The Mystery of Medicinal Mushrooms – PART 3 of 3

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Exploring 2 of the Most Functional Fungi on the Planet

Medicinal Mushrooms 3  Part Series

Part 1  •  Part 2   •  Part 3

By Don Gauvreau, MSc, CSCS
aka The Supplement Godfather

In part one of this three-part series we covered the history and traditional use of mushrooms as a medicine. In part two of this series we explained the mushroom-immunity connection and highlighted the top immune-boosting mushrooms. In part three of this series, we’ll highlight two of the most unique, powerful and functional mushrooms on the planet, cordyceps and lion’s mane!

CORDYCEPS

Cordyceps, also known as caterpillar fungus, is considered a stimulating adaptogen, which means it’s more energizing than other adaptogens that are more balanced and calming like chaga and reishi mushrooms. Cordyceps can help reduce the negative effects of stress on the mind and body, boost energy, reduce fatigue and even enhance testosterone and libido.

The cordyceps mushroom is a parasitic fungus that can be found around the world. Most of the world’s supply for consumption come from China where it has become very famous and popular as a natural tonic for many conditions. It’s one of the most heralded Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs) and medicinal mushrooms and its popularity has driven the wild supply down and skyrocketed the demand and cost to nearly $25,000 a kilo, making it one of the most expensive natural medicines in the world.

Cordyceps is a very intelligent mushroom, which we eluded to in Part two of this series. The lifecycle of the cordyceps mushroom begins when it drops it spores on an insect. The spores will germinate the insect and small thread-like filaments called hyphae will begin to grow inside the insect and turn into mycelium (think of mycelium like the roots of a plant). The mycelium will continue to consume the insect from the inside and when the insect is fully consumed and the environmental conditions are ideal, a fruiting body mushroom will be produced and will project from the insect’s head. The mushroom will then release more spores and the lifecycle will start all over again. There are three main types of cordyceps that people refer to and consume, (1) wild Cordyceps sinensis (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), (2) Cordyceps CS-4 and (3) Cordyceps militaris.

Wild Cordyceps sinensis (Ophiocordyceps sinensis)

The most well-known species of cordyceps is Cordyceps sinensis, which is now known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis. This type of cordyceps is primarily found at high elevations in parts of China and Tibet. Real, wild forms of Cordyceps sinensis are not used in supplements or health products because of their incredibly high cost. Wild Cordyceps sinensis contains good levels of the health-promoting beta-glucans that are found in mushrooms and also contains a unique compound called cordycepin.

Cordyceps CS-4

Mushroom cultivators have tried to produce Cordyceps sinensis on a commercial scale but they’ve only been able to produce Cordyceps sinensis liquid mycelium cultures and not fruiting mushroom bodies. This type of raw material is called Cordyceps CS-4 and is made of only mycelium and no fruiting bodies. CS-4 has been tested in clinical studies and is even approved by the Chinese government for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices. In research studies, CS-4 has been shown to produce similar results to the wild Cordyceps sinensis.

Cordyceps militaris

Cordyceps militaris is the one type of cordyceps species that can be commercially cultivated at scale to produce a mushroom fruiting body. The leading commercial supplier of medicinal mushrooms in Canada, NAMMEX Organic Mushroom Extracts, produces a Cordyceps militaris mushroom product called Cordyceps-M, which contains much higher levels of the important beta-glucans. Cordyceps CS-4 typically contains less than 10 percent beta-glucans, whereas Cordyceps-M from NAMMEX contains a minimum 25% beta-glucans. One of the unique things about Cordyceps militaris is that it produces high levels of the unique compound cordycepin (3′-deoxyadenosine) in much higher amounts when compared to Cordyceps sinensis. In fact, the Cordyceps militaris extract that NAMMEX produces contains almost 100 times more cordycepin than compared to wild Cordyceps sinensis.

Functional Health Benefits of Cordyceps

Cordyceps is an energizing adaptogen that’s used by many people simply for its energy-boosting effects, but it has many more beneficial properties that can support exercise performance, endurance, brain health, anti-inflammation, hormonal health and libido, to name a few.

Increases Exercise Performance & Endurance

Cordyceps is fairly well-known among athletes because several research studies on both Cordyceps CS-4 and Cordyceps militaris show that it can improve exercise performance in athletes. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal shows that Cordyceps CS-4 supplementation can result in improved circulatory and metabolic effects during submaximal exercise in endurance-conditioned athletes. The researchers of the study concluded that CS-4 supports normal fat mobilization and beta-oxidation, thereby preserving glycogen usage during prolonged exercise. In another study, the Cordyceps CS-4 subject group experienced a 6 percent increase in maximum oxygen uptake and a boost in ATP energy production.

Cordyceps militaris has also been studied for its performance-enhancing benefits in athletes. This species of cordyceps is similar to the sinensis species yet has larger quantities of the active constituents making it a highly effective substitute. Another option is to use both CS-4 and Cordyceps militaris together for potentially the greatest benefits. A 2016 study using the Cordyceps militaris species showed significant improvements in time to exhaustion, peak power output and ventilatory threshold in cyclists. The subject group of young male athletes consumed Cordyceps Militaris for three weeks and were measured for VO2, time to exhaustion, ventilatory threshold at baseline at week 1 and week 3. Following one-week of supplementation, time-to exhaustion-improved in the supplementation group. After three weeks, the supplementation group increased peak power by 17 percent whereas the placebo group decreased by 11 percent.  The supplementation group also improved their time-to-exhaustion by 70 seconds compared to a 5 second reduction in the placebo subjects.

How Does Cordyceps Work to Improve Performance?

Cordyceps has a multitude of mechanisms that allow it to improve bodily functions although its primary mechanism to boost performance is through the modulation of stress. Cordyceps CS-4 research shows that it can increase endurance and energy through more efficient enzyme activity of red blood cells while improving lung and kidney function. CS-4 also mobilizes free fatty acids and boosts beta-oxidation, thereby preserving glycogen usage during prolonged exercise. Research studies show that CS-4 can support the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), which provides its antioxidant power. In other studies, cordyceps has been shown to improve lactate energy metabolism within the cell, oxygen utilization and blood flow and therefore help clear lactate.

Brain Health & Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Although cordyceps in mainly known for its energizing adaptogen properties, it can also be highly supportive to cognitive and mental health and wellness. The anti-inflammatory properties of cordyceps can decrease oxidative stress and help prevent the death of neuronal cells, which causes memory loss and degenerative brain issues. Animals studies show that cordycepin may be neuroprotective in certain populations and pathologies, specifically neurovascular dysfunction and brain injuries. Cordyceps may also have an effect on adenosine receptors which explains some of its anti-inflammatory properties. 

Testosterone & Libido

Cordyceps sinensis has been traditionally used as a sexual tonic and libido booster. This is one reason why the wild type is so wildly popular in China. Animal studies show that cordyceps can decrease bisphenol A (BPA) (which is a hormone-disrupting plastic) induced reproductive damage while increasing testosterone, sperm motility and sperm count. It appears that cordycepin can increase a key steroidogenic enzyme which allows the starting substrate of all hormones (cholesterol) to enter the mitochondria for the production of steroid hormones, such as testosterone. 

The unique effects of cordyceps can be beneficial to athletes that are prone to overtraining because cordyceps has been shown to have potent antioxidant properties. A study conducted on endurance athletes shows that cordyceps supplementation decreased oxidative stress and overtraining markers and improved the testosterone to cortisol ratio. The dosage most commonly used in the research studies is anywhere from 1 to 4 grams daily. 

LION’S MANE

  • Promotes mental clarity, focus, and memory
  • Provides cerebral and nervous system support
  • Studies have identified a NGF (nerve growth factor) in lion’s mane
  • Optimizes immune system health
  • Boosts cognitive function

Lion’s mane is a powerful mushroom that’s gained great popularity in recent years for its cognitive health properties. Lion’s mane is a very unique mushroom, a tooth fungi, that also goes by the names bearded tooth, Japanese yamabushitake, pom pom, and its Latin name, Hericium erinaceus. Lion’s mane belongs to a group of fungi in the basidiomycota division that produces spores on tooth-like or spine-like projections, hence the term tooth fungi. This beautiful mushroom naturally grows on dead or dying trees in forests throughout the world, including North America. Lion’s mane doesn’t look like your typical mushroom and it gets its name because the fruiting body mushroom resembles a flowing lion’s mane, which is white in colour and also resembles a snowball. The teeth-like projections act as the gills of the lion’s mane mushroom and distribute its spores.

History of Use & Key Benefits

Lion’s mane has a long history if use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and research studies show it has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. But it is most famous for its immunomodulating and brain-boosting properties. Your brain naturally slows down over time and this is caused by many factors including stress which damages brain cells and shrinks neurons. Lion’s mane provides protective effects on your brain cells and can reduce the symptoms you would normally associate with stress and aging, such as a lack of focus and memory impairment.  

Boosts Cognitive Function & Brain Health

Studies show that lion’s mane can support brain health by stimulating the creation of two important compounds: nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). NGF and BDNF are proteins that stimulate the production of new brain cells and strengthen existing ones. NGF also plays an important role in forming myelin, the sheath around nerve cells that helps brain cells do their job. BDNF increases brain plasticity, which helps your brain cells stay resilient in the face of stress or aging.

The key active compounds found in lion’s mane have been identified as erinacines, erinacerins and herecinones. It’s important to use lion’s mane raw material with a full spectrum of constituents, including polysaccharides (beta-glucans, arabinoxylan, glucose, xylose, galactose and mannose), glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenoids and other myco-nutrients, which are essential for supporting natural immunity and cognitive function.

Research on Lion’s Mane and Neurogenerative Diseases

In a 2008 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study of 50 to 80-year-old Japanese men and women with cognitive decline, a diet including lion's mane mushroom powder reversed age-related cognitive decline. Research has also been conducted on mice injected with neurotoxic peptides to mimic amyloid plaque formation and inhibit cognitive capacity. After cognitive capacity was compromised, the mice were unable to memorize a simple maze. After 23 days of a diet that included lion’s mane mushroom the mice were able to memorize the maze and regained improved cognitive capacity.  

Repairs Neurons & Helps Prevents Brain Disease

Lion’s mane helps to get rid of amyloid plaque as well as build myelin sheaths. Amyloid plaque is a protein that destroys healthy neurons, impairs cognition, and has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Myelin breakdown is a main component of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Lion’s mane is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent and antioxidants neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing inflammation and damaging your brain cells. Antioxidants help you make more BDNF and lion’s mane stimulates BDNF and NGF. This combined synergistic effect on neural health can slow and reverse brain cell degradation, which is important for your current brain health and for the prevention of brain-related diseases.  

There is even some research that shows that the polysaccharides from lion’s mane in combination with polysaccharides from other mushrooms made lymphocytes proliferate at two to three times the ordinary rate and reduce tumor weights by shrinking them or stopping their growth.

Laser Sharp Mental Focus

Lion’s mane boosts focus and cognitive function by way of reducing inflammation in the brain. By decreasing inflammation, blood flow to the brain improves which provides it with more oxygen. More oxygen in your brain means better brain performance. As I already explained, lion’s mane is shown to increase BDNF and NGF in the brain, which then strengthens brain cells and stimulates the growth or new neurons. This is likely another mechanism that improves cognitive function.

Improves Mood & Reduces Anxiety

Lion's Mane has been researched for its effects on depression and anxiety. In a 2010 study, researchers examined the effects of lion’s mane mushroom on 30 women over a four-week period. The participants were randomly assigned to a test group or a control group, and they were given lion’s mane mushroom cookies or placebo cookies. At the end of the four weeks, the lion’s mane group reported a small reduction in depression scores. Lion’s mane may alleviate mood disorders by reducing inflammation in the brain. In fact, lion’s mane has been shown to reduce the production of inflammatory proteins in the brain and there is a growing body of research that links brain inflammation and mental illness.

Final Pro-Tip on Lion’s Mane

Use a full spectrum lion’s mane that includes both mycelium and fruiting bodies. Lion’s mane that is grown through the full life cycle of the mushroom includes all of the bioactive compounds produced during the mycelial stage -including erinacines and during the fruiting body stage - including hericenones. Both of these compounds have been researched for their cognitive and immune health benefits. It’s also important to understand your supply and source and find a reputable company/product that uses ethical and sustainable cultivating practices.  

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Lou Y, et al. (1986). Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs, 17(5): 17-21, 209-213. 

Mitsou, E. K., et al. (2020). Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(12), 2806. 

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