MUSHROOMS AS ADAPTOGENS
We set out to get better educated on the topic of mushrooms and their increasingly popular use as adaptogens. Adaptogens are naturalpharmaceuticals that help the body counteract the effect of environmental stressors.
Our stress response developed evolutionarily so that we could react to threats in our environment and survive. It’s the mechanism by which you activate your flight or fight response.
Even though today we are not subject to the same types of threats as our primal ancestors were, our stress response is still very much with us. In fact, for many of us, it is often “always-on.” (Especially lately!)
Though some level of stress can be good for us to be productive, prolonged exposure to stress can cause real physical changes in our bodies, eventually harming the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. Adaptogens have stimulant properties that help counteract those harmful effects.
So, back to mushrooms. To learn about them and their adaptogenic value, we watched this presentation by Tero Isokauppila, the founder and CEO of a mushroom-centric company called 4-Sigmatic. This is one of a growing number of companies innovating in the field of mushroom-based products for health and longevity.
Tero hails from Finland where the tradition of using mushrooms in daily diet as food and infusions dates back to ancient times. He is one of the world’s subject matter experts on all things mushrooms and natural health. He is also the author of several books, including Healing Mushrooms.
What we liked most about him in this presentation is his passion for mushrooms, his first-principles based approach to developing products, and his transparent and unassuming demeanor (we gather it's a Finnish thing, perhaps?)
These were our key takeaways:
Some quick facts about mushrooms that puts their importance in context:
- Mushrooms were one of the first organisms to develop on earth. About 2.4 billion years ago, the first mushrooms made it from the sea onto land.
- Mushrooms are considered to be a kingdom of their own. They are not a plant, an animal, or a bacteria.
- They do have some commonalities with animals, however: (1) they cannot create their own foods as plants do through photosynthesis; and (2)mushrooms breathe oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.
- There are about 1.5 million different types of mushrooms
- All plants rely on mushrooms (specifically the Mycelium, which grows underground) to absorb water and nutrients.
- The top 50 most scientifically studied foods tend to be the foods that have been used the longest throughout different cultures. Of these 50, 10 are mushrooms.
- 40% of the world’s top pharmaceuticals use mushrooms in their formulations
The history of Adaptogen Research
According to Tero, adaptogen research can be traced back to scientists in the army of the Soviet Union. They were looking for alternative stimulants that would help soldiers stay alert, without the crash often caused by caffeine or stronger substances such as adderall and amphetamines.
They also wanted something that would not be habit-forming and could help restore metabolic balance after facing battle stressors. Finally, they wanted something that would work across all tissues. This is what led them to work with mushrooms.
The science behind mushrooms
There has not been a lot of clinical research done on the use of mushrooms as functional foods. According to Tero, funding this type of research is very difficult because you cannot patent a whole food. Fortunately, the field has benefitted from a lot of the research funded by the pharmaceutical industry. As a quick reference, a search in Pubmed--a central database of biological research--yields over 1,000 results for Reishi mushrooms and 750 for Shiitake.
Perhaps the biggest value of mushrooms is as a source of antioxidants, as can be seen in this chart above. Mushrooms seem to provide orders of magnitude the amount of antioxidants as other rich sources, such as blueberries. For instance, a Siberian Chaga extract can pack over 6 times the antioxidant value that Acai fruit has, as measured by ORAC value (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, a way to measure the "total antioxidant capacity"of a food).
Different types of mushrooms convey different benefits. Some have been found to provide immune support, others help with cognition and focus. Mushrooms have also been linked to improved cardiovascular health.
Experiment for yourself
Tero is careful not to overstate the benefits. When asked about his personal protocol with mushrooms, his response was unexpected. He is constantly being asked this question and says that people are always looking for a 1-2-3 guideline. His view, however, is that each person is different and may be affected by mushrooms in different ways.
In his personal case, he is constantly adjusting the mix of mushrooms he consumes based on factors such as the time of year, or how much work stress he is handling. The one thing he does always emphasize: variety.
Different types of mushrooms for different dayparts
We did get from his presentation a very useful chart that indicates which type of mushrooms you might want to consider by time of day.
In the morning, you might want to start with mushrooms that are antioxidant rich like a Cordyceps. Mid-afternoon you can boost your focus and creativity with something like a Lion’s Mane, and in the evening you can try to relax with Shiitake or Reishi.
Learn more about Tore and his company 4-Sigmatic here.