The American wellness industry is mad for mushrooms. If the late 2010s were all about CBD for anxiety, the early 2020s, with the pandemic-driven popularity of holistic health, have brought tradition-heavy fungi to the forefront. In the last three years, companies have launched lines of beverages and sweet treats galore loaded with reishi, lion’s mane, and other so-called adaptogenic mushrooms.
And no, these aren’t those kinds of mushrooms. The term “adaptogen” is used to refer to a large group of natural herbs, plants, and mushrooms that can, to some extent, assist the body in battling stress, fatigue, depression, and more. For mushrooms, that means they have a biological benefit aside from their standard nutritional value. Though many adaptogens have individually rich histories of use over thousands of years and research-proven applications, the broadness of the term itself has paved the way for exaggeration and pseudoscience to creep in. So do adaptogenic mushrooms actually work for wellness?
The scientific literature on adaptogenic mushrooms isn’t extensive, but it is promising for certain species at certain doses. A series of studies conducted in labs and in mice have identified more than a dozen species of mushrooms with some type of anti-inflammatory components that can assist the immune system in a variety of ways. Occasionally, these effects have been demonstrated in humans. A 2009 study in Norway, for instance, found that regularly taking an extract containing almond mushroom and lion’s mane mushroom for 12 days lowered levels of certain proinflammatory proteins in the blood by more than 50%.
Research also points to other potential benefits we may someday be able to harness. Powdered lion’s mane was found in a 2019 study to be associated with markedly higher performance on cognitive tasks in a small group of older adults. Its bioactive properties make it a focus of ongoing research on combating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
But for the most part, clinical data lags behind. Although chemical tests suggest that some mushrooms may be helpful for digestive issues, for instance, this and many other potential benefits of adaptogenic mushrooms remain more plausible than probable, or more probable than certain. So don’t expect to be picking up mushrooms at the pharmacy anytime soon.
However, some celebrities and brands are jumping on the trend and selling products with adaptogenic mushrooms — no docs involved. Earlier this year, Katy Perry co-founded De Soi, a beverage company selling $25 bottles of non-alcoholic aperitifs infused with various adaptogens. She’s far from the only deep-pocketed player getting into the game. Last month, the Pacific Northwest ice cream monolith Salt & Straw announced a line of shroomy flavors in collaboration with a new Seattle-based company that brews mushrooms into teas and coffees.
But products like these, which often leave out dose information (Salt & Straw is an exception), “are probably not going to do anything,” says Jenna Volpe, a registered dietician, writer, and clinical herbalist who specializes in functional nutrition. It’s rare for these products to add in a truly effective dose when mushrooms are just an infusion or an ingredient, she says. “Unless someone is consuming these things in therapeutic doses, they're not really going to notice much of a difference either way.”
The adaptogen market is fully unregulated in the U.S., which means that Katy Perry doesn’t really have to put more than a few drops of reishi mushroom into her “Champignon Dreams” flavored drink. “Everybody's trying to get into that market right now,” says Volpe. And although that can lead to some delicious, if expensive, ice creams, “you have to be really careful,” Volpe says. “I think a lot of herbs are very exploited in marketing.”
It’s not unheard of for companies to sell adaptogen “supplements” that don’t even contain the herb they claim to, says Volpe, or to cut them with other potentially dangerous ingredients. Kava root supplements, for instance, have been linked to deaths from liver failure in Europe and the United States, but experts remain unsure if the danger is caused by the root itself, remnants of another part of the plant, or something else entirely.
And if you’re not going to wait to try adaptogenic mushrooms until more research is available, be wary of powders — opt instead for a reliable extracted tincture or dried mushrooms that you can double-extract yourself at home. “Look for an organic, ethically sourced apothecary nearby,” Volpe says.
As for which types of mushrooms may be a boon for health, reishi mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms, both first used millennia ago in China, are two of the most popular adaptogens in the modern wellness space. Turkey tail, chaga, and cordyceps follow close behind.
They’re all considered to be highly safe, says Volpe, but if you’re going to try them, she recommends doing some research first to make sure there are no known interactions between the mushroom and any medications you’re on or conditions you have. “I'm biased, but I do think it's always better to work alongside somebody who's trained in this stuff,” Volpe says.
Talking to a clinical herbalist or someone else with extensive training on the specifics of different adaptogenic mushrooms is your safest bet, she says. And if you’re pregnant or experiencing symptoms that could indicate a medical problem, check in with a doctor before beginning any adaptogen routine.