What's the Deal With Functional Mushrooms? Here Are 6 Types Worth Knowing About

These funky-looking fungi have some promising health benefits—here's what the research says.


krungchingpixs/Getty Images

Maybe you’ve seen the Fantastic Fungi documentary on Netflix, or recently noticed your favorite influencer sharing their new-found love for functional mushroom products, and it’s piqued your interest in this emerging food category. 

Functional mushrooms are all the rage these days, with more food, drink, and wellness supplement products featuring these esteemed fungi popping up everyday. In fact, the global functional mushroom market is expected to grow to over 19 billion dollars by 2030

But what are functional mushrooms, and how do they differ from the shiitake, morel, and button mushrooms you grew up eating? Are the purported health benefits associated with these medicinal ’shrooms legit? Consider this your 101 guide to functional mushrooms—let’s dig in.

What Are Functional Mushrooms?

The world of mushrooms is wide and includes hundreds of varieties: Some are highly poisonous. Others have psychedelic properties. Some are edible, healthy, and perfect ingredients for culinary pursuits. Then there are mushroom varieties with particularly impressive health benefits when consumed, including functional mushrooms. 

“Functional mushrooms are mushrooms that have adaptogenic properties and health benefits beyond that of their nutritional value,” explains Abbey Sharp, RD, registered dietitian, YouTube host, food writer, and TikTok creator.

Functional Mushrooms Contain Adaptogens

First coined in the 1940s, the term “adaptogen” refers to a group of compounds found in plant foods (but can also be found in synthetic forms) that help the body adapt to stress of all kinds, whether it be chemical, biological, or physical. This helps us to ward off any illness or disease that could be a result of these stressors and maintain our internal homeostasis. One review looking at adaptogens’ overall illness prevention abilities, as well as their capability to treat viral respiratory infections, found these compounds to spring the immune system into action, reduce inflammation throughout the body, detoxify and repair damaged cells, exhibit antiviral properties, and generally improve quality of life. Overall, very impressive.

These unique compounds have been utilized for thousands of years by ancient civilizations for medicinal purposes. There are over 70 naturally occurring adaptogens known today, including herbs and, of course, many mushroom varieties. Some of the most well-known adaptogenic (i.e. functional) mushroom varieties are lion’s mane, chaga, tremella, reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, maitake, and even oyster.

Popular Functional Mushroom Varieties—and What the Research Says

When it comes to health benefits, while every mushroom will have a slightly different nutritional profile, many types will offer similar, overlapping benefits, for example, those associated with the immune-boosting plant compounds (or phytonutrients) they all contain. 

According to Sharp, there’s “evidence to support functional mushroom use for supporting a healthy immune system, stress response, exercise performance, and brain health,” she says. “While many studies are still generally small, in vitro, or animal-based, there’s enough human research to suggest that they may have unique health properties.”

Let’s dive into some of these buzz-worthy functional mushroom varieties and the scientific evidence available to understand what makes them such impactful health foods. 

01 of 06

Lion’s Mane Mushrooms

Getty Images

When functional mushrooms come to mind, lion’s mane is often one of the first people tend to think of. These white mushrooms are reminiscent of furry little brains in appearance, which is quite fitting: These mushrooms are well-known for their ability to positively influence brain health thanks to their neurotrophic properties. Neurotrophic factors promote the growth and differentiation of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain that send and receive information. Lion’s mane is also associated with reducing inflammation in the brain, thus providing neuroprotective benefits. It’s even been linked to preventing and slowing cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease patients.

Beyond the brain, this fungus has been found to have whole-body anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-cancer benefits while also supporting heart and gut health. Lion’s mane is a great source of B vitamins, zinc, potassium and iron, lending to healthy energy metabolism, immune function, fluid balance, and red blood cell formation. Plus it’s loaded with beta-glucan, a type of fiber shown to support gut, immune, and metabolic health.

Lion's mane mushrooms are becoming easier to find, especially from local mushroom producers, and are frequently used as a vegan seafood substitute because their texture is reminiscent of shellfish.

02 of 06

Chaga Mushrooms

Getty Images

While you’ll be hard-pressed to find this variety fresh, chaga mushrooms have so much to offer in the way of health benefits. These mushrooms look more like truffles than your typical mushroom and have a brilliant turmeric-like orange interior. One review of the current evidence on the chaga mushroom found it to be an excellent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and cholesterol-lowering agent. Plus, this research group found evidence suggesting chaga to be a potentially effective treatment for type 2 diabetes and cancer. Another study supports this, finding chaga mushroom extract to inhibit signaling pathways vital to breast cancer cell growth. While other data shows that it can support gut and brain health. (Researchers even found it to potentially be an effective treatment against COVID-19 symptoms). This mushroom is also a great source of beta glucans, vitamin D, zinc, B vitamins, copper, manganese, and potassium. 

However, chaga is extremely high in oxalate, a naturally-occurring substance found in plants. When consumed in excessive amounts over time, oxalates can lead to kidney stone formation and even kidney failure. A few case studies have linked this mushroom to these kidney conditions. One such case includes a 69-year-old man who experienced oxalate-induced nephrotic syndrome after consuming 15 to 20 grams (g) of chaga every day for three months. For this reason, it’s best to be cautious around this variety, consuming only modest amounts. Mushroom experts recommend around 2 g of chaga powder, or one tablespoon, per day to reap all the health benefits without risking high oxalate consumption.

03 of 06

Tremella Mushrooms

Getty Images

Also lovingly known as “snow fungus,” tremella mushrooms boast an ethereal, ribboned look, almost like a bouquet of white seaweed. This variety is slightly less researched when compared to the others, however, the data available currently on tremellas is pretty promising. One review of the evidence on this mushroom published in 2023 found it to have antioxidant, antitumor, immune-modulating, blood sugar-regulating, and neuroprotective properties. Similar to the other mushrooms discussed here, tremella also offers B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc, copper, calcium, and iron, supporting healthy immunity, bones, and blood cells. 

Tremellas are a mushroom variety you’re likely only to find in supplement form, whether it be powdered, in a tincture, or in a capsule.

04 of 06

Reishi Mushrooms

Getty Images

One of the most popular functional mushrooms is the reishi mushroom. If you’re tapped into this sector of the health food world, you’ll notice that it’s added to many functional health food products. But it’s nothing new: This fungus has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, believed to promote overall health and longevity. 

One review of the evidence published in 2021 found this mushroom to have therapeutic benefits for bodily inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, cancer, mood disorders, and liver disease. However, this review also mentions that the greater body of evidence surrounding this mushroom is in its nascent stages and that more research is needed to prove causation of these impacts. 

In terms of nutrients, this mushroom contains immune-boosting vitamins E, C, and D, as well as B vitamins and that plant pigment beta carotene, most notably known for boosting eye health.

05 of 06

Cordyceps Mushrooms

Getty Images

Cordyceps (of The Last of Us fame—but without posing the fictional apocalyptic threat) are one of the most interesting-looking mushrooms, resembling long golden caterpillars. Funnily enough, it does actually grow on insect larvae. Beyond its intriguing appearance, cordyceps have been the subject of an impressive amount of research. The data show that cordyceps mushrooms may have positive impacts on respiratory health, a variety of cancers, blood sugar regulation, kidney disease, and overall bodily inflammation. It also may help reduce exercise fatigue and viral activity. It’s important to note, however, that many of these studies were conducted on animals, necessitating further research to prove these findings in humans.

In this fungus, you’ll also find plenty of protein, vitamin K and B vitamins including B12, thiamin, and riboflavin. These will leave you feeling energized while also supporting healthy blood clotting.

06 of 06

Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Getty Images

Finally, there’s turkey tail mushrooms. These dark brown, fanned fungi are unsurprisingly very reminiscent of turkey tails. Evidence shows that turkey tail is a nonspecific immune modulator, meaning that it generally boosts the entire immune system across the board as an antioxidant and helps to reduce bodily inflammation. One study published just this year found it to have therapeutic potential for melanoma while a 2012 study found similar results for breast cancer.

Turkey tail is also especially high in beta-glucans, as well as vitamin D and B vitamins. Some people love to eat these mushrooms whole while others will opt for supplement versions.

Functional Mushroom Consumption and Safety

As we’ve found so far, there’s a lot to love about functional mushrooms when it comes to our overall health. But what is the best way to include them in your everyday life? While some varieties are delicious in their whole form, like lion’s mane, others are most palatable and easy to find in their supplement form, including as powders, pills, or tinctures.

Check in with your doctor.

When it comes to safety around supplements, it’s important to make informed decisions and know that supplements are not federally standardized or regulated. First and foremost, consult your doctor before starting any new dietary or supplement regime. “Always check with your healthcare provider and research the purpose and potential side effects before supplementing with functional mushrooms,” recommends Amy Davis, RD, LDN at FRESH Communications. This is especially important if you have any pre-existing health conditions or are currently taking prescription medications.

“Research has found that these mushrooms are generally safe and well-tolerated, however, some may cause dizziness or headaches and are not advised for people who take medication to lower their blood pressure or those who are pregnant. Some people may also display allergic reactions,” Sharp says.

Look for third-party certifications on mushroom supplements and food products.

“Though supplements are monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they do not need prior approval before going on the market,” says Sarah Hester, MS, RD. This lack of higher-level due diligence means that supplements that aren’t safe or beneficial to our overall health can be sold to consumers. 

“It's very important to choose a supplement that is third-party tested to ensure purity and safety,” Sharp adds. There are a few organizations conducting these third-party verifications: NSF and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) are the most reputable, so look for their certification seals on any products you’re considering.

Ways to Incorporate Functional Mushrooms

Otherwise, once you have your hands on these functional mushrooms or mushroom-derived products, there are several ways you can incorporate them into your daily life. If you have whole functional mushrooms, include them in any of your favorite mushroom recipes or steep them in water to create an earthy, mushroom tea. If you have a supplement form, some options Davis recommends include having them “blended into a smoothie, mixed into coffee, or sprinkled over oatmeal.”

So, while these functional mushrooms are not your typical risotto ingredient, there’s evidence to show that the nutrition and health benefits they offer are very promising and impressive, to say the least. Once you’ve done your research and checked in your doc, they may be a healthy addition and help you feel your best.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles