Medicinal mushrooms aren’t really magic.
For someone who spends a lot of time writing about nutrition and fitness, I’m a crotchety skeptic of all wellness-tinged products that promise to “boost,” “elevate,” or “uplift” my body or my mind in any way. Sorry, but I will not touch that “energy-charged” turmeric shot unless it tastes really, really good. The same goes for bone broth, bullet-proof coffee, and activated charcoal water.
I am a little more open-minded about medicinal mushrooms, however. There’s just something simultaneously alluring and repelling about them. From Alice’s run-in with a dual purpose ’shroom which grows and shrinks her, to the Mario franchise’s alternately helpful and mischievous fungal interlopers — mushrooms represent both health and harm.
Combined with the human fascination with the supernatural that’s fueled the wellness boom, and “functional” mushroom supplements are having a moment. A number of market research predictions estimate the functional or medicinal mushroom market will grow around 8 percent in the coming years. By 2024, the market will be worth as much as $34.3 billion worldwide. Mushroom supplements — whether they be pills, powders, or elixirs — promise to “promote mental clarity, focus, and memory,” “increase your stamina,” and even “prevent cognitive degeneration.”
So, for the sake of science and your bank accounts, your reporter volunteered to try a few of the most popular functional mushroom supplements to see what the fuss was about. In this self-study, I enlisted the help of a mushroom expert, Jianping Xu, a mycologist and professor of microbiology in the department of biology at McMaster University in Ontario.
Over the course of one week, I tried the following functional mushroom supplements:
Mushroom powder is just what it sounds like — fine, earth-toned dust. Some powders are made from mushrooms grown in an indoor setting, then dried and milled. Others are made by soaking mushrooms in hot water to break down their cell walls to make them both more digestible and, as companies like RealMushrooms claim, extract their medicinal compounds. Then, the resulting mushroom broth is put into a machine called a spray dryer, which turns the liquid to powder.
The companies selling the supplements claim that various mushrooms have equally various powers: lion’s mane is billed as a cognitive aid, cordyceps is associated with “performance,” reishi is supposed to promote longevity, and chaga is supposed to help the immune system. There are other mushrooms on the supplements market: turkey tail, wood ear, mesima, and even a few mushrooms we are more likely to eat, like shiitake, maitake, and oyster.
There are seeds of truth in the sweeping claims. Mushrooms have been used for their medicinal properties for centuries. Studies on animals and human cell cultures in the lab have shown certain mushrooms may have cancer-fighting properties. For example, lentinan from shiitake and polysaccharide K from turkey tail are approved as treatments in Japan for certain kinds of cancer, either alongside or following chemotherapy.
There’s some evidence to suggest that the kinds of chemical components that include shiitake’s lentinan, known as beta-glucans, have other medicinal properties, too. They’re found in various mushrooms and yeasts — and have antifungal properties. For example, some of these compounds have been found to fight yeast infections caused by candida in mice.
But that’s where the breadcrumbs end. There’s not much evidence from human trials to indicate that ingesting a dried, powdered version of any given mushroom will give your health a boost, or to suggest how much powder allegedly leads to these benefits, or for how long the benefits might last.
“I hope that the current interest will spawn more research into clearly identifying the effective dosage for specific groups of people and make it much more targeted,” Xu, my mushroom specialist, tells Inverse. “rather than very broad claims that don’t really have as much clinical trial evidence.”
Many companies do draw the line at promising drastic changes or transformations. Real Mushrooms, for example, claim in an online FAQ that “the benefits of medicinal mushrooms are obtained through prolonged use. Medicinal mushrooms are not necessarily something you are likely to ‘feel’ like caffeine or aspirin.”
Other companies, like Four Sigmatic, are so confident in their products that they offer a 120-day, money-back guarantee. Then again, they also call their mushroom products “magic” — although they’re not the psychedelic kind.
Here’s what happened when I tried the five different mushrooms:
$9.99 for 7 oz or 18 servings
Active mushroom: Reishi
Background: This is the only mushroom-suffused product I bought over the counter. It contains coconut milk powder, cinnamon, ginger, and something called maca — a root native to South America with purported fertility benefits, and reishi mushrooms, which have traditionally been used for longevity. So basically, a chai-flavored mix that might help my sex life and make me live forever.
Supplement Claims: The packet says the supplement will “calm and uplift your mind,” and “This warming elixir is a true indulgence when you need a sense of calm and comfort in your life.”
How I took it: Recommended serving size is 2 tablespoons, and in my case, I mix it with steamed soy milk to make a mushroom latte of sorts. The powder is somewhat heavy like you could press it together in your hand and clump it into a ball like damp sand. At the time, I wrote: “Clumps sticking to spoon and hard to mix.”
First impression: The aroma is “yummy chai, comforting,” from my notes.
It tastes like a weak chai latte — sweetened, but with Stevia, which gives it some bitterness. It does not taste like mushrooms, although I notice a vague, earthy flavor which my partner describes as “husky.”
Effects: Four hours later, after reading on my sofa and trying to send some emails, I feel, my notes say, “Nothing. Maybe a little warmer?”
I do not feel calm. I never feel calm.
Expert take: Xu says of reishi: “It does have triterpenes and terpenoids, and, again, beta-glucans are quite common in there. So all of those could stimulate some cellular activity and the immune system.” And though extracting and powdering mushrooms may help our body digest beta-glucans, they’re present in all mushrooms — albeit, more concentrated in powder form.
“Some of those compounds have antimicrobial activity, anti-pathogenic activity. They can kill some pathogenic bacteria and pathogenic fungi,” Xu says. But he also clarifies that these effects have been seen in animal and lab models — and there have been few studies that have found an actual clinical effect from ingesting reishi mushrooms. No studies he knows of have shown their supposed “calming” effect.
“I haven’t seen very robust clinical trial data on people who may be ADHD or have some kind of symptoms [that would be used to test their claim]. I have never seen those data. But maybe I just missed it.”
Inverse rating: 🍄🍄/10
$18.80 for 12 oz or 16 servings
Active mushrooms: Lions’ mane, chaga
Background: This coffee has more than 5,500 reviews on Amazon, 75 percent of them are five-star, so I had high hopes. It’s a mushroom supplement with millennial flair: minimalist web graphics, photos of trendy ceramic mugs, and quippy taglines.
Claims: Billed as “Your brain’s best friend,” this coffee will, the makers promise,“elevate my morning” and not taste like mushrooms. It also has half the caffeine of a regular coffee, and promises no jitters (which makes sense with less caffeine) and “hours of crash-free focus”. Some 4,000 Amazon reviewers seem to agree.
According to Four Sigmatic’s website, this coffee contains the “functional mushrooms” lion’s mane and chaga. Lion’s mane is associated with brain health, specifically with memory and focus. Chaga is more of a cure-all, advertised as an immune helper. So this coffee should give me a little overall health and enhance my brain before a day of work.
How I took it: I brew the coffee, then add some soy milk
First impressions: When I brewed the coffee, it looked like regular (but very dark roast) coffee. The smell was mild, flat, and a little dusty. I brewed the coffee according to the directions, which dictated four tablespoons of coffee per 12 ounces of water.
This is a dark-colored coffee, and while there is no mushroom taste, the coffee taste isn’t great either. It has the burned flavor of Starbucks, but then again, that could be due to our Mr. Coffee, which cooks coffee, mushroom-based or no, into oblivion. Ultimately, it tastes extremely weak. Are the proportions off? I make a mental note to brew it stronger next time.
Effects: Two hours later: I feel awake, and I have no jitters. My partner, on the other hand: “I don’t feel fully awake.” I didn’t know about the reduced caffeine until later, so my alertness may have been more placebo-effect than true mechanism.
Four hours later: I need more coffee. It might be the placebo effect, but I have a sneaking suspicion — I do not feel my usual afternoon slump. Could the energy benefits be real? I also manage to finish my task in the allotted period of time, which has barely happened to me once in my lifetime. COINCIDENCE? I think yes.
What the scientists say: When I asked if it was possible this coffee did have some sort of anti-jitter effect, Xu tells me that the brew may contain secondary metabolites with properties similar to psilocybin or the cannabidiol CBD. Both of these psychoactive substances have gained steam in recent years as potential treatments for anxiety.
“I don’t think we really know a lot about many of them, their concentrations, so I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them have psychedelic compounds in there,” he says. There were no psychedelic side effects I could discern, however.
A couple of studies have shown that compounds extracted from lion’s mane may stimulate nerve cell growth in rat cells — there’s just not enough evidence to know if it works the same way in humans, and even less to support the claims that this coffee helps with brain power or focus. Chaga’s benefits are similarly dubious — preliminary studies suggest some pro-immune and anti-inflammatory properties, but so far there is no good evidence for this in humans.
Inverse Rating: 🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄/10
$29.95 for 2.12 oz or 60 servings
Active mushroom: Cordyceps
Background: This is a truly tiny package, and I feel a bit misled by their online marketing. The serving size is also small, and the packet promises me it’s been “scientifically verified for active compounds.”
Claims: The people behind Real Mushrooms seem convinced of their product’s superiority. The extract is made from “100% pure Cordyceps mushrooms” with “No added fillers, starch, grains or mycelium.” Further, the packet advertises a “Guaranteed potency” of “greater than 25% beta-glucans.” But what is it for? Judging by its name, I assume “performance” means physical endurance — like in sports.
Xu later informs me that “performance” probably refers in this case to sexual performance, but I’m not sure. The Real Mushrooms website is a little more helpful — and the reviews mostly praise the product’s energy-boosting abilities.
How I took it: I try this one in another latte of sorts — this time made with heated oat milk.
First impressions: On opening, the packet has a pungent smell and the powder is bright orange. The smell really isn’t great: my partner describes it as “a bag of shrimp.” Mixed in with the milk, I mostly tasted oat milk — though with a distinct bitter aftertaste. I add coffee (regular, not mushroom). It’s still bitter. I add honey to the slurry — even worse.
Effects: An hour after gulping down my cordyceps latte, I go on a run. I don’t feel any different, maybe even sluggish. At the end of the run, my app tells me my pace was actually a little faster than normal. Could it be the cordyceps or just the exercise-boosting effects of a coffee pre-workout?
Notes: “Not tired, no crash. I feel good from endorphins!” The pace effect was probably due to placebo, but I’ll take it.
Expert take: Xu informs me that, traditionally, one kind of cordyceps associated with sexual enhancement and which is nicknamed Himalayan Viagra grows out of the body of a caterpillar. “That one is the big moneymaker,” he says.
But, for better or worse, Xu says, the cordyceps in my packet was likely a cheap knockoff grown in a lab. While there might be, again, beta-glucans in this mushroom powder which could impart an immune or antibacterial effect, Xu says, “You can get those by just eating mushrooms. The concentration is the highest and more concentrated in the powder.”
A study on the kind of cordyceps I ate and how it might affect exercise performance showed a minimal effect. Apparently, there are no known boosts in energy or performance that this mushroom would impart.
Inverse rating: 🍄🍄🍄🍄/10
$27.99 for 7.14 oz or 100 servings
Active Mushroom: Lion’s mane
Background: This powder comes in a solid, circular tub — like something you’d scoop protein shake powder out of. The label seems high quality — less wellness hand-waving and more dietary supplement information overload.
Claims: Lion’s mane mushroom is billed as “A brain health superfood that helps support memory, focus, nerve health, creativity and mood. Just brilliant.” One teaspoon a day will “super your smoothie, mushroom your matcha, boost your coffee and nourish your recipes.” Unlike Real Mushrooms, Om uses both the thread-like roots of mushrooms, called mycelium, and the fruiting body, or the part above ground that we typically eat. Mushroom powders that use mycelium seem to get a bad rep in the functional mushroom world for their supposedly inferior contents, but Om stands behind it on their website.
How I took it: For me, a strawberry milkshake: One scoop Om powder, plus strawberry ice cream and oat milk.
First impressions: The powder smelled woody in the container. I asked my partner to smell: “Smells like dog treats.” The powder resembled ashes of the deceased, and it’s unclear whether or not their included scoop equals one teaspoon — it looks like more. The strawberry milkshake was delicious. The strange mushroom flavor almost complemented the rich ice cream.
Effects: Four hours later, and I feel a little more focused, but it may just be because the day has begun. Partner said: “I feel more calm and less anxious.” I ask if it is just the comforting effect of ice cream. We conclude it is indeed just the comforting effect of ice cream.
Four hours after that: The ice cream put me in a good mood, but no other feelings — maybe a little less distracted than usual.
Four hours after that: “Have had coffee since the milkshake. Jitters. Mental clarity? Sure.”
In retrospect, any effects were likely imagined.
What the scientists say: Xu says that while there are ways to determine whether this mushroom product increased mental acuity and alertness, they haven’t been tested on humans in “scientifically validated” trials. But they have been explored in animals.
“Definitely, they have done studies on them. But whether those results have been repeated independently and not funded by the mushroom industry, but really validated independently by a group — I’m not sure,” Xu says.
Certain compounds isolated from lion’s mane mushrooms have, again, shown limited promise in rat brains, increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter involved with growing and multiplying neurons. This is promising, but far from definitive. I prod Xu for a final word: Did this mushroom help my brain?
His response: “If you believe it does, it does.”
Inverse rating: 🍄🍄🍄/10
$39.95 for 10 ounces or 284 servings
Active Mushrooms: Chaga, shiitake, maitake, reishi, turkey tail, lion’s mane, wood ear, mesima, oyster mushroom, cordyceps
Background: This company used comic sans on their packaging so I don’t know what to think.
Claims: This powder has it all — 10 mushrooms in one supplement, and their online literature says, “Natural Support for Immune Health, Brain Function, Longevity and Overall Wellness.”
How I took it: I eat this powder baked in a gigantic white and dark chocolate chip cookie.
First impressions: This powder smells like teriyaki flavoring, or as my partner puts it: “chocolate-flavored Ramen.” It is a deep brown, much darker than the other powders, which are various shades of chalk, and seemingly more finely milled. I mix it into leftover cookie dough and bake it in a cookie that looks darker than normal but tastes great. There is no mushroom taste.
Effects: Fifteen minutes after eating a part of a giant cookie at 8:45 a.m. Eastern and I feel slightly ill, but also surprisingly calm and chipper for the morning. Notes: “feeling pretty even-keeled, little anxiety.”
Four hours later: I eat the rest of the cookie, and I’m feeling good and not anxious. Could it be because I am not running behind schedule today? And why am I not running behind schedule? Is it the mushrooms at work?
Expert take: This multivitamin-like mushroom powder may pack in more concentrated immune-boosting beta-glucans (which are in all mushrooms) than simply eating mushrooms alone does, Xu says. “Some of those compounds have antimicrobial activity, so they can help you fend off infection. So you can claim that,” he says.
“How much you need to have, how frequently you need to take it, or how long in humans to have an observable effect? I think that’s a very, very open question,” he adds.
As far as how a company decides the dosage — Mega 10 Mushroom suggested 1 gram or scoop per serving — Xu says the company likely bases it off of dietary recommendations for the intake of “regular” mushrooms, and then adjusts it to a powder measurement. “For most of the edible mushrooms, even for the button mushroom — eating too much of it, you can get sick,” Xu says. Normally, we don’t eat enough mushrooms to be concerned, but in concentrated forms like powder, it is probably best not to go overboard.
Inverse rating: 🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄/10
The Inverse analysis: Mushroom supplements are an individual choice — one that might pay off in small ways with enough wishful thinking. On one hand, there were no clear, noticeable effects after trying these supplements once or twice. A mushroom supplement company might tell me I didn’t try these for long enough to form a conclusion. On the other hand, inexplicably, I’m still using them. No individual mushrooms imbued me with special powers. But there was a run of good, productive days, and like a pair of lucky socks on game day, I’d rather not risk breaking the pattern.
At worst, you’ll be taking the equivalent of a dry, expensive placebo, plus whatever nutrients eating a mushroom would normally provide. At best, mushroom supplements gave a hint of glowy wellbeing — and maybe just the tiniest sprinkle of magic.