We know that chronic stress, genetics, and trauma can all play a role in the development of anxiety and depression, and it is likely that you or someone you know has suffered from one of these conditions. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that 8.4% of U.S. adults had at least one episode of major depression in 2020. A major depressive episode is one that lasts at least two weeks. It is characterized mainly by a depressed mood, loss of interest in daily activities, loss of concentration, and problems with sleep, eating, and energy. Anxiety is even more prevalent, affecting 18.1% of adults every year. Symptoms of anxiety may include feeling on edge, restlessness, poor sleep, irritability, unexplained pains, and difficulty controlling feelings of worry. [This article, “Supplements For Sanity: Mushrooms For Mental Health” was originally published in HealthXWire]
Both depression and anxiety can affect quality of life, causing difficulties at home, at work, and in social situations. Sufferers seek solutions, but there is currently no quick fix or cure. Prescription medications offer relief from symptoms in some people, but often come with unpleasant side effects. Medicinal mushrooms as well as psychedelic mushrooms are now having a moment, with the market for medicinal mushrooms expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.7% in the next few years. Could these mysterious fungi help to treat our most common mental health issues?
Psilocybin for depression: how it works for mental health
About one-third of people with depression do not respond to antidepressant medications. Treatment-resistant depression has high emotional, functional, and economic costs and is associated with a number of comorbid conditions. Those who do take antidepressant medications may suffer from a range of side effects, including stomach upset, agitation, headache, sexual dysfunction, and insomnia. The search for alternative treatments has yielded an unlikely hero: psilocybin.
In 2018 the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy status to psilocybin as an adjunct therapy for treatment-resistant depression. Psilocybin is the psychoactive compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. What makes psilocybin different from traditional antidepressant medications is that it may be effective after only two doses. This is because this natural psychedelic can change the way that neurons connect to each other, rewiring the brain in a way that can help people to discover new ways of thinking. A recent study on adults with long-term depression showed that two doses of psilocybin combined with psychotherapy still showed an antidepressant response at a 12-month follow-up.
In controlled settings, hallucinogenic mushrooms do not cause serious side effects, though users may experience short-term confusion, hallucinations, headache, nausea, or paranoia. If taken under the supervision of a trained healthcare professional, unpleasant effects can be weathered as part of the transformative experience. More traditionally used as an adjunct therapy for cancer patients experiencing anxiety and depression, psilocybin is known to induce feelings of euphoria, well-being, and inner peace. Its long-lasting effects are partly due to its association with profound insights and emotional breakthroughs. Cancer patients treated with hallucinogenic mushrooms reported improvements in mood but also a better quality of life, optimism, and sense of purpose. Furthermore, these patients experienced lower levels of death anxiety (fear of death). Psychedelic research is still in its infancy, and we have yet to discover the full therapeutic potential of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Currently, psilocybin treatment is being explored for a range of other conditions, including PTSD and substance use disorders.
Reishi: the ‘divine fungus’ that calms the mind
The most common medications prescribed for anxiety are the benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan. These drugs are used for immediate relief of anxiety symptoms and may cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, memory problems, or physical dependence. Benzodiazepines work by enhancing the action of the neurotransmitter GABA, which reduces activity in the central nervous system. They take effect within an hour, but the strongest effects wear off a few hours later. The addictive potential of these drugs is high, as users often must take higher and higher doses to produce the same effects.
A mushroom used in Chinese medicine for centuries may offer some relief from anxiety without the unpleasant side effects or the potential for addiction associated with certain prescription medications. Ling Zhi, the Chinese name for Reishi mushroom, means “divine fungus” and it has also been called the “Mushroom of Immortality.” Rare in the wild, Reishi was discovered 2,000 years ago and was once reserved for privileged members of Chinese society. Now cultivated for its medicinal properties, this anti-inflammatory mushroom is associated with increased immune function, mental clarity, and longevity.
Feelings of anxiety are caused by high levels of cortisol in the body. Reishi’s calming effect is partly due to its capacity to lower cortisol levels, but it may soothe anxiety in several ways. Polypeptides in this medicinal mushroom work with the body’s own endorphins and neurotransmitters to relax the central nervous system, inducing a feeling of calm. This relieves tension in joints and muscles, further lowering stress levels. Reishi is intended to be used for several weeks before its true benefits can be observed. However, it is considered to be safe with only a few mild side effects that may include dry mouth or stomach upset.
Mushroom supplements are now a rapidly growing market and are available in several different forms, including powders, capsules, and drink mixes. Known for its earthy, bitter taste, Reishi may be best taken either mixed in a smoothie or in the form of a gummy. You can find mushroom gummies online at a California-based company called Troop. This notable mushroom supplement brand has been growing in popularity since it was founded in 2020. Troop’s CEO Stephanie Moyal set out to deliver the many profound health benefits of functional mushrooms in a flavorful gummy. Troop has benefited from the recent buzz around mushroom supplements, selling out their inventory in the first few months of business. This company offers a bottle of 60 vegan Reishi gummies at a reasonable price. If you prefer your Reishi in powder or capsule form, some reputable brands include Medicinal Foods Reishi Mushroom Powder or FreshCap Mushroom Reishi Powder or Capsules.
Eating mushrooms for mental health: mushrooms as a superfood
Rich in vital nutrients, mushrooms are a superfood, and eating them can lower your risk of depression and anxiety. A Penn State study of 24,000 adults conducted between 2005 and 2016 found that participants who ate mushrooms had a lower chance of developing depression. One mechanism behind this protective effect may lie in the anti-inflammatory properties of mushrooms. Studies have shown correlations between chronic inflammation and depression, and anxiety has also been associated with the presence of inflammation markers. Mushrooms contain ergothioneine, a relatively uncommon anti-inflammatory compound that protects against cell and tissue damage. Shiitake, oyster, maitake, and king oyster mushrooms have high levels of ergothioneine.
Mushrooms are also rich in potassium, which is thought to regulate nerve signals and lower anxiety. You can find it in white button mushrooms, which are available year-round at the supermarket. In addition, mushrooms are rich in fiber, vitamin D, vitamin B, and other antioxidants, nutrients known to support brain health and emotional well-being. These superfoods can even lower your risk of cancer, as an analysis of studies published between 1966 and 2020 revealed that people who ate at least 18 grams of mushrooms per day had a 45% lower risk of cancer. You can easily incorporate mushrooms into your diet for profound and enduring benefits.
Lion’s Mane: a mushroom that boosts your mood
Lion’s Mane is perhaps the best-known mushroom for brain health. Thought to improve mental sharpness, it has been used by Buddhist monks to heighten focus during meditation. Also known as “monkey head mushroom,” Lion’s Mane has long been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine to promote healthy digestion and general strength. TCM also recognizes the effect of this medicinal mushroom on the central nervous system, applying it as a treatment for insomnia and weakness. Lion’s Mane is found naturally in Europe, North America, and Asia.
The mood-boosting effects of Lion’s Mane may lie in a combination of its capacity to reduce inflammation and its potential to stimulate neurogenesis. Studies in mice have shown that when stress-induced inflammation lowers serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, this can have a negative impact on mood. The use of Lion’s Mane can mitigate the effects of stress, keeping the levels of these key neurotransmitters higher. Compounds in Lion’s Mane also stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) proteins, an action that supports the development of healthy nerve cells. This medicinal mushroom may stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays a very significant role in the development of depressive disorders. In addition to its potential as an alternative treatment for depression, Lion’s Mane has been investigated for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you are shopping for a Lion’s Mane supplement, there are a wide variety of products to choose from now that medicinal mushrooms have gone mainstream. Brands like Troop that promise to protect the ecosystem and sustainably produce their products are a popular choice in today’s more ethically conscious market. Troop mushroom supplements are vegan, and the packaging is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. Their products are crafted in and shipped from Florida to minimize their carbon footprint. FreshCap is another ecologically conscious mushroom supplement brand that sources its ingredients from organic farms in China and Russia.
Mushrooms are a new frontier for mental health
For some people, the symptoms of depression and anxiety may be mild, but these common conditions severely impact daily functioning and quality of life for others. First discovered in the 1950s, antidepressant drugs have provided many people with relief from their symptoms. However, a very significant percentage of depression sufferers are resistant to prescription drug treatment. Psilocybin is a rising star in the mental health field, as it has resolved symptoms of depression sometimes for up to a year with only two doses. Furthermore, this sometimes controversial psychedelic doesn’t come with the unpleasant side effects associated with many antidepressant drugs. The field of psychedelic research shows promise as a new frontier for mental health treatment.
A medicinal mushroom moment
Medicinal mushrooms are certainly having their moment, as many consumers are reaching for natural products to enhance their health. Revered centuries ago as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, mushrooms like Reishi and Lion’s Mane are currently being investigated for their anti anxiety and mood-regulating potential. These powerful fungi may offer novel solutions to some of our most intractable medical mysteries. As modern medicine begins to catch up with what traditional healers have known for over 2,000 years, we now have the opportunity to reap the benefits of mushrooms as both superfoods and supplements. The wisdom of our ancient ancestors is ever-present, reminding us that the simplest solution is often the most effective.