Updated: Jun 8
Navigating the world of medicinal mushrooms can be both exciting and overwhelming. There are a lot of health benefits these mighty fungi have to offer, but it can be challenging to decide which mushroom (or mushrooms) would be best for your symptoms. Lion’s mane? Shiitake? Turkey Tail? Once you decide on a mushroom, then comes the question of which form to take and what companies to trust. Here to help shine some clarity into the realm of medicinal mushrooms is Dr. Olivia Froehlich. Dr. Froehlich is a close friend and colleague who I often reach out to for any mushroom-related questions. She is co-owner of Atlantic Naturopathic in New Jersey where she specializes in autoimmune conditions, metabolic health, and exercise support. You can find her on Instagram @droliviafroehlich and @atlanticnaturopathic. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about all things mushrooms. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Froehlich!
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with medicinal mushrooms.
Sure! My name is Dr. Olivia Froehlich and I’m a licensed naturopathic doctor. I own a practice, Atlantic Naturopathic, in New Jersey. My experience with medicinal mushrooms started in medical school when I was doing research on the anti-cancer properties of the rosy polypore mushroom. I no longer conduct research, but I continue to read research about medicinal mushrooms and use them in my practice. I also take them myself!
What are your top 3 favorite medicinal mushrooms and why?
Okay, this is a tough one. I’ll start with number 3… which maybe I’m already sort of cheating with. It’s a tie between oyster and shiitake mushrooms. When we think of medicinal mushrooms, we usually think of the tougher, inedible mushrooms, but I have to include some edible/culinary mushrooms in my top 3 because I think we can all benefit from getting more mushrooms into our diets. I would want folks with heart and blood vessel issues to eat more oyster mushrooms, and I would want folks with immune or inflammation issues to eat more shiitake. Of course, we’re not hitting therapeutic doses in the diet, but these would be medicinal and nutrient-dense foods to add to the diet.
Number 2 is turkey tail. This is one of my favorites because it’s highly researched with great medicinal benefits and just a gorgeous mushroom. Need I say more?
And number 1, reishi. Surprise, surprise. It’s just too much of a powerhouse mushroom to not be my favorite. My specialties include cardiovascular and autoimmune conditions and I reach for reishi all of the time. There is new research coming out on reishi all of the time, which makes it a fun medicinal mushroom to keep up with.
What makes a mushroom medicinal?
Mushroom cell walls contain compounds called polysaccharides, and some of these compounds are called beta-glucans. These compounds are highly researched as antioxidants and immune system regulators. Within mushroom cells, there are tons of other compounds that make each mushroom medicinal in a specific way. Some of these compounds include triterpenoids and phenolic compounds. These compounds are more directly medicinal, like being anti-allergic, anti-cancer, anti-viral etc., whereas the polysaccharides are more balancing, like balancing oxidative damage and immune system activity.
What is the best way to take mushrooms if you are looking for medicinal benefit?
Overall, capsules are the best way to hit higher doses for medicinal benefit.
It is my understanding that in order to benefit the most from the medicinal compounds in mushrooms, they should be processed using a hot water extraction and for some mushrooms, even further with a dual extraction. Can you briefly talk about these processes?
Heat is necessary to break down another part of the mushroom cell walls, “chitin”. The only other organisms that contain chitin are crustaceans… aka crabs and lobsters, just to give you an idea of how tough chitin can be in high amounts. If we don’t break down the chitin, we can’t access the polysaccharides in the cell wall, nor the compounds within the cells themselves. A dual extraction usually refers to hot water extraction followed by an alcohol or methanol extraction… or some other solvent. For products on the market, it’s usually water and alcohol dual-extracted. The hot water is needed to break the cell walls and extract the polysaccharides which are soluble in water (though also alcohol). Other compounds in the cell wall like steroids, or compounds contained within the cells like polyphenols and terpenoids, are extracted in alcohol.
There is some controversy over the use of mycelium vs fruiting bodies in medicinal mushroom supplements. Can you tell us a little bit about this and your professional opinion on the matter?
The mycelium is the feeding structure of the fungal organism. It can be compared to the root system of a plant. When we think of a plant, we think of the above-ground part—the stem, leaves, flowers, etc. The fruiting body is the above-ground part of a fungal organism. Technically speaking when we say “mushroom”, we are referring to the fruiting body, not the mycelium. So I would argue that a mycelium-only supplement is, by definition, not a medicinal mushroom product. But anyway…
My take on the mycelium vs. fruiting body controversy comes down to two issues: 1) do they contain the same compounds, and 2) how “pure” of a product can you get? The first issue is split. Mycelium supplement folks will cite research that mycelium contains the same compounds as fruiting bodies, and fruiting body supplement folks will cite research that mycelium doesn’t contain the same compounds. I side with the fruiting body folks here. But the second issue is one that I feel very strongly about… When you take a plant out of the ground, sure there’s soil on the roots, but you can shake it off or wash them, and get a clean, “pure” sample of root from that. Mycelium is NOT the same. Fungi secrete their digestive enzymes into whatever food they’re growing on, whether that be wood, sawdust, oats, grain, etc. The digestive enzymes break down the food substance, and the mycelium absorbs the nutrients. This effectively enmeshes the mycelium system into the food substrate. You could separate them… but this involves some processing and extraction, which most companies are not going to do. Rather, companies that produce mycelium supplements, will take the mycelium mass, enmeshed with whatever they’ve grown it on (hopefully rice or oats and not sawdust), grind it all together, and capsule it up for sale. Companies that make 100% fruiting body supplements are harvesting only the fruiting body for their products. No oats. No rice. Just mushroom. And for that reason, it pushes me over the edge into only wanting 100% fruiting body mushroom supplements.
Medicinal mushroom products are everywhere these days. How do you assess for quality and safety when seeking out a mushroom supplement?
I look for 4 things: 1) organic, 2) 100% fruiting body, 3) powdered extract, and 4) indication of beta-glucan content. Numbers 1 and 2 are self-explanatory or already established. As for number 3, this means that I don’t want just ground mushrooms in my capsules… remember, we’ve already talked about needing heat, water, and/or alcohol to extract the active compounds. So I want the supplement company to have gone through an extraction method and then dehydrated that resulting extract down into powder form. Then put that in my capsules. Lastly, number 4, listing the beta-glucan content, tells me that the supplement company cares about the quality and efficacy of their product, so they’re going to do some additional testing to show the concentration of medicinal beta-glucans contained within it.
Finally, do you have a favorite fun fact about mushrooms that you’d like to share?
Mushrooms are in their own kingdom, the fungal kingdom, and their DNA is more similar to animals/humans than it is to plants. I think that’s pretty awesome.