What’s the Science Behind Mushroom Supplements for Brain Health?

By | May 6th, 2024

For hundreds of years we’ve consumed fungi for their benefits to our health and immunity. Now mushroom supplements are appearing on the shelves boasting they support cognitive function too. Here’s what experts say consumers should know.

Mushrooms have a long history of medicinal and culinary use due to their richness in nutrients; they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, while still being low in calories. They also contain a wide array of bioactive compounds. The use of mushroom supplements—which are often in a powder or capsule form—is an emerging trend in the field of brain health. They are flying off the shelves of health stores for their potential ability to support memory, focus, cognitive function and overall brain health.

Increasingly popular mushroom supplements such as Nooceptin, Mind Lab Pro, Real Mushrooms, PureHealth Research and Oweli are easily accessible and enthusiastically promoted across social media platforms, but they might not be all they’re cracked up to be. Dr. Pieter Cohen, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and internist at Cambridge Health Alliance cautioned that a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied.

What consumers should know

Mushroom supplements are often marketed with impressive claims of enhancing brain health and cognitive function, but it’s important to acknowledge the limited scientific evidence supporting these claims.

Cohen broke down what he believes are the two most important things consumers need to know before purchasing mushroom supplements. “They should understand neither the FDA nor any other part of the government is checking that these mushroom supplements are accurately labeled—in other words, that they contain what’s listed on the label,” Cohen said. “You’re just at the mercy of the individual company if you actually get what’s on the label.”

The supplements industry at large is known as a “Wild West.” Supplements do not require FDA approval before hitting the market, and, as Cohen warns, they might not contain what the labels say they do. One study recently found they might even contain dangerous ingredients.

“You’re just at the mercy of the individual
company if you actually get what’s on the label.”

Because FDA approval is not required to sell supplements, companies can make grandiose advertising claims without any scientific evidence. “You can legally make a claim that a mushroom can improve your immunity, brain health, memory; can do just about anything without there needing to be any clinical trials in humans that demonstrate that it actually works,” Cohen said.

Could mushrooms help fight MCI?

Aside from supplements, there is some compelling research surrounding cooked mushroom consumption and brain health.

In a 2019 study researchers found that older adults who consumed more mushrooms had a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment that sometimes leads to dementia. In the six-year study that included more than 600 adults over the age of 60, researchers found that eating more than two portions of mushrooms per day was related to having a 50 percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.

“This correlation is surprising and encouraging,” said Assistant Professor Lei Feng at NUS Department of Psychological Medicine and the lead author. “It seems that a commonly available single ingredient could have a dramatic effect on cognitive decline.” 

A “portion” was defined as three-quarters of a cup of cooked mushrooms, or about 150 grams. Two portions, said the researchers, would take up about half of a normal-size dinner plate.

According to the results of the study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, even one portion of mushrooms might have a positive effect on cognitive performance.

The participants mainly consumed six different types of mushrooms common in Singapore: golden, oyster, shiitake, and white button mushrooms, as well as dried and canned mushrooms, though the researchers said that other mushroom varieties may also have cognitive benefits. It all comes down to a common molecule found in the fungus.

“We’re very interested in a compound called ergothioneine (ET),” said Dr. Irwin Cheah, a senior research fellow at NUS. “ET is a unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which humans are unable to synthesize on their own. But it can be obtained from dietary sources, one of the main ones being mushrooms.”

Earlier studies in Singapore indicated that older adults with mild cognitive impairment have lower levels of ET, a deficiency which may be remedied by consuming more mushrooms.

Evidence shows that mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, which helps reduce inflammation—a prime suspect in neurodegeneration. They are also one of the only non-animal sources of vitamin D, a component necessary for brain and neuron health.

This was a correlational study—scientists can’t say for sure whether mushroom consumption helps preserve brain health, or if those who ate fewer mushrooms had other things in common that might increase their risk for mild cognitive impairment.

Following the study, the team hopes to proceed to test a pure form of ET in a controlled clinical trial where they can draw a straighter line between the dose of ET and cognitive impairment.

Recommendations for trying mushroom supplements: How should I choose one?

Ultimately, Cohen is wary of mushroom supplements based on the limited scientific research that exists surrounding their benefits to brain health. He said his recommendations for curious consumers are twofold. “The only way to ensure that what’s actually on the label is actually what’s in the bottle, is by checking that the supplement you’re using is certified by a high-quality, third-party certification program, and for me that’s USP (the United States Pharmacopeia) and NSF (the National Sanitation Foundation).”

The majority of mushroom supplements are not certified by USP or NSF. However, Real Mushroom’s Lion’s Mane Extract Capsules are made in a NSF-certified facility in the US. Hekate’s Daily Functional Mushrooms is NSF-certified for sport, meaning that the supplement has undergone rigorous testing to ensure it is free of banned substances and safe for consumption.

“In terms of claims, I recommend that consumers avoid supplements that make any of these claims because there’s no evidence [that’s required] in human clinical trials. I recommend that my patients who want to try a particular mushroom supplement that is prepared in a particular way do it by purchasing a supplement that doesn’t make any claims on the bottle; that just simply lists the ingredients,” Cohen said.

“I recommend that my patients who want to
try a particular mushroom supplement
that is prepared in a particular way do it by
purchasing a supplement that doesn’t make
any claims on the bottle; that just
simply lists the ingredients.”

Cohen said he would never recommend a mushroom supplement to a patient unless it had been shown in large clinical trials to be beneficial for a certain condition that patient was experiencing. “But in the case of these mushroom supplements that are being sold, I’m not aware of any high-quality clinical data of large trials convincing enough to suggest that these mushroom supplements can be beneficial for any health problems. So no, I don’t recommend them to my patients.”

Concrete research results could be years away

“The problem is that the system that is currently in place for selling supplements disincentivizes and discourages research,” Cohen said. “If you can already start advertising that it is great for brain health without spending the millions of dollars that it would cost to run a proper trial to determine that, why would you do the trial?” 

A lack of concrete research results coupled with the supplement boom in the US could have an ongoing impact on the healthcare industry and the well-being of consumers in the coming years. Education surrounding the safety of supplements often falls on the consumer.

“What we need is high-quality scientific studies,” Cohen said. “While I would love to know—and it’s very possible there is something in these mushrooms that is beneficial for brain health—it’s going to be a long time until we know that, because there’s no incentive right now for manufacturers or anyone else to study it properly.”

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