You may have heard of herbal adaptogens, which is a class of substances that work with the body to help it adapt and to promote balance (homeostasis).
Adaptogens are well regarded for helping people to handle and manage stress and fatigue. Adaptogens do so in a way that regulates important hormones to help normalize functions in the body.
Amazingly, adaptogens are amphoteric, which means they help increase or decrease specific hormones/functions in the body to help bring the body back to balance.
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Benefits of Adaptogens
- Enhanced immune support (anti-inflammatory actions);
- Weight management support (hormonal regulation);
- Boosted physical endurance and enhanced mental focus; and,
- Mood balancing support (hormonal regulation, anti-inflammatory actions).
Adaptogens are also generally regarded as safe and are most commonly taken as tonics- meaning they are safe for long-term use.
While the term “adaptogen” generally refers to herbs, there are a handful of medicinal mushrooms that are also considered to be adaptogens. A few adaptogenic mushrooms are Reishi, Chaga, and Cordyceps.
These mushrooms are great for boosting energy, improving and supporting immunity, and helping to calm and focus the mind.
The Connection Between Stress and Illness
There is a significant connection between stress and illness/diseases. Have you ever experienced working hard and feeling so stressed out, that you become physically ill? This is a common experience among college students who often lose a lot of sleep after staying up too late studying for finals or working on assignments for days at a time. Eventually, they crash and burn.
This is because stress deeply impacts our immune systems. Some stress is beneficial for keeping the immune system alert and can help save your life in dangerous situations. However, the more serious issue is that our busy daily lives create chronic stress.
To understand the impact of chronic stress and how adaptogens work, it is important to look at the HPA Axis.
According to Dr. Amy Meyers, “Your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that recognizes stress. When you are stressed, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland, and they both, in turn, signal your adrenals to produce and release stress hormones. This is known as your HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis.”
During times of chronic stress, the HPA axis is in overdrive—impacting your immune system, blood sugar levels, appetite, thyroid hormone balance, mood, sleep, libido, and more. Chronic stress is also taxing on the adrenal glands (adrenal fatigue).
While adaptogens can’t eliminate stress, they can support your body for a more balanced response to stress. Adaptogens directly influence the HPA-axis, regulating stress hormone and cortisol production, thereby helping to prevent adrenal fatigue.
Interestingly, Dr. Amy Meyers also said, “Adaptogens also help modulate cellular sensitivity to stress hormones, thereby encouraging a healthier response to stress.”
Being able to manage stress is key to overall health and well-being and this is why more and more people are turning to adaptogens for support.
The medicinal mushrooms- Reishi, Chaga, and Cordyceps can provide adaptogenic support during times of chronic stress and can also support the body in its everyday functioning.
This powerful medicinal mushroom has a long history of traditional use, dating back about 2,000 years ago in China. One of the earliest references occurred as early as 100 B.C. in which it was referred to as a superior herb for enhancing human health.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is also called “lingzhi” and is also called the “Mushroom of Immortality.”
Recent research shows that there are about 400 bio-active compounds in Reishi. Notably, these compounds have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immune-enhancing effects.
The scientific journal article, Identifying the “Mushroom of Immortality”: Assessing the Ganoderma Species Composition in Commercial Reishi Products, states that “[t]he chemical and biological properties of many fungi have sparked the interest of pharmaceutical researchers who are investigating secondary metabolites produced by fungi that may lead to the bio-manufacturing of new drug formations.”
In other words, Reishi, along with other medicinal mushrooms, are of interest because of the metabolites they produce in response to their environments, which may provide antidotes to toxins and harmful micro-organisms.
When it comes to Reishi, some of the researched “active” constituents include polysaccharides, peptidoglycans, and triterpenes. Polysaccharides are produced by the fungal mycelia and have been shown to exhibit a broad range of bio-activities, including anti-inflammatory, hypoglycemic, anti-ulcer, and immunostimulating effects.
The peptidoglycans are associated with antiviral activity. Triterpenes are a subclass of terpenes, which are commonly found in the plant kingdom and associated with anti-inflammatory, hypolipidemic, and antitumorigenic effects.
In addition, triterpenes are believed to contribute to disease resistance and are also the compound that gives Reishi a slightly bitter taste. Dr. Axe explains that the beta-glucan constituents in the mushroom help to increase the body’s immune system’s T-cell levels, which means that Reishi can help to lower inflammatory responses caused by stress.
Dr. Axe also discusses how as an adaptogen, Reishi has a unique ability to create a state of calm while simultaneously enhancing energy and focus, making Reishi a great mood tonic.
This current understanding of Reishi makes sense since in TCM Reishi is traditionally categorized as a Qi (vital energy) and Shen (calm, spirit of the heart) tonic.
Also called “King of the Mushrooms,” Chaga is an adaptogenic mushroom, with a traditional use as a Jing (life/youthfulness) and Shen tonic in TCM. Chaga is a parasitic mushroom, which thrives on old birch trees. While parasitic to the trees, Chaga can bring the human body much benefit, including support against stress!
Like Reishi, Chaga mushroom has a plethora of constituents which can support immunity and help combat stress. The beta glucans, which are sugars found in the cell wall of the fungus, are associated with the immune boosting benefits of Chaga.
Another constituent in Chaga, polysaccharides, help to support blood sugar balance, provide energy, and are also associated with liver health. Chaga also contains melanin, which is a powerful antioxidant.
This powerful medicinal mushroom is a great adaptogen for people who feel stressed and anxious. This fungi contains minerals that promote mental health, helping to alleviate mental stress, which can often present as anxiety.
Due to its relaxing effects, Chaga is a popular herbal tea- it pairs great with a touch of maple syrup.
Cordyceps, like Chaga, is a parasitic mushroom, only in the wild, this mushroom mainly grows on insects.
How does this happen?
Well, the Cordyceps spores travel through the air and land on insects, where they germinate and eventually grow a mycelium inside the insect. The mycelium will continue to consume the insect from the inside, and when it is fully consumed and the environmental conditions are right, it will form a blade-like mushroom (fruiting body) from the insect’s head!
This mature mushroom will produce spores, and the cycle will continue. Before the science of this process was understood, the Chinese though Cordyceps to be magical.
If you are freaked out about this insect-eating mushroom, rest assured that Cordyceps used medicinally is commonly cultivated on grains such as rice, since wild Cordyceps is very expensive- you would have to go out of your way and pay big bucks for wild Cordyceps.
At Lost Empire Herbs, we grow our Cordyceps on barley. Unlike some companies, which just sell the ground up grain with the mushroom mycelium, we use only the fruiting bodies.
Functional Medicine Practitioner, William Cole, considers Cordyceps the anti-ager of the mushroom kingdom. He cites one study which showed that Cordyceps was able to dramatically increase the powerful antioxidants, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase.
He says that Cordyceps can decrease pro-inflammatory monoamine oxidase and lipid peroxidation activity- both of which are related to aging.
As an adaptogen, Cordyceps can support people who are struggling with fatigue to increase their energy levels and endurance. Dr. Axe states that Cordyceps can directly impact energy levels because it can increase the production of ATP, which is responsible for fueling our bodies on a cellular level.
Dr. Axe says, “[I]n Chinese folk medicine they’re known to be “invigorants,” and believed to act as a gentle stimulant, a tonic and an adaptogen used to increase energy and reduce fatigue. They also act as protectors of mitochondria by scavenging reactive oxygen species, inhibiting mitochondrial swelling and increasing the activities of antioxidant substances, which makes them a natural anti-aging food.”
Cordyceps is a popular supplement among athletes and with good reason. Back in 1993, the Chinese female track teams used Cordyceps as part of a daily, special regime, after training sessions. In the national championships that year, they set nine world records. Since this time, it has been used by athletes to promote endurance and improve performance.
Most importantly, in TCM, Cordyceps is considered both a strong Yin Jing and Yang Jing herb, promoting a balanced life and youthfulness- which is a rare classification.
Adaptogenic Mushrooms for Stress Support
Whether you are experiencing acute or chronic stress, or seeking to optimize your health and wellness, these adaptogenic medicinal mushrooms can help. As adaptogens, they can help your body regain and remain in balance. As daily tonics, medicinal mushrooms have much to offer.
Chilton, Skye. “A Must Read Guide to Cordyceps Supplements.” Real Mushrooms, Skye Chilton https://Www.realmushrooms.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2015/08/Enfold-Rm-Logo-300×138.Jpg, 23 June 2018, www.realmushrooms.com/cordyceps-supplements-guide/.
Cole, William. “7 Adaptogenic Mushrooms Their Benefits, Explained By A Functional Medicine Doctor.” Mindbodygreen, Mindbodygreen, 3 Nov. 2016, www.mindbodygreen.com/0-27014/7-adaptogenic-mushrooms-their-benefits-explained-by-a-functional-medicine-doctor.html.
Group, Edward, et al. “Adaptogenic Herbs: What Are Adaptogens?” Dr. Group’s Healthy Living Articles, Global Healing Center, Inc, 25 Feb. 2016, www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/what-are-adaptogens/.
Loyd, Andrew L., et al. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6055023/.
Myers, Amy. “The 5 Best Adaptogens to Combat Stress and Adrenal Fatigue.” Amy Myers MD, 17 Aug. 2018, www.amymyersmd.com/2018/08/adaptogens-stress-adrenal-fatigue/.“
Replenishing and Restoring Jing.” Acupuncture Today – The Leading Provider of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine News and Research Information in the World – TCM – Find an Acupuncturist, 1 July 2014, www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=32900.
Wachtel-Galor, Sissi. “Ganoderma Lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi).” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1970, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92757/.