indulgence, but crucial given the scope and complexity of the subject.


When it comes to classifying living organisms, we typically do so along phylogenetic lines. That’s just a fancy way of saying we construct family trees using genetic data. Things that are more closely related to each other have branches closer to each other on the family tree, while things that are more distantly related have branches farther apart.

 

diagram showing the relationship between the leopard, striped skunk, European otter, domestic dog, and wolf by species, genus, family, and order

Figure 3. In this simplistic phylogenetic tree we can deduce that, though all 5 species belong to the Order Carnivora, skunks and otters are more closely related to one another than either is to a dog or wolf, yet any one of them is more closely related to the other three than to a leopard. Image by Benjamin Cummings. (Pearson Education Inc.).

 

Biologists use phylogeny to distinguish between different types of organisms or different organisms of the same type. But this is, for the most part, quite technical and not of much practical use to the rest of us. Knowing that a sunflower is part of the Astareceae family while the tomato and deadly nightshade are both members of Solanaceae makes for some fun trivia, but has very little practical use unless you study plants.

 

A More Pragmatic Classification

We also construct “artificial” categories based on the relationship human beings have with organisms. I’m using the word artificial here to indicate that the classification is not based on anything real - no actual genetic similarity. But rather, it’s based, most of the time, on the way in which we can use them. Of course the uses are very much real, but not in an objective, measurable sense that is required by science. 

When it comes to mushrooms, we can categorize them in 4 groups based on their relationships to human beings. Each mushroom species can thus be placed in one (or more) of the following categories.


Poisonous Mushrooms 

Mushrooms that, when consumed, can cause physical damage, or in some cases death. Though only about 3% of mushroom species are poisonous, it’s certainly a formative aspect of the Western mycophobic worldview I spoke of earlier.

 

two large mushrooms with white caps and stems growing next to a fallen log on the forest floor

Figure 4. Pictured here is the Eastern Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera), which, along with the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), is responsible for the majority of mushroom poisoning cases. Both species contain unique compounds called amatoxins, which inhibit the production of RNA Polymerase II and III, enzymes that play a crucial role in the transcription of RNA from DNA, thereby effectively inhibiting cellular reproduction. Photo by Dan Molter. (shroomydan).

 

Edible Mushrooms

Mushrooms that are consumed primarily for culinary purposes. Though they do not contain significant levels of the specific therapeutic compounds found in functional mushrooms, they are high in fiber, certain enzymes, b-vitamins, and other trace minerals.

Most of us are well acquainted with these “supermarket mushrooms” - portobello, button, white, crimini, brown etc. Interestingly enough, these are all actually the same species of mushroom - Agaricus bisporus. The different versions we are familiar with can be considered different cultivars of the same species; similar to apples, which have different cultivars like pink lady, red delicious, and macintosh.

 

Entheogenic Mushrooms

This third category, also sometimes referred to as “sacred mushrooms,” is a class of fungi containing compounds that, when consumed, radically alter one’s  state of consciousness and perception of reality. Many cultures, most notably the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, venerated them for centuries (millennia?) for spiritual reasons. In fact, the Nahuatl name for Psilocybe mexicana is teonanacatl, meaning food (or flesh) of the Gods. Teonanacatl is considered sacred, it sits at the heart of their gnosis as the vehicle that can empower humans to connect to the Divine (it’s also from whence we derive our name - TĒONAN ;-) ).

 

stone relic of mushroom with a face, arms, and legs coming out of the stem

Figure 5. This mushroom stone relic, found in Guatemala city and dated from 1000 BC to 500 AD, is one of a remaining few hundred that were able to avoid destruction by Catholic missionaries. Many of the smaller statues contain metates, querns that are thought to have been used to grind mushrooms prior to consumption. Photo by R. Gordon Wasson. (The Wonderous Mushroom)

 

As is the case with functional mushrooms, our long-standing and ill-founded demonization of this group of fungi has come to an end recently due to ground-breaking new scientific insights. In the last two decades we’ve come to consider these psilocybin-containing species as one of the most promising avenues within the field of therapeutic psychopharmacology for treating numerous conditions such as PTSD, depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety. 

Johns Hopkins, one of the preeminent medical academic institutions in the world, recently even created the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, dedicated to studying the safe therapeutic applications of psychedelic mushrooms, as well as other psychedelics.

 

Functional Mushrooms

Also referred to as “medicinal mushrooms,” these are fungi that contain specific compounds that are able to perform a wide variety of extraordinary therapeutic functions in the human body. This is currently believed to be due to the presence of a diverse set of unique (and unrelated) compounds, most notably certain types of beta-glucans and triterpenoids.

Functional mushrooms are few and far between - of the 2000 known species of multicellular fungi, only about 15 are considered functional - that’s only 0.75%! And unlike psychedelic mushrooms, functional mushrooms do not possess any compounds which are psychoactive, meaning they will not alter your consciousness in any noticeable way. And though some functional mushroom species are edible (most notably Maitake (Grifola frondosa), Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus), and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)), most are not. Most are actually very bitter and woody. They cannot even be digested by a human gut until they’ve undergone an extraction process (we’ve detailed the extraction process in this article if you’d like to read more about it!).

 

three reishi mushrooms lying on a white background
Figure 6. Reishi, also known as Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum), may be considered to be the prototypical functional mushroom. Long held dear in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is especially rich in a variety of triterpenoids, producing over 140 of them. Photo by Phạm Lộc. (Pixabay).

 

A quick note - though the term “medicinal mushroom” has traditionally been preferred, of late “functional mushroom” has been gaining favour due to potential regulatory issues associated with using the term “medicine.”

It is also, in my opinion, a more accurate term as it better approximates in a descriptive sense, what exactly they do for us. “Functional mushroom” is thus the term we prefer, and will use throughout our articles.

So functional mushrooms are thus consumed primarily for their therapeutic benefit. Though the gamut of functional mushrooms provide a wide variety of benefits, the primary benefits are the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and especially immune-supporting effects. And like adaptogens, they are also able to return one’s body to a state of overall harmony if environmental stressors have thrown your physiology off-kilter.

So how do we make sense of this? How exactly is it that functional mushrooms seem to be able to help our bodies return to a state of optimal health? And why specifically these mushrooms as opposed to other mushrooms or plants? You can read the answers to all of these questions and more in our other Mycotherapy blog posts! See you there!

Faan