I’m a devout believer in the power of functional foods to support and heal the body. Unfortunately, in order for this idea to be widely accepted, science is expected to unequivocally confirm what we already know. But there’s a problem.
The current philosophy used by modern research is founded on reductionism, defined as follows: “Scientific reductionism is the idea of reducing complex interactions and entities to the sum of their constituent parts, in order to make them easier to study.”
Science has already confirmed that the benefits from eating a whole food, plant-based diet are greater than the sum of their parts. And at this point in time, the complex, multi-dimensional synergy that magnifies the health benefits derived from eating whole foods remains elusive. It can’t be isolated or measured.
Do we dismiss the fact that phytonutrients have been shown to have disease-preventing, health-promoting properties that support optimal health and longevity, just because science has not, as of yet, been able to untangle the constituents and identify the specific processes which explain how this is possible?
My answer would be, “No.” A resounding no. And there is no greater challenge to modern research than to explain the workings of adaptogens.
How adaptogens work.
Adaptogens trigger a simultaneous cascade of events in the body, all with the purpose of restoring homeostasis (balance). It occurs at both the cellular and body-system levels via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS).
They behave in a way that’s unique to the needs of the individual. If you’re stressed with elevated cortisol levels, an adaptogen will respond by reducing it. If you suffer from chronic fatigue with low levels of cortisol, it will work to increase those levels.
Adaptogens have been described as being a “stress vaccine”. When you consume an adaptogen, it mimics mild stress, much like exercise. This creates a stress-protective response that helps the body to better manage future stress. It builds endurance and stamina, helping us to adapt and survive.
Adaptogens positively affect the immune, endocrine, and nervous system. They protect us from developing illnesses brought on by stress and aging. They’re known to target inflammation, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and cancer. They regulate the expression of genes known to have a role in behavioral, cognitive, and age-related illness.
Given the complexity and synergism with which adaptogens work, it’s no wonder science has difficulty acknowledging their profound health benefits when examined from a reductionist perspective.
Mushrooms and their magic.
What type of adaptogen you choose and how you prepare it will be dependent on you or your clients health goals. In my Practical Herbal Therapeutics program, I provide an extraordinary amount of information regarding the proper use and preparation of adaptogenic plants, herbs and mushrooms. But mushrooms warrant some special attention.
Mushrooms are some of the most powerful adaptogens available. In addition to the above-mentioned benefits, they also promote gut and digestive health and are a great source of phytonutrients, fiber and protein.
The type of mushroom, how it’s prepared, the specific benefits it provides, and what part of the fungi is being used can all impact a mushroom's medicinal efficacy.
If you want the benefits that come from mushrooms without the need to prepare them, extracts, powders, and supplements can serve you well. However, there are three things I feel are especially important when deciding what to choose.
1. Mycelium vs. Fruiting Body
The mycelium and fruiting body are two completely different parts of a fungi system. The mycelium is an underground network that expands and feeds off of plant matter. The plant matter is referred to as the substrate. As the mycelium expands, it becomes entwined and inseparable from the substrate.
When conditions are right, the mycelium will produce a mushroom, a.k.a. the fruiting body. Although it’s agreed that both the mycelium and fruiting body have beneficial nutrients, the debate continues as to which provides the most.
The real issue of importance when choosing extracts, powders, and supplements is knowing if mycelium was used and, if so, what substrate it was grown on. In Mother Nature it would be leaves, logs, dirt, and plant matter, but in commercial production mycelium is often grown on grains such as rice, oats, or other material that can be cross contaminated with gluten or increase the starch content.
Not only will the mycelium absorb compounds from this material, it is virtually impossible to separate the mycelium from the substrate so it will inevitably end up in the final product.
2. Extracts vs. Powders
Extracts are bioactive phytochemicals that have been obtained through an extraction process. They are generally bioavailable as is and can be thrown into a smoothie or taken as a supplement and your body will readily absorb the nutrients. They can be in powder or liquid form.
Powders are generally the entire fungi dried and reduced to a powder. They need to be steeped or heated for a short time in order for their nutrients to be released.
Should you decide to supplement with mushroom powders or extracts, be sure you find reputable sources who clearly identify what part of the fungi system is being used. If mycelium is in the mix, know the substrate medium and make sure it’s certified organic.
There are concerns that Chinese sourced mushrooms, the bulk on the market, can be unsafe due to the country’s high pollution rate and frequent product recalls. Do your research about the company before you buy. It’s ideal if they use third-party-testing, but this is not common.
It’s more than likely the research on adaptogens will continue to point to profound health benefits that are deemed “inconclusive” with the recommendation that more research is needed.
I don’t need further research to be convinced of the health and longevity benefits adaptogens provide. I’ve seen it first hand with myself and my clients.
They can be a powerful tool for functional healthcare providers to incorporate into their practice. If you are a practitioner, or if you would like to become one, my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training(NEPT) provides all the information you need to use adaptogens effectively.
Note: If not a practitioner, it’s always a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider before using adaptogens medicinally.
Listen to my podcast, ReInvent Healthcare, where I deepen the conversation about how practitioners who want to make a real difference can empower clients to achieve their best health. We’ve recorded a series of shows called Functional Food Facts to explore the relationship between food and body function.
To accompany the podcast episodes, I created a functional food guide, available at www.reinventhealthcare.com/food
Comment below and share how you’ve used adaptogens in your own life and with clients and patients.