Functional Mushrooms: Turkey Tail, Chaga, and Tremella Benefits, Research, and Uses
- What are Functional Mushrooms, and What Benefits do they Provide?
- Turkey Tail, Chaga, and Tremella Mushrooms
- What are the most bioavailable functional mushroom products?
Functional mushrooms are everywhere in the world of health foods and supplements. While they might seem like the latest holistic trend, traditional Chinese medicine heralded these plants for their unique and versatile health benefits for thousands of years. As their long-standing history and medicinal value continue coming to light, functional mushrooms and adaptogens appear in more products, from protein powder to hot chocolate to energy bars.
The anti-inflammatory effects, gut support, and immune-boosting properties of these superfood fungi make them an excellent addition to any health routine. Here, we review the top functional mushrooms, including turkey tail, chaga, and tremella, their benefits, and how to use them.
What are Functional Mushrooms, and What Benefits do they Provide?
Functional mushrooms aren’t the same as magic mushrooms that cause hallucinogenic effects. They’re also not strictly nutritional. These edible mushrooms are entirely non-psychedelic and packed with antioxidants and nutrients that help the brain, gut, and body in many ways.
Functional mushroom benefits
- Immune defense
- Mental focus and energy
- Memory and Cognition
- Skin and gut health
- Stress relief
- Sleep Quality
Most functional mushrooms fall into two broad categories: medicinal and adaptogenic.
- Medicinal mushrooms contain compounds that provide specific health benefits, like amino acids and antioxidants that can help prevent oxidative stress and protect body cells from damage. Medicinal mushrooms can also help people recover faster from active illnesses.
- Adaptogenic mushrooms help the body’s stress response system function properly. They help the system “adapt” to physical, chemical, and biological stressors, such as intense exercise, pollution, or anxiety. Regulating the nervous system helps the body feel safe, improving cognitive function, strengthening the immune system, regulating nerve signals, and balancing hormones.
Turkey Tail, Chaga, and Tremella Mushrooms
Turkey Tail, chaga, and Tremella are three of the most prominent functional plants delivering adaptogenic and medicinal benefits.
Scientific name: Trametes versicolor
Common names: Yun Zhi, kawaratake, Krestin, PSK, and PSP
Turkey Tail are medicinal mushrooms revered in various traditions for their ability to harmonize the body's internal environment. Turkey Tail is also known for enhancing skin health, fortifying the immune system, and boosting energy levels. Modern scientific investigations have corroborated several beneficial impacts, including age-defying properties, immunomodulation, and cancer cell inhibition.
Turkey tail mushrooms get their name due to their striking colors that vary highly within the brown to red range. This species is “zonate,” meaning they have separate color zones. Most are velvety to the touch.
Many describe the turkey tail mushroom taste as slightly bitter, mild, somewhat earthy, and not savory compared to other types, such as reishi or shiitake.
Their pungent taste often needs to be blended into recipes containing flavor-masking ingredients.
Primary active compounds:
Antioxidants, including phenols and flavonoids. Polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, PSP (polysaccharide peptide), and PSK (polysaccharide-k, known as “Krestin”). One study identified 38 phenolic compounds.
Turkey tail mushrooms contain Polysaccharide Krestin (PSK) and Polysaccharide Peptide (PSP), two well-known commercial fungal ingredients with significant therapeutic properties. Key health benefits from turkey tail mushrooms include:
1. Enhances immune system: Studies show the PSP and PSK in turkey tail mushrooms have immune-boosting properties. PSP increases monocytes, white blood cells that fight infection and boost immunity. PSK stimulates dendritic cells that promote immunity to toxins and activates specialized white blood cells that protect your body against certain bacteria.
2. Slows cancer growth: Turkey tail mushrooms can improve the response to cancer medicines and treatments. A test-tube study found that PSK in turkey tail mushrooms inhibited the growth and spread of human colon cancer cells. In a review, cancer patients who consumed turkey tail mushrooms daily along with conventional treatment showed a significant survival advantage.
3. Fights inflammation: Studies show turkey tail mushrooms contain an impressive array of antioxidants, including phenols and flavonoids, which can help reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of protective compounds.
Scientific name: Inonotus obliquus
Common name: “king of mushrooms,” birch canker, black gold, cinder conk, conk rot.
Chaga, an adaptogenic mushroom, has a long history of use in China, Russia, and Northern Canada for various medicinal purposes. The “king of mushrooms” can purportedly strengthen immunity, prevent cell damage, reduce inflammation, ease digestive issues, and nourish the skin.
Chaga mushrooms have a woody growth, or conk, which looks similar to a clump of burnt charcoal and reveals a soft, orange core.
Chaga mushrooms don’t taste like the typical grocery store variety. The mushroom contains vanillin, a plant metabolite in vanilla beans, giving it a mild earthy, sometimes bitter taste with a hint of vanilla.
Primary active compounds:
Polysaccharides, most notably beta-glucans, betulinic acid, terpenoids, sterols, melanin, polyphenols, oxalic, gallic, protocatechuic, and p-hydroxybenzoic acids.
Chaga mushrooms have been used as a remedy in Russia and other Northern European countries to treat various ailments for centuries, mainly to boost immunity and overall health. Key health benefits from Chaga mushrooms include:
1. Fights inflammation and boosts immunity: Animal and test-tube studies suggest chaga mushrooms can prevent the production of harmful cytokines, which trigger inflammation and cause disease. As a result, this mushroom could help fight infections, from minor colds to severe illnesses.
2. Fights cancer: Several animal and test-tube studies show that chaga mushrooms can prevent and slow cancer growth. One study found that Chaga mushroom extract could slow the growth of lung, breast, and cervical cancer cells in a petri dish.
3. Supports diabetes treatment: Several animal studies link chaga mushrooms to lower blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, making this medicinal variety an option to manage diabetes. In one mice study, chaga supplements led to a 31% decrease in blood sugar levels over three weeks.
Latin Name: Tremella fuciformis
Common Name: snow fungus, snow ear, silver ear fungus, and white jelly mushroom.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners used Tremella or Snow fungus mushrooms to treat respiratory issues and cardiac irregularities. This edible medicinal mushroom can also stimulate immune responses, reducing lipid levels in the blood, inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells, and moisturizing the skin.
Tremella has a nearly translucent white loofah-like or jellyfish appearance.
Tremella mushrooms have a spicy odor that dissipates with cooking. They are chewy and supple with a mild mushroom flavor.
Primary active compounds:
Fatty acids, proteins, enzymes, polysaccharides, phenols, and flavonoids.
Tremella mushrooms have high concentrations of vitamin D (essential for bone health), antioxidants, dietary fiber, protein, and minerals such as potassium. In traditional Chinese medicine, tremella was famous for boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, easing lung conditions such as asthma and dry cough, and maintaining clear, healthy skin.
1. Kills cancer cells: Like other medicinal mushrooms, tremella has complex sugars (aka polysaccharides), including beta-glucans, which offer incredible immune support and anti-cancer and anti-tumor effects. A 2018 study found that tremella could fight lung cancer cells and help with lung injury.
2. Natural anti-aging agent: According to a 2018 report, tremella mushrooms display excellent antioxidative and cell protective functions. Their high levels of polysaccharides prevent cell damage caused by free radicals and enhance skin hydration
3. Fights inflammation: Studies show tremella mushrooms inhibit the development and spread of inflammation, making them a potential treatment for heart disease, obesity, and tumors.
4. Lowers cholesterol: Due to its high fiber content (178% of the daily recommended intake), tremella can lower triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels, preventing heart disease.
5. Strong neuroprotective effects: Tremella mushrooms appear to have nerve growth factor (NGF), which could induce the growth of new nervous tissue, making them a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
What are the most bioavailable functional mushroom products?
Functional mushrooms offer numerous health benefits but rank low in bioavailability, meaning the body doesn’t absorb a high portion of the nutrients. That’s because mushroom cells are made of chitin, a rigid and challenging-to-digest material.
The most bioavailable formulas are tinctures, teas, powders, and capsules that have already extracted the mushrooms' nutrients.
- Tea involves soaking the raw plant material in a liquid extract solvent, such as alcohol, which releases nutritional compounds locked within their cells. Extraction exponentially increases bioavailability and yields concentrated blends bursting with adaptogenic compounds.
- Powders: Bulk powders are cost-effective and easy to add to recipes, such as teas, soups, smoothies, and even pizza and desserts. A teaspoon of powders made with mushroom extracts can provide a daily serving of therapeutic benefits.
- Capsules: Premeasured supplement capsules can provide an easy, compact, single recommended daily serving of functional mushrooms. Capsules also provide an option that overcomes taste concerns.
- Tinctures: Functional mushrooms in tinctures are the most potent because this is the purest extraction form. Additionally, the body processes tincture formulas faster than capsules and powders because they are absorbed by the mucous membranes in the mouth rather than digested.
- Skincare products: Tremella mushrooms appear in many skincare products offering anti-aging benefits. Look for natural products free from synthetic chemicals, parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and other questionable ingredients.
The Bottom Line
Functional, medicinal, and adaptogenic mushrooms have a long-standing reputation for a wide array of therapeutic properties. Medicinal and adaptogenic mushrooms are entirely non-psychedelic and packed with antioxidants and nutrients. They can potentially improve brain function, boost immune system health, improve sleep, fight cancer, and more.