Come meet the mushrooms! With the release of our new Chaga Elixir, we've been getting lots of questions about the health benefits of Chaga. In this post we will cover some of the basic facts about this species as well as an overview of its reported medical properties.
So, without further ado...
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a unique type of fungus with an interesting growth pattern. It's primarily a parasite of birch trees, although it can occasionally infect other hardwood trees like alder. It can be found across the northen hemisphere in areas that experience cold weather. Chaga can take many years to grow, and domestic cultivation is still quite difficult, so a lot of it is foraged from the wild, and sustainable harvesting practices are important to ensure the continued existence of chaga in the wild.
Here's an overview of its basic anatomy and how it grows: Chaga primarily consists of a dense, black, and hard mass called the sclerotium. This is the most recognizable part of the chaga fungus. The sclerotium is rich in melanin, which gives it its distinctive black color. The mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus, and it is present inside the tree on which chaga grows. The mycelium is responsible for the spread and colonization of the host tree. The chaga's outer surface, where spores are produced, forms a porous layer with small, irregular pores. This is usually the part of chaga that is exposed and visible on the outside of the tree.
It's important to note that chaga's growth process can be quite slow, and it often takes many years for a chaga conk to reach a size suitable for harvesting. Due to its potential medicinal and nutritional properties, chaga has been used traditionally in various cultures, and it has gained popularity in modern herbalism and alternative medicine.
Chaga is believed to offer several health benefits, including:
It's important to note that while these potential benefits are promising, more clinical research is needed to establish the full extent of chaga's health advantages. If you're considering using chaga as a dietary supplement or for its potential medicinal properties, it's wise to consult with a healthcare professional, as it may interact with certain medications or have contraindications for specific health conditions. And always source chaga from reliable suppliers to ensure its quality and purity.
Hope you've enjoyed reading about this marvelous mushroom. Although not a true mushroom (technically it's a fungus in the Hymenochaetaceae Family), it was a well-deserved reputation as a fantastic fungus and there is considerable scientific interest in Chaga. Its unique growth patterns and potential health benefits make it a captivating subject for anyone interested in mycology and natural health.
We get a lot of questions about how lion's mane and reishi stack up to one another as medicinal mushrooms. In this blog post we explain: How are their health benefits similar, and in what ways are they different?
How They're Alike
One very important way these mushrooms are similar is that they both contain pretty high levels of antioxidants, which help to lower inflammation. Here we should make a quick distinction between the two types of inflammation: acute vs. chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the body's response to a specific and sudden damage, such as a cut or a bruise. As the name suggests, it's a more localized response, where the immune system sends out inflammatory cells to a particular area, such as your finger or your ankle, to heal a specific injury.
This is a natural and essential part of the healing process, but chronic inflammation, on the other hand, happens when the body is still sending out inflammatory cells even though there is no longer any injury or outside danger. Chronic inflammation is more persistent and more difficult to detect, which also makes it more hazardous. Some of the most common factors which may cause chronic inflammation are constant stress, unhealthy habits like smoking or not exercising enough, or exposure to harmful toxins such as pollutants or industrial chemicals. When ongoing chronic inflammation is left untreated, it is associated with diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and asthma.
So chronic inflammation is not the deadly disease, but it is the underlying cause that does put us at risk of developing serious health problems. Our best bet is to go to the source and fix our lifestyle habits & choices that are contributing to chronic inflammation in the first place. But also, foods that are high in antioxidants, as these two mushrooms are, can help reduce inflammation because they protect cells and tissue by neutralizing the effect of free radicals.
Another area where the two mushrooms overlap is in how they support the endocrine system, which is a system of glands that produces hormones for the body. Hormones act as chemical messengers, and the body releases them at certain times for specific purposes, but the primary goal of the system is maintaining of homeostasis. When we experience hormone imbalance, we may feel tired, stressed, grumpy, or sad. These mushrooms are able to help the body stabilize hormone levels and re-balance. The word for this feature is adaptogenic, and even though it gets used a lot lately as a buzzword for medicinal mushrooms, it's actually a pretty good description of how they work, because they can modulate their effects depending on the person and a number of other factors.
A third and very important thing they have in common is that they both seem to draw their medicinal powers from the beta-glucan polysaccharides and triterpenes they contain. Of course, each mushroom species has its own unique set of compounds, and there can even be some variability within a species, depending on the substrate available and the cultivation methods used, but the operative mechanism in their healing potential seems to be similar.
In a separate post, we'll get into more detail talking about polysaccharides, beta-glucans, triterpenes, and all that good stuff, but that's a story for another day.
How They're Different
Although they are both known for strengthening the immune system, the way each mushroom does this is a little different. The Reishi mushroom takes a more direct approach, by working through the white blood cells and activating a balanced immune response. Reishi is inherently anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-cancer. The Lion's Mane, however, is more indirect in its immune boosting benefits, since it works through the digestive system. By balancing the microbiome, it promotes gut health, which it turns out, is an excellent way to have a properly functioning immune system.
Why is gut health important? Known as the enteric nervous system, this network of nerve cells is made up of over 100 million neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract, which is why many scientists refer to it as the 2nd brain. Not quite as good at reasoning and logic as the "main brain", but somehow more attuned to our intuitive instincts. So when people say, "trust your gut", there's actually some solid truth behind it! The digestive system and the immune system are known to work together, and it makes sense since the digestive tract is a possible entry point for pathogens that could make us sick. So, in other words, a healthy digestive system leads to a healthy immune system.
When it comes to nootropics and cognitive brain function, the lion's mane is pretty much in a class of its own. Several research studies have shown a positive correlation between the active compounds in the mushroom and the growth of NGF (nerve growth factor). So basically, it stimulates the growth of neurons in your central nervous system and it also repairs damaged nerves in your entire peripheral nervous system. This is why many people take it as a brain booster for focus, memory, and mental clarity.
Reishi is known for its calming, relaxing effect, and it's also advertised often as something that helps you sleep better. This is because the particular triterpenes in reishi help to regulate the hormones in our endocrine system. When our hormones are in balance, we feel more centered and we are not anxiously anticipating or reacting to any perceived threats (real or imagined), and we are more likely to go about our usual business with a sense that all is well... So while it doesn't make you sleepy, it does help you feel more relaxed, making it more likely that you will find that deep, restorative sleep that really helps charge the batteries.
What Does the Science Say?
These two mushrooms have a long history as medicinal mushrooms. Although their reported benefits have not all been corroborated fully by modern science, we tried to stick to the facts from the research that is available. For more information on the scientific literature behind these mushrooms and their benefits, please visit our resources page, where we link to a lot of clinical studies on this matter.
Although lion's mane and reishi are two of the most widely studied species of mushrooms, it remains true that more research is needed, especially with humans in clinical trials, in order to further understand and quantify the effects. It seems this is one of those things that some cultures have known for ages, while the rest of us, as well as the science, are barely catching up.
So, What Does It All Mean? Which One Should I Take for What?
As with any health decision, it's important to get informed, do your research, and if you have any questions, talk to a doctor. But here this Venn Diagram shows an outline of the health benefits in a visually convenient chart.
If you're looking for brain-boosting benefits, or anything related to the nervous system, or if you're dealing with gastrointestinal issues, try the Lion's Mane Elixir. If you're looking for strengthened immunity, or anti-aging benefits, or overall wellness, try the Reishi Elixir. With either one, you'll also be getting anti-inflammatory benefits and improved mood.
What always stands out when discussing these mushrooms, is how the health benefits seem to work in an interconnected way. Their solutions are rarely compartmentalized, and they seem to always seek better coordination between the parts, for the benefit of the whole.
Pretty often one health benefit will lead to another, which corresponds to yet another, and there's a nice synergy to the whole thing. If paired with a few other healthy habits, it feels like a positive feedback loop of delight! Just to be clear, we're NOT saying this is a perfectly reliable effect or that it will happen for every single person who tries a mushroom supplement. But when the puzzle pieces are in order, the interconnectedness of the organism is a truly remarkable thing.
So, this has been a quick introduction to learn more about these two awesome mushrooms, and hopefully it may be useful in helping you, dear reader, decide which of them (if any) is right for you. In one word, the lion's mane is better for doing, while the reishi is better for being, but in the end, it all depends. Or, you can just take both.
Perhaps you're here as a curious novice, an intrepid seeker, or maybe just as an innocent bystander. Regardless of which, something has brought us together here... so let us talk about mushrooms. In this post, you will find a little bit of background info to get us familiar with the fungi kingdom, plus a bit of mushroom history, and we'll explain what we mean when we differentiate between gourmet, medicinal, and psychedelic mushrooms.
The fungi kingdom is made of mushrooms, yeasts, molds, and all kinds of gooey stuff. At one time considered to be plants, it wasn't until 1969 that they were placed in their own kingdom, and it turns out that genetically they are more closely related to animals than plants, in fact, humans share nearly 50% of their DNA with mushrooms. Fungi were some of the first complex organisms to evolve on land. In much earlier chapters of evolution, fungi diverged from plants an estimated 1.5 billion years ago, and then split from animals a few million years later.
One of the main differences between a plant and a fungus is that plants get their energy from the sun and water. Organisms that can do this are known as autotrophs because they are essentially able to produce their own food. Fungi, on the other hand, are not capable of photosynthesis and so they get their energy by decomposing organic matter. Organisms that do this are known as heterotrophs, and animals are also in this category, but the way animals and fungi actually eat their food is very different. Animals are able to physically ingest their food because they have stomachs in their bodies and a digestive system. Fungi lack stomachs, so they must digest their food externally by releasing enzymes (and other secondary metabolites, more on this later) that help break down matter and absorb nutrients.
This is how fungi play a fundamental role in nature, acting as nature's recyclers as they break down matter and then redistribute minerals and nutrients back into the ground to be reused as the raw materials for another cycle of death and rebirth. If fungi didn't do this, the planet would be overflowing with rotten trees, and decaying organic matter. To quote the great Paul Stamets, "fungi are the interface organisms between life and death".
Today many things are possible thanks to the fungi kingdom. We can make penicillin and other antibiotics by growing and treating certain molds. Yeast is used to aid the process of fermentation in making beer, bread, and certain cheeses. Researchers are currently experimenting with a number of diverse fungi species to solve some of the biggest crises we face today, whether they are environmental, medical, or existential. Meanwhile, historians, anthropologists, and ethnobotanists worldwide have argued that some of the most visionary art, music, and literature throughout history would not exist without the influence of magic mushrooms.
Of all the fungi species out there (which are estimated in the millions), by far the most popular are the basidiomycete mushrooms. Through the ages mushrooms have occupied a special place in our imagination, at times revered and often feared. Some cultures have embraced them as food and medicine while others have kept a safer distance. And you can find references to mushrooms in some really interesting places throughout the history of civilizations: particularly in areas like mythology & folklore, shamanism & sorcery, and spirituality & religion.
To fully understand and appreciate this, we must think about the enigma it surely was for our ancestors, that a mushroom could offer nourishment, healing, transcendent experiences, or death. And for most of our history as a species, we simply didn't know which one it might be. So this has had a profound effect on our collective psyche and has created a mystical and notorious aura that can be hard to overcome.
Mushrooms first evolved on Earth an estimated 700 million years ago. For a while not much happened, plants were just beginning to grow and animals had not yet left the sea to live on land. For some time, around 450 million years ago, a fungal species known as Prototaxites emerged. These structures could grow up to 30 feet high, making them the biggest organisms on land at the time. Millions of years later, the planet went through two mass extinction events and the abundance of dead organic matter made quite a feast for the saprotrophic fungi (those that feed off decaying matter).
Mushrooms can be very diverse and complex in their morphologies. We tend to think of the mushroom as the whole organism, but in reality, the mushroom is just the fruiting body and the rest of the organism is located underground, invisible to us. The vast underground network of fungal roots is called mycelium, and these threads form dense networks that exchange nutrients and information throughout the forest. Most basidiomycete fungi will form mushrooms that have a cap and a stem, and depending on the type of mushroom, the underside of the cap will either have gills, tubes, or pores. The spores of the mushroom are equivalent to the seeds of a plant because they are able to form a new organism, although spores are much smaller and they can travel through the air for long distances.
When talking about mushrooms, we use a lot of terms that are not always obvious, and for the interested learner who is yet unversed and unfamiliar with these terms, it can get confusing pretty quickly. So, let's remember that this is just a basic overview, and these are just meant to be useful terms & definitions, and in no way does this represent the official scientific consensus on what categories we should be using and what names we should be calling them. So what exactly do we mean by gourmet, medicinal, and psychedelic mushrooms?
Gourmet mushrooms are those edible mushrooms that are especially prized for their culinary and nutritional applications. Chefs commonly use mushrooms for their unique range of textures and flavors. As far as superfoods go, these mushrooms also have some great game. They're full of vitamins and minerals so they support a healthy diet and help lower cholesterol - delicious and nutritious! You can get really creative when cooking these mushrooms; whether in a pasta, in a soup, an omelet, a burger or whatever, their complex earthy flavors will elevate any dish. Some gourmet mushrooms cannot be cultivated and must be foraged from the wild, so the availability can be scarce and the price can be eye-popping (for example; morels, chanterelles and of course truffles).
Medicinal mushrooms are those whose health benefits go above and beyond the standards of a nutritious food. Medicinal mushrooms may or may not be considered gourmet. For example, the Lion's Mane mushroom is both a gourmet and a medicinal mushroom, but the Reishi is only considered medicinal and not gourmet because of its unappealing texture & flavor. Medicinal mushrooms are often consumed in extract form, and thus sometimes could enter into a gray area where the line gets blurred between food and medicine.
Psychedelic mushrooms are those mushrooms which contain psychoactive compounds. Psilocybin is usually the most prevalent and studied psychoactive compound within these mushrooms, although they can contain combinations of up to a dozen or more additional psychoactive alkaloids - naturally occurring compounds known to have psychoactive effects. These mushrooms seem to operate on a higher plane of reality because their effects are in the realm of experience or consciousness - often creating deeply meaningful and life-changing mystical experiences for the person taking them. When used responsibly, these mushrooms have shown tremendous potential in dealing with mental health issues such as trauma, depression, PTSD, and addiction disorders.
And then of course, you also have the category of toxic mushrooms, which can deliver you to death in grueling agony, and considering the estimated number of mushrooms that we haven't even identified or fully studied yet, there’s a chance many species won’t fit neatly or discretely into the aforementioned categories.
So why are mushrooms having their moment? The fact is, the mushroom kingdom has long been an understudied and underappreciated sector of the natural world, and western science is barely making significant progress to understanding its many intricacies and nuances. As we are seeing, the fungi kingdom and mushrooms branch and myceliate into just about every science and industry imaginable - culinary arts and nutrition, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, ecology and sustainable agriculture, industrial applications (like textiles and construction materials), and bioremediation (replacing plastic packaging or degrading pollution). Now more than ever, we need creative solutions that align with natural systems using an integral approach, and mushrooms have a way of reminding us of the interconnected, genre-defying, boundary-dissolving and functionally integrated nature of all things in life.