15 Nov 2023
Before looking specifically at mushrooms for gut health, let’s begin with a quick introduction for those unfamiliar with medicinal mushrooms. Also known as functional fungi, the term refers to mushroom species that have particularly potent health-supporting properties. They’ve long been a staple in traditional medicine systems, and now researchers are finding scientific evidence to verify their efficacy.
Medicinal mushrooms have many potential benefits for our wellbeing. For example, all functional fungi are rich in polysaccharides called beta-glucans. These are a type of soluble fiber that can enhance the health of your heart and support your immune system. In addition, each variety of mushroom has its own individual advantages. This is thanks to the unique secondary metabolites they contain.
As such, the best medicinal mushroom for you will depend on the exact benefits you’re hoping to gain. And today, we’re talking about mushrooms good for gut health and digestion.
Unless you’ve suffered with a condition such as IBS, you might not have given your gut much thought. However, its health affects not only your digestion, but your wellbeing as a whole. This is why taking mushrooms for gut health could be so beneficial.
Your gut microbiome consists of trillions of different microorganisms, some of which are helpful and others that can cause disease. The ‘good’ bacteria play a key role in breaking down food and producing certain vitamins and amino acids.
But that’s not all. They also affect the functioning of the immune system. This is because much of the immune system is actually located in the gut.(1) The health of your gut can therefore influence how well you fight off infections and disease.
Interestingly, research suggests that the condition of your gut also affects the health of your brain. The gut is connected to the brain through the nervous system. Furthermore, it produces certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which influence our feelings and emotions. All of which means that the gut can alter your mood, mental health, and cognitive functions.(2)
The good news is that you can have a positive effect on your gut microbiota through your diet. And one way to do this is by consuming functional foods like medicinal mushrooms for gut health. Here’s how they could help.
One of the principal reasons functional fungi can benefit your gut health is because of their high levels of beta-glucans. These act as a prebiotic, which means they nourish the good bacteria in your gut. We cannot digest the fiber ourselves, but some species of bacteria can – which is how we access the nutrients.
Studies have found that consuming beta-glucans helps to increase levels of certain beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium.(3) At the same time, it decreases the amount of some harmful bacteria in the gut. Both actions contribute to a flourishing microbiome, making mushrooms good for gut health.
In addition, functional fungi act as adaptogens. These are plants which enable the mind and body to better cope with physical and emotional stress. Why does this mean we can take mushrooms for gut health? Well, just as the gut can influence the brain, the brain can influence the gut. You might have experienced this yourself if you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous.
Stress may slow down digestion, trigger gastrointestinal issues like indigestion and constipation, and even lead to conditions such as IBS.(4) As such, anything which eases stress could also have a positive influence on gut health.
While all functional fungi can support your digestive system, there are some which are especially beneficial in this regard. So, without further ado, here are four of the best medicinal mushrooms for gut health.
This pretty fungus is one of the most famous mushrooms for gut health. Turkey tail is naturally rich in a bioactive component called polysaccharopeptide, or PSP. Evidence shows that PSP may have a positive influence on your gut microbiome.
For example, studies have found that turkey tail extract can increase levels of good bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Moreover, it’s also able to reduce the populations of harmful bacteria like Clostridium and Staphylococcus.(5) This may help to improve digestion and ease gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhoea.
PSP and polysaccharide krestin (PSK, another active compound in turkey tail) could additionally strengthen the immune system.(6) This is thanks to their ability to activate certain immune cells and suppress inflammation. That’s a fantastic bonus if you’re taking turkey tail mushrooms for gut health, because inflammation can also cause gastrointestinal issues.
We usually think of lion’s mane as a functional food for brain health, but it’s great for the gut too. For instance, studies have found that extracts from this striking fungus can inhibit the growth of the bacteria H. pylori. In turn, this may protect the stomach lining from damage and lower the risk of stomach ulcers.(7)
And that’s not the only reason why lion’s mane is one of the best mushrooms for gut health. Research also shows that the fungus could be useful in treating inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.(8) This is thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, ability to support the immune system, and positive effect on the gut microbiome.
Moreover, lion’s mane could have a beneficial impact on the gut through its capacity to alleviate anxiety and balance your mood. That’s because, like stress, anxiety can both cause and exacerbate gastrointestinal problems.
Chaga may not be as visually attractive as the other fungi on this list, but don’t let that fool you! It’s still among the top mushrooms for gut health.
Research indicates that chaga can alter the levels of different bacteria in the gut, leading to a healthier microbiome. Studies on mice suggest the fungi could therefore be helpful in treating conditions such as pancreatitis and ulcerative colitis.(9) This is also thanks to chaga’s potent antioxidant properties, which defend cells in the gut (and elsewhere) against oxidative stress.
In addition, chaga is a powerful anti-inflammatory.(10) That means it could work to decrease inflammation in the gut, reducing the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases.
Last but not least, reishi rounds off our list of the best mushrooms for gut health. Like other fungi we've mentioned, reishi can increase the levels of beneficial bacteria such as roseburia in your microbiome.(11) This is because of the many potent polysaccharides it contains. Mouse studies suggest the fungi could help to treat obesity and improve insulin resistance through its effect on gut bacteria.(12)
Moreover, reishi is able to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, plus enhance the quality and duration of your sleep.(13) As you know, insomnia and mental health conditions can have a detrimental impact on the digestive system. So that’s another excellent reason to take reishi mushrooms for gut health!
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