Mushroom supplements are an effective and efficient way to gain a lot of the therapeutic benefits that medicinal mushrooms have to offer, including boosting immune function, antioxidant support, enhancing cognitive function, anticarcinogenic effects, and much more. However, what needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a mushroom supplement for its health benefits?
The supplement must be bioavailable-that is, extracted, to maximize its therapeutic potential.
When a high-quality bioavailable supplement is chosen, the other things to keep in mind are what bioactive compounds are in the supplement, whose usefulness depends on the unique needs of the person taking it, and what additives, fillers, and heavy metals are not in the supplement.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at why it’s so important to choose bioavailable mushroom supplements and which ones to choose out of the many available ways of ingestion. We’ll also recommend a couple of the current brands on the market that prioritize premium, high-quality supplements with maximal therapeutic potency.
The crucial importance of bioavailability in mushroom supplements
The therapeutic potential of a mushroom supplement depends on the various bioactive ingredients present. These constituents include polysaccharides like beta-glucans, triterpenes, polyphenols, phytosterols, and proteins that have health-promoting properties. Only high-quality extracts list guaranteed levels and percentages of these bioactive components.
Non-extracted mushroom supplements, such as powders of the mycelium and fruiting bodies, are unfortunately indigestible for most people (up to 80% according to one study of 25 young men), and therefore low in bioavailability. This is because the cells of mushrooms are made of a tough fiber called chitin, which also constitutes the shells of insects and lobsters. Chitin is the fibrous barrier that surrounds and embeds the therapeutically active ingredients in the mushrooms, effectively locking them in. Without optimal functioning of the enzyme chitinase, which may be in less than 20% of people, the beneficial effects of the supplement will be uncertain at best or absent at worst.
Factors to consider when choosing the right supplement
Quality extracts circumvent the problem above by extracting the bioactive compounds in either hot water, hot ethanol, or both in a sterile, high-tech lab processing environment. This procedure dissolves the tough cell walls and makes the bioactive ingredients accessible to the body. In the dual extraction with both hot water and alcohol, both the water-soluble and water-insoluble bioactive ingredients will be bioavailable (such as both beta-glucans and triterpenes), potentially maximizing the therapeutic effect.
Furthermore, since these powdered products do not list the percentages of bioavailable ingredients, the dose recommendations are often arbitrary and not rooted in solid scientific evidence. The potency of powdered mushrooms can vary depending on where the mushrooms are found, where they are cultivated, and in what conditions they develop. Oftentimes, even if you can digest it optimally, it takes many more pills than the recommended dose to achieve the same effect that extracts provide, as low potency also usually means low purity and high fillers.
Ideally, the dose recommendation should be based on the therapeutic potential of the product, just like in prescription medications. The right amount of bioactive dosage is crucial to achieving the right effect. For example, it has been shown in studies that the immunological effect of beta-glucans found in many medicinal mushrooms is dose-dependent. After perusing the available literature, using 25-50 mg/kg body-weight of a high purity extract will have excellent therapeutic potential, including immune-boosting and anti-cancer effects. For someone that weighs about 150lb, this comes out to roughly 1.7-3.4g daily. This may even be halved for healthy individuals that are looking for immune support or general preventative health maintenance. However, the weight alone is not enough to ascertain whether or not the dose is therapeutic.
Another factor should come into play when choosing which supplements to purchase, namely, the percentage of specific bioactive polysaccharides. A mushroom supplement that costs three times as much as another product for the same total grams may seem overpriced at first glance, but if the product contains, say, 15% beta-glucans per serving compared to an unknown polysaccharide amount in a powdered biomass product that will undoubtedly be lower, then it is great value for the money. In general, the value is determined by the amount of bioactives you get for the price, not by just the product’s weight or size.
When considering purchasing a good mushroom supplement, it’s also important to note if the manufacturer includes a test report that lists the specifications and all potential dangers such as contamination by things such as arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. Usually, the test report process is outsourced from a third party laboratory to prevent conflicts of interest when done in-house and is requestable as a Certificate of Analysis. If there are no details included and no test report, the product is questionable and best avoided. Marketing language such as all low-priced, all-natural, non-GMO, organic, energy support, DNA support, etc. do not reveal anything about the objective quality of the product, and therefore its real therapeutic value and safety.
In high-quality products, the percentages of the bioactive ingredients are usually listed in the supplement facts, which is governmentally supervised and a reliable source about what is in the product.
Claims about the product’s bioactive ingredients found in the product’s promotional description or leaflets are not held to the same standard as the supplement facts, i.e. are not hard-verified and are therefore questionable. This is why Amazon requires all supplement sellers to show a picture of the supplement facts, which may not be evident on the seller’s website. In addition to marketing claims, ratio claims like 1:4 extract mean little to nothing in terms of efficacy or potency, it may just mean the mushroom’s water content was extracted and then it was pulverized after dried but has little to say about the bioavailability of the beneficial compounds.
In lower quality products, the supplement facts will not contain the percentages of either general or specific polysaccharides. This is because either the company didn’t have the means to evaluate the polysaccharide content (as is the case in lower-tech extractions) or, to increase sales, intentionally left out the information because the bioactives present are probably not very high. Products that are slightly better but still specious will claim something like 15% polysaccharides without breaking down the actual beta-glucan content, for example.
Choosing the right type of mushroom supplement product
When looking into mushroom supplements, you’ll come across all types of products, including:
- Powdered mushrooms, either loose, in capsules, or in tablets
- Mushroom biomass powder, usually either as mushroom mycelia (like mycelium-on- grain), fruiting bodies, and substrate, or a mix or combination of them
- Liquid products, such as mushroom tinctures, either water or alcohol based
- Dried chunks or strips of mushrooms, such as to make tea, soups, etc.
- Mushroom extract powder, either loose, in capsules, or in tablets
While folk remedies from traditional Chinese and eastern European medicine have used a wide variety of these over the centuries, especially the tea form, recent scientific studies almost always use extraction-based mushroom products in making health claims, specifically extract-based products either in water, alcohol or another solvent. In a study from 2015 out of Bastyr University, the researchers compared 39 mushroom products in their immune-related activity. The hot water mushroom extracts were strikingly more potent than ground mushroom products in their biologically active immune-related effects.
If therapeutic effects are the goal, it is best to avoid biomass products such as tinctures as well as dried, ground up, or powdered mushroom products. The bioactive ingredients cannot be guaranteed and the low bioavailability from the indigestible chitin content makes the health effects minimal or unpredictable at best. As for alcohol tinctures, alcohol itself will not degrade chitin, which requires either heat, fermentation, or enzymes (like chitinase) to degrade. While tinctures are great for herbal supplements, they are not ideal for mushrooms for this reason.
Additionally, these biomass products normally include lots of substrate, over 65%, which possess no therapeutic effects and are undigested (such as the non-bioactive starch in mycelium-on-grain products, which are common in Host Defense supplements). This is in contrast to pure fruiting body supplements, which may contain less than 5% starch.
With teas as is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the chitin is dissolved by heat (as is the case in soups) which gives access to the beneficial bioactives, but the yield and potency of these bioactives are at least ten times lower compared to a multistep dual extract prepared in a dedicated factory.
Lastly, sublingual or topic administration of beta-glucans in liquid mushroom supplements is not effective because of the molecule’s large size. Oral routes of ingestion are much better, as the molecule doesn’t degrade from stomach acid and readily transports across the intestinal cell wall to the lymphatic system.
So then, which extracts are best?
It’s clear that mushroom extracts, ideally dual-extracted powdered supplements are the best run for your money. They have the highest bioavailability, are transparent in their contents, and have the maximal therapeutic potential. Liquid extracts that are in aqueous solution or alcohol may be more digestible, but the bioavailability is not higher in contrast to popular belief. In these products, the main ingredient is, of course, the liquid, in fact, about 95% of it is either alcohol or water. When compared to high-quality powdered extract in terms of the level of bioactives present, the liquid extracts have much lesser value for your money (that is, much more expensive). Additionally, the percentages of bioactives aren’t known or listed in these liquid extract supplement facts, making their therapeutic effects vague at best.
If powdered extracts are the best, which parts of the mushroom should one be looking out for?
There are clearly many parts to the fungi biomass that can be extracted, including the mycelia, the fruiting body, and the substrate.
The answer depends on the particular mushroom and the manufacturer.
For reishi, the bioactives, including the ganoderic acids and other triterpenes present, start developing when the mycelia are nearly forming the fruiting body and so are mainly found in the fruiting body. On the other hand with Chaga, these extracts are always mycelia-based because the chaga mushroom (really what is called a sclerotium) is a hardened mass of mycelia that pops out of birch trees rather than a full-on fruiting body. In the case of Chaga, the therapeutic potential is maximized by a dual-extract of wild-harvested Chaga to claim all of its polysaccharides, phytosterols, and polyphenols. Cordyceps contains all of its great health-promoting effects solely in the mycelia, while the fruiting bodies have none of the special elements, namely nucleosides and cordycepin. As a side note, cordyceps found in supplements are all cultivated, the wild varieties can be found, but they are very rare and expensive, somewhere in the range of 20,000 dollars per kilogram in China.
Another relevant factor is the manufacturer setup when purchasing extracts. DIY low-tech extracts do not flaunt the same therapeutic potential as expensive high-tech factory extraction methods. For instance, a highly important extraction step during the hot water extraction is to keep the solution under high pressure to prevent water evaporation. This prevents sensitive beta-glucans from disintegrating, however, this setup is commonly excluded because it requires an expensive setup. Finally, DIY extracts will never have the potency of a professional product, because they commonly leave out other important steps in the process such as alcohol precipitation which leaves out the useless matter and increases the potency.
Cooking mushrooms vs. mushroom supplements
Many people cook with shiitake, maitake, fresh reishi tips, and lion’s mane is known to have a rich flavor and delicate, lobster-like texture when pan-fried. Cooking mushrooms will melt away the chitin (as heat destroys it) and release many bioactives and phytonutrients that tout benefits such as antioxidant support. However, the cooking process will also largely destroy bioactive beta-glucan chains.
If you want to truly maximize the therapeutic potential in cooking, cooking must be done under high pressure. Even when done in this manner, the potency will be low compared to premium extracts. Most pressures generated from the steam in pressure cookers are not enough to keep the beta-glucans from disintegrating, as 4MPa or higher is typically used in commercial/lab batches to maintain the water in a liquid state.
Recommended Mushroom Supplements
Both of the mushroom supplement brands discussed are among the best in terms of quality, customer service, and transparency. Their mushrooms are sourced from China, which some have been concerned about due to the presence of heavy metal contamination, but their products are third-party verified to be below the FDA heavy metal standards. Instead of powdered mushrooms, they extract the bioactives through complex and expensive extraction procedures and clearly list the percentages on the supplement facts. Instead of the mostly starch mycelium-on-grain, they use pure mycelium from whole mushrooms to maximize the potency. While they may be pricier than some common ones you find at stores or on Amazon, they are the best bargain when taking into account the amount of bioactives present.
Oriveda. Based in The Netherlands, Oriveda offers premium medicinal mushroom extracts tested by independent objective laboratories. The company’s products are among the most well-documented and among the most potent due to high-quality processing such as full-spectrum dual extraction.
The company offers a wide variety of extracts in veggie cap form (as well as powder, though for just Chaga). The company also lists the specific bioactive ingredients and their percentages in the supplement facts, which guarantees their presence. For lion’s mane, this includes beta-glucan as well as the water-insoluble terpenes, hericenones, erinacines, and polyphenols.
RealMushrooms. Established in 2015, RealMushrooms offers high-quality extracts for all the major varieties of medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane, cordyceps, chaga, reishi, and turkey tail. Their products are USDA organic, hot water or alcohol extracted (or both), transparently labeled, and available in powder form in addition to capsules.
The owner’s father is Jeff Chilton, founder of Nammex, which is a major supplier of mushroom extract ingredients to supplement companies. Other Nammex sellers that sell high-quality mushroom extract supplements includes Nootropics Depot and Pure Nootropics.
It’s clear that, in order to ensure maximum bioavailability and therapeutic efficacy, there are some major factors to consider when purchasing mushroom supplements. With the high volume of marketing obstacles to evade and studies like this one that claims that only about 26% of 19 batches of commercially available US Reishi products actually contain the bioactive polysaccharides they claim to contain, it’s important to search out the best mushroom extract supplements that clearly label their bioactive ingredients on the supplement facts.
Lastly, many people purchase mushroom supplements on Amazon.com. While they do carry many of the high-quality mushroom supplements discussed, the customer review system they use is generally not a reliable way to assess the quality of the various mushroom supplement products offered due to the removal of negative reviews and the presence of fake reviews. The reliability of the seller can be checked on this website, which gives a more accurate portrayal of the seller and the reviews. For more information on the specifics of customer reviews as they relate to the reality of the product ingredients, check this interesting article out.