Different types of mushrooms

Can Functional Mushrooms Really Help You Live Longer?

The powerhouse fungi may keep illness at bay and quash inflammation.

If you feel like you’re seeing mushrooms on labels everywhere right now, from bottled coffee to the vitamin aisle, it’s not just you. Functional mushrooms have exploded in popularity for their alleged cognitive-enhancing, inflammation-fighting effects—and there’s no sign of it stopping. 

Data from a June 2024 research report suggests that within the decade, we’ll continue to see functional mushrooms appear in dietary supplements, food and beverages, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals (1). But what are functional mushrooms and do they offer legit health benefits? 

“Mushrooms like cordyceps, chaga, reishi, lion’s mane, and turkey tail have been shown to support a healthy mood, improve the gut microbiome, manage and reduce stress and fatigue, as well as improve mental clarity and focus,” says registered dietitian Megan Hilbert, R.D.

About the Experts

Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., R.D., a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Slavin was also a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 

Tradd Cotter, a microbiologist, mycologist, and author of “Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.”

Megan Hilbert, R.D., a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Top Nutrition Coaching. 

What Are Functional Mushrooms?

First, let’s get clear on what we’re talking about when we say functional mushrooms. 

Most healthy foods are “functional” in the sense that they have positive impacts on your health, but the term “functional food” is poorly defined (2). Similarly, there’s no official definition for functional mushrooms. 

“Usually, someone says that a particular mushroom is functional if it acts as an antioxidant or provides another health-promoting property,” says registered dietitian Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., R.D.

Functional mushrooms contain nutrients that offer specific benefits, says microbiologist and mushroom researcher Tradd Cotter. For example: antioxidants that fight inflammation and support energy-carrying molecules in cells. 

They’re sometimes called medicinal or adaptogenic mushrooms, though adaptogenic ‘shrooms typically refer to those that specifically help you manage stress. Mushrooms that fall under the functional umbrella are most commonly taken as a supplement, via capsules, powders, and tinctures.

What isn’t synonymous with functional mushrooms: Psychedelic mushrooms. These trippy mushrooms affect all of your senses—including your thoughts, sense of time, and emotions—and can even cause hallucinations (3). But that’s not to say there aren’t any benefits of ‘shrooms. Psilocybin, a compound found in psychedelic mushrooms, has been shown to help treat depression and anxiety in a clinical setting (4).  


Functional Mushrooms Benefits

Research around functional mushroom benefits is still emerging. Many studies have been in vitro (think: cells in a petri dish) or animal-based, but experts suspect the benefits of these six functional mushrooms could extend to humans. 

Closeup of a Reishi mushroom


Reishi mushrooms taste bitter and have a tough and rigid texture. Most people prefer the ‘shroom in umami-flavored coffee blends, capsules, or gummies than in their fettuccine (5). 

This mushroom has been used for centuries to support the immune system, reduce restlessness, and lift mood, says Hilbert. There’s some evidence for the latter: One 2018 study suggests reishi mushrooms help relax your nervous system, which can reduce stress (6).

“Reishi helps support the function of the adrenal glands, which are responsible for secreting cortisol, a hormone that helps the body respond to stress,” adds Hilbert (7).

Stress is one of the biggest drivers of inflammation (8). By lowering your stress, inflammation quells in the body. Reducing, or offsetting the development of, chronic inflammation can help protect you from certain chronic conditions and cellular damage. 

Preliminary research suggests that reishi mushrooms may help treat metabolic disorders including diabetes and obesity (9).

“Small studies have shown that reishi can reduce stress-induced brain inflammation, which helps protect against nerve damage and memory impairment,” Hilber adds. 

Who Should Avoid: High doses can increase the risk of bleeding in certain folks. “Some people who have bleeding disorders or who are on blood pressure-lowering medication should speak with their doctor before adding functional mushrooms into their diet,” says Hilbert. You also shouldn’t consume reishi if you have surgery planned (stop using them at least two weeks pre-op) (5).

Closeup of chaga mushroom


Chaga mushrooms, which grow on birch trees in cold climates also fall on the “bitter” scale. For that reason, these fungi are usually taken as a capsule or diluted in tea (10). “For thousands of years, chaga has been used by many cultures to stave off illness,” says Hilbert.  Ancient people didn’t have Petri dishes, but modern research suggests they may have been on to something.  

Functional mushrooms activate T-cells in the body, says Cotter. These white blood cells help your immune system fend off infection-causing pathogens (from the common cold to parasites) (11).

Another immune-system boost may come from chaga’s anti-inflammatory properties. A small collection of studies suggests that chaga blocks nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), enzymes that promote inflammation in the body (12, 13, 14). 

And in mice, chaga has been shown to regulate the production of harmful cytokines—small proteins which regulate the immune system to increase or decrease inflammation. Inflammatory cytokines have been connected to diabetes, autoimmune disease, diabetes, and cancer (10, 15, 16, 17). 

Who Should Avoid: Folks with kidney issues should avoid chaga because they contain tiny molecules called oxalates which can potentially cause kidney stones (18, 19). Those who take blood thinners or diabetes medication, or who have an autoimmune disease should also bypass chaga. That’s because it may prevent blood from clotting, lower blood sugar, and intensify autoimmune diseases by causing the immune system to become more active (20). 

Closeup of cordyceps mushrooms


This type of fungus is found throughout the world and is typically ground down and cooked with tea and other herbs. While you can eat it raw, it tastes better cooked in pasta, soup, pizza, or flatbread.

Cordyceps isn’t a single variety. There are more than 750 species, 35 of which have been found to have some potential health benefits, just make sure you look specifically for C. sinensis or C. militaris on labels (21). The biggest perk supported by research is helping your body use energy and oxygen more efficiently. 

These mushrooms have been shown to support the production of ATP, or a molecule in cells that acts as the main energy carrier, Hilbert explains. “Supporting ATP production can help promote better energy levels and even improve athletic performance, due to supporting the body’s use of oxygen,” she adds.

Researchers in a 2020 study looked at how cordyceps affected exercise performance and found that those who took its extract positively influenced markers related to ATP (22). Researchers also noticed these participants experienced a slight increase in grip strength. 

Early research suggests cordyceps may also have anti-aging properties. Specifically, it may help combat inflammation linked to conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and hepatitis (23). A 2023 in-vitro study found cordycepin (the bioactive compound in cordyceps) promoted cell growth and reduced changes in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease (24).

Who Should Avoid: Consult with your doctor or skip cordyceps if you take blood thinners or have type 2 diabetes since they could lower your blood sugar levels. If you have autoimmune disorders like fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis, you should also avoid it, because overuse can increase flare-ups (21). 

It’s also important to avoid cordyceps if you’ve had an organ transplant. This fungus can counter anti-rejection medication (21).

closeup of lions mane mushroom

Lion’s Mane

Distinguished by a white, fluffy top, lion’s mane is known for its potential link to brain health. This might be due to a compound known as β-glucan polysaccharides, which has neuroprotective qualities (25). 

Early research suggests lion’s mane may also protect against nervous system damage and support nerve tissue growth. That’s especially important for people who have (or are at risk for) Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease (26). One small 2020 study of 40 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease revealed that those who took lion’s mane daily for 49 weeks had better cognitive scores compared with the placebo group (27).

Another potential brain boost: Lion’s mane may reverse stress-related changes in the brain, Hilbert says. Specifically, it may reverse stress-induced decreases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth of new neurons and expands the volume of the hippocampus, which can help boost cognition.  

There’s more: A recent small study shows that lion’s mane may speed up certain brain-related abilities such as executive function and word recall, and reduce stress in healthy, young adults (28). 

Who Should Avoid: Clinical trials that looked at long-term use of lion’s mane have found that some people—less than 10 percent—get stomach discomfort, nausea, or diarrhea. While these symptoms typically weren’t bad enough to discourage people from continuing to take lion’s mane, if you have a sensitive GI system consider skipping (29). 

closeup of shiitake mushrooms


Shiitake mushrooms, which are native to East Asia, can also enhance the immune system and fight off certain diseases, she adds—benefits backed by some lab studies, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. These studies suggest shiitakes also have antiviral and antibacterial properties as well as cholesterol-lowering capabilities, but these effects haven’t been proven on humans yet (30). 

Shiitakes also contain beta-glucans, adds Hilbert, or molecules that reduce inflammation by regulating the gut microbiome and immune system (31). This may help strengthen your immune system considering 70-80 percent of immune cells lie in your gut (32, 33).

This mighty shroom might even help you breathe better after an infection. A 2022 lab study on lung cells found extracts from shiitake mushrooms had varying effects on immune system regulation and protection against cell damage. Although studies on humans are needed, this suggests the potential for helping mitigate the damage caused by inflammatory conditions, such as COVID-19 (34).

Who Should Avoid: Some people are extra sensitive to shiitake and may experience some GI discomfort. Eating them raw can also give some people a rash, so consider cooking them (35). 

Closeup of Turkey Tail mushroom

Turkey Tail

Turkey tail mushrooms (its name refers to its rings of brown and tan, which look like a turkey’s tail feathers) grow on dead logs across the globe (36). They’ve been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat infections, and more recently, to treat pulmonary diseases (36). 

“Small studies show turkey tail may have powerful anti-cancer properties,” says Hilbert. “This benefit is due to the high concentration of two polysaccharides, PSK [Polysaccharide-K] and PSP [Polysaccharide-P]—both are immunomodulators that help the body fight off infection and disease.” PSK from turkey tail mushrooms is currently an approved cancer treatment in Japan (36).

The fanned fungi may also support gut health by acting as a prebiotic, says Hilbert. Prebiotics are plant fibers that fuel probiotics. Turkey tail mushrooms also contain polysaccharide peptides (PSP), helpful molecules that studies suggest can increase the diversity of gut bacteria in the microbiome (37).

  1. Custom Market Insights. () Global Functional Mushroom Market 2024–2033.
  2. Temple, NJ (2022) A rational definition for functional foods: A perspective.
  3. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. () Psilocybin (magic mushrooms).
  4. Thomas W Flanagan, et al. (2018) Psychedelics as anti-inflammatory agents.
  5. MedlinePlus. (2022) Reishi Mushroom.
  6. Darija Cör, et al. (2018) Antitumour, Antimicrobial, Antioxidant and Antiacetylcholinesterase Effect of Ganoderma Lucidum Terpenoids and Polysaccharides: A Review.
  7. Lian-ying Liao, et al. (2018) A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide.
  8. Yun-Zi Liu, et al. (2017) Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases.
  9. Elif Ekiz, et al. (2023) Exploring the Potential Medicinal Benefits of Ganoderma lucidum: From Metabolic Disorders to Coronavirus Infections.
  10. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2023) Chaga Mushroom.
  11. Cleveland Clinic. (2023) T-Cells.
  12. Kim SF, et al (2005) Inducible nitric oxide synthase binds, S-nitrosylates, and activates cyclooxygenase-2.
  13. Weaam Alhallaf, et al. (2022) The Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Chaga Extracts Obtained by Different Extraction Methods against LPS-Induced RAW 264.7.
  14. Siddhartha Kumar Mishra, et al. (2012) Orally administered aqueous extract of Inonotus obliquus ameliorates acute inflammation in dextran sulfate sodium (DSS)-induced colitis in mice.
  15. Suk-kyung Ko, et al. (2011) Inonotus obliquus extracts suppress antigen-specific IgE production through the modulation of Th1/Th2 cytokines in ovalbumin-sensitized mice.
  16. Joachim Spranger, et al. (2003) Inflammatory Cytokines and the Risk to Develop Type 2 Diabetes: Results of the Prospective Population-Based European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Potsdam Study.
  17. Florian R Greten, et al. (2019) Inflammation and Cancer: Triggers, Mechanisms, and Consequences.
  18. Yuko Kikuchi, et al. (2014) Chaga mushroom-induced oxalate nephropathy.
  19. Cleveland Clinic. (2020) Hyperoxaluria.
  20. American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. (2021) 5 Reasons to Consider Chaga Mushrooms.
  21. Cleveland Clinic. (2023) Cordyceps Is a Killer Fungi With Potential Health Benefits.
  22. Choi E, et al. (2020) Beneficial Effect of Cordyceps militaris on Exercise Performance via Promoting Cellular Energy Production.
  23. Abdul-Rehman Phull, et al. (2022) Cordyceps militaris as a Bio Functional Food Source: Pharmacological Potential, Anti-Inflammatory Actions and Related Molecular Mechanisms.
  24. Natchadaporn Soraksa, et al. (2024) Cordycepin, a bioactive compound from Cordyceps spp., moderates Alzheimer’s disease-associated pathology via anti-oxidative stress and autophagy activation.
  25. Khan MA, et al (2013) Hericium erinaceus: an edible mushroom with medicinal values.
  26. Mayo Clinic. () Mushrooms make healthy meal magic.
  27. I-Chen Li, et al. (2020) Prevention of Early Alzheimer’s Disease by Erinacine A-Enriched Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Pilot Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study.
  28. Sarah Docherty, et al. (2023) The Acute and Chronic Effects of Lion’s Mane Mushroom Supplementation on Cognitive Function, Stress and Mood in Young Adults: A Double-Blind, Parallel Groups, Pilot Study.
  29. LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. () Lion’s Mane.
  30. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2023) Shiitake Mushroom.
  31. Ravindra Pal Singh, et al. (2023) β- glucans: a potential source for maintaining gut microbiota and the immune system.
  32. Selma P Wiertsema, et al. (2021) The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies.
  33. Xuemei Zhong, et al. (2023) Immunomodulatory Effect and Biological Significance of β-Glucans.
  34. Murphy EJ, et al (2020) β-Glucan extracts from the same edible shiitake mushroom Lentinus edodes produce differential in-vitro immunomodulatory and pulmonary cytoprotective effects — Implications for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) immunotherapies.
  35. Camila Nemoto de Mendonça, et al. (2015) Shiitake dermatitis.
  36. National Cancer Institute. (2024) Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version.
  37. Jayachandran M, et al, (2017) A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota.