In order to understand quality medicinal mushroom products, you must first understand the mechanisms by which mushrooms affect your body. In simplest terms, the cell walls of mushrooms are made of chitin. This is a fibrous substance composed of polysaccharides, and is the same thing that makes up the exoskeletons of insects. Polysaccharides are composed of complex chains of sugars, called Glucans. There are Alpha-Glucans and Beta-Glucans. Beta-Glucans are immunomodulators, which means that when we consume them, they activate our immune system, and trigger adaptive responses within our bodies. Basically, they tell our immune system to begin patrolling for potential pathogens, as well as begin producing immunologically active chemicals that inhibit tumor growth and destroy pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Different mushrooms contain different concentrations, and the type of active Beta-Glucans varies from one species to the next.
Because Beta-Glucans are part of the building blocks of Chitin (which is largely indigestible to humans), they are tightly bound to the cell walls of the mushrooms. Therefore, eating a raw mushroom will not only be difficult to digest, but your system will not be able to separate the Beta-Glucans from the Chitin, and your immune system will be unaffected. Fortunately, there is a very simple way to break the Beta-Glucan/Chitin bond: heat! The moment mushrooms are cooked, most of their medicinal properties become bioavailable to us.
The other method by which Beta-Glucans can be extracted is by steeping them in high proof alcohol. Heat extracts one profile of Beta-Glucan, and alcohol extracts another. Therefore, in order to access the full range of Beta-Glucans that a mushroom has to offer, you want to look for a product that was made using a “dual-extraction” method. This means that not only were the compounds decocted with heat, but alcohol as well. These products will most commonly be in the form of tinctures.
Beware of encapsulated powdered products, because simply swallowing raw mushroom powder will not do much for your body. The powder must have been heat treated before encapsulation. Similarly, mushroom teas that instruct you to simply steep for 5 minutes*, or anything claiming to be instant, should draw scrutiny. To get the most out of a dried medicinal mushroom, experts recommend simmering for at least 2 hours.
The final thing to be aware of when selecting a medicinal mushroom product is the mycelium-to-fruiting body ratio. Nearly all of the beneficial compounds in mushrooms are found in the fruiting body (with the exception of Lions Mane, which also contains beneficial polysaccharides in its mycelium). Ideally, you will look for a product with the fewest ingredients, and 100% fruiting bodies. Whether out of ignorance or greed, companies that include a mixture of mycelium and fruiting bodies are most likely padding their products with inert fillers. It is not easy to separate mycelium from the substrate on which it grows, and even though mycelium can only be sold for medicinal use if it is grown on food grade rice bran, any product that contains mycelium is almost certain to also contain a concentrated extract of substrate!
*Far West Fungi dries all medicinal mushrooms for our tea blends at 140 degrees for a minimum of 24 hours, so they are effective even with short steeping times.