Are Mushrooms Adaptogens or Nootropics?

In different cultures all over the world, mushrooms and fungi have been revered for their medicinal and therapeutic properties for thousands of years. Humans have used mushrooms in one way or another since Neolithic times. One interesting early example is the 4,000-year-old mummy Ötzi, or the Iceman, whose medical kit was found to include an antibiotic mushroom.

There are several other examples. Hippocrates, the great Greek physician that has the Hippocratic Oath named after him, used the amadou mushroom as an anti-inflammatory agent in 450 BCE. Native North American tribes used puffball mushrooms as wound healers.

More recently, the terms “adaptogens” and “nootropics” have popped up when discussing the useful health effects of functional mushrooms. This post aims to answer the question of whether mushrooms are adaptogens or nootropics.

What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are pharmacologically active compounds or plant extracts from different plant classes. These substances are capable of enhancing the body’s stability against physical loads without increasing oxygen consumption. Not only is adaptogen intake associated with enabling our bodies to adapt better to stress and maintain/normalize metabolic functions, but it is also associated with improved mental and physical performance. The two main classes of adaptogens are plant adaptogens and synthetic adaptogens (also known as actoprotectors).

Though plant-based adaptogens have been used by many cultures for centuries, the term “adaptogen” is relatively new. It was coined in 1947 by the Soviet scientist Nikolai Lazarev when he discovered the potential of adaptogenic substances to reduce stress in athletes. His finding helped corroborate the ancient medicinal and therapeutic use of mushrooms and other adaptogens by various cultures all over the world.

Etymologically, the word is derived from the Latin word adaptare, which means to adapt or adjust. The majority of research efforts after Lazarev have focused on the merits of particular mushrooms, including lion’s mane, cordyceps, reishi, chaga, maitake, turkey tail, and shiitake.

As noted above, plant adaptogens have a very long and rich history. However, synthetic adaptogens are a more recent concept. Data on the use of bemethyl, the first synthetic adaptogen, dates back to the 1970s, when it was introduced by Professor Vladimir Vinogradov. Since then, several synthetic adaptogens have emerged, for example, aphobazole, bromantane, chlodantane, levamisole, and trekrezan. Their intake yields a number of benefits, including increased physical and mental resistance, vasodilation as well as decreased blood sugar and lactate. Apart from a few exceptions, synthetic adaptogens are widely used in sports medicine.

In 1980, scientists Breckham and Dardimov discovered that adaptogens not only increase the body’s resistance to physical agents but also to chemically and biologically harmful agents as well. Their work further expanded the potential uses of adaptogens. Some plants Breckham and Dardimov identified as having adaptogenic properties include Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, Rhaponticum carthamoides, Schisandra chinensis, and Rhodiola rosea.

Despite their ancient history, the effects of plant adaptogens are continuously being subjected to scientific scrutiny to this day and have been found to have promising potential for wider applications in the future. Specifically, the biological effects of plant adaptogens have been traced to the complex biologically active compounds they contain, including a very rich phytochemical composition. Among the most important phytochemicals possessing adaptogenic properties are:

  • Phytosterols and ecdysone (in Rhaponticum carthamoides)
  • Triterpenoid saponins (in Panax ginseng—ginsenosides; in Eleutherococcus senticosus—eleutherosides)
  • Lignans (in Schisandra chinensis)
  • Vitamins
  • Alkaloids
  • Flavonoids, etc

Mechanism of Action

The mechanism of action of the plant adaptogens is complex and requires more research. Recent studies indicate that taking plant adaptogens such as extracts of Rhodiola rosea root, Schisandra chinensis root, and Eleutherococcus senticosus root, affects the hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenal axis as well as some stress mediators. Also, taking such extracts has a good impact on cortisol levels, nitric oxide levels, blood glucose levels, lactate levels, hepatic enzymes, and plasma lipid profiles, among others.

Current and potential use cases of these medicinal plants are vast and cover areas such as mental diseases and behavioral disorders, cognitive function, and stress-induced diseases (such as anxiety, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases). The beverage industry has also fortified adaptogen ingredients into products such as energy-boosting coffee-based adaptogen drinks. Another example is Chamomile tea which can relieve stress in addition to acting as an anti-aging agent and antioxidant. The intake of plant adaptogens has not been linked with any serious side effects.

What are Nootropics?

Also known as “smart drugs,” nootropics are a heterogeneous group of compounds with medicinal and therapeutic value. The term “nootropic” was first used by Romanian scientist Cornelius Giurgea in 1972/1973 to describe substances that influence cognitive functions such as memory and learning, especially when these functions are impaired. Nootropics work by interfering with the metabolism of the neuronal cells of the central nervous system (CNS). The name originates from two Greek words:

  • nöos, which means thinking
  • and tropein, which means to guide

Like adaptogens, nootropics can be derived naturally from plant or herbal sources or synthesized in a laboratory. Some examples of commonly used Nootropics are Lion’s mane mushroom, Ginkgo biloba, L-Theanine, Caffeine, and Ashwagandha. In the beverage industry, nootropic ingredients such as grape seed extract, artichoke extract, ginseng, lemon balm, kava-kava, Rhodiola rosea, yerba mate, St. John’s Wort, green tea, and caffeine, are fortified into drinks.

Mechanisms of Action

Nootropics do not act directly by releasing neurotransmitters or acting as receptor ligands, but improve the supply of glucose and oxygen to the brain in addition to having anti-hypoxic effects and protecting brain tissue from neurotoxicity. They also have a positive impact on neuronal protein and nucleic acid synthesis, as well as stimulating phospholipid metabolism in neurohormonal membranes. Some nootropics have been reported to affect the elimination of oxygen free radicals, possess an anti-aggregation effect, and improve erythrocyte plasticity. This improves both the rheological properties of blood and the flow of blood to the brain.

Although nootropic substances are metabolically active, most nootropics exhibit no immediate effects after a single dose, which means an extended period of use is required in order to produce the desired results. They must be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier to bring about improvements in brain metabolism, and long-term use is a necessity if any stable changes are to be achieved.

Nootropics are used to treat memory problems, consciousness, and learning disorders, in both acute and subacute conditions. They have also been recommended for incipient brain damage, a condition referred to as acute psycho-organic syndrome (POS), which is characterized by loss of memory, mental retardation, and qualitative alterations in consciousness. POS is usually reversible, though some cases can progress to dementia.

Some causative factors of acute POS include infection, brain trauma, stroke, and intoxication (through alcohol and/or drugs that have a central anticholinergic effect or carbon monoxide). Delirium tremens are also part of the POS group. Other treatment possibilities may include chronic disorders of cognitive functions that also include the previously mentioned mental retardation and memory impairment.

They are sometimes used to treat attention and memory disorders arising from exhaustion and fatigue. They have also been taken by children with minimal brain dysfunction syndrome as well as patients with encephalopathy. Tests have also been conducted about their effect on myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome). As cognitive enhancers, nootropics have been used to treat people suffering from a variety of health problems, including schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, hyperkinetic disorder, and senile dementia.

Their degree of efficacy depends on the size of the dose. Administering less than the required doses is often a common mistake. Treatment should last for no less than 2 to 3 weeks after the condition that necessitated treatment (e.g., a disturbance of consciousness) has disappeared. A clinical scale that provides insight into the depth and duration of impaired consciousness is available. The scale independently measures three aspects of behavior:

  • Motor response
  • Verbal performance
  • Eye-opening

The measurements are then recorded and consistently evaluated based on the chart.

Side effects of nootropics are not common and are rarely serious when they do occur. They are thus usually very well tolerated. However, there may be occasional instances of individual intolerance that may be accompanied by symptoms increasing in the undesired direction, such as an increase in libido or a sleep disorder. Nootropics are contraindicated during pregnancy, lactation, and hypersensitivity.

Because of their widely reported ability to increase intelligence as well as boost memory and cognitive functions, nootropics have captured the interest of students, especially in university student communities where they are often tagged as “smart drugs”. Since most of these nootropics are naturally occurring, students can purchase them as food supplements or as drugs that do not require a prescription. Like many other popular substances and drugs, nootropics can easily be accessed for research purposes via the Internet.

Are Mushrooms Adaptogens or Nootropics?

Functional mushrooms tend to share a number of common benefits. However, some of them have unique individual attributes due to their peculiar bioactive compounds. Hence, some mushroom supplements provide only adaptogenic benefits when used regularly, while others provide only nootropic benefits. There are also other mushrooms with both adaptogenic and nootropic qualities.

In addition to their adaptogenic properties, mushrooms like lion’s mane, cordyceps, chaga, and others have the potential to provide nootropic value to our overall health. Currently we only offer magic mushroom spores for sale but do have plans to add various gourmet varieties to our library in the future.