Welcome to our series "Buzzy Beauty Ingredient of the Moment," the premise of which is pretty self-explanatory: In each installment, we'll explore an ingredient that's currently trending in the industry, springing up in a variety of different products lining the beauty aisle. We'll consult experts to find out about the science behind it — and why it's having a major moment right now.
It may be difficult to believe now, but the term "CBD," short for cannabidiol oil, first appeared on Fashionista just five years ago. Back then, in 2017, the health and beauty industries were playing host to a new flurry of chic, weed-based products, each with a claim more fantastical than the next. A luxury serum that helped skin retain moisture? CBD. An Instagrammable tincture that promised relief from anxiety, pain and even problematic sleep patterns? CBD.
There we were for the next five years, spiking everything from our skin-care stashes to our pantries with CBD-laced goods, all featuring natural compounds found in the cannabis plant. Today, the CBD market size is expected to reach $47.2 billion by 2028, at an annual growth rate of 21.3%. Soon, experts predict, CBD will be as much a staple in our overarching wellness routines as hyaluronic acid, paving the way for other, equally hardworking super-ingredients to break through in the space.
Enter functional mushrooms, which have been both used and appreciated for their health and wellness benefits for millennia. Ever late to the party, it's just now that our contemporary Western world is learning to utilize — and ever more broadly, properly respect — them.
On the highest level, fungi are a biological kingdom, just like plants and animals. And just as there are many, many species of plants and animals, there's as many species of fungi — 6 million, in fact — that encompass yeasts and molds, and all classes of mushrooms and toadstools. Of those 6 million are three categories available for human consumption: culinary, psychedelic or functional, the latter of which can be used for health and wellness benefits, served up in tinctures, blends or even, in the case of one Finnish-American company, even coffee.
While the precise benefits depend on the species being used, functional mushrooms can be further categorized into two primary groups: medicinal mushrooms, which contain compounds that provide specific health benefits, and adaptogenic mushrooms, which contain adaptogens that allow bodies to adapt to and fight off chemical, biological and physical stress. And we've only recently begun to understand just how fantastic these fungi can be. According to a 2021 report published by Allied Market Research, the global functional mushroom market generated $7.9 billion in 2020, and is estimated to more than double that, reaching $19.3 billion by 2030.
"We're just waking up to what fungi represent and what they do for our planet — how long they've been here and what our world needs," says Tonya Papanikolov, founder and CEO of Rainbo, a B Corp-certified line of supplements and functional foods. "For me, they're this model and metaphor for how we can look to partner with nature in a more symbiotic way that's in harmony with the rest of the natural world. Across so many industries, fungi are providing solutions that we're looking for."
Functional mushrooms, both medicinal and adaptogenic, have been used across Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and other ancient medical practices for thousands of years. But as Papanikolov explains, Western systems have only just begun to scratch the surface of fungi's applications, and we owe it to those traditions to be respectful of the cultures that have been working in tandem with mushrooms long before you could scoop up a bottle in one swipe on your phone.
"There are cultures that have a deep reverence and a vocabulary for mushrooms that we don't have in our Western culture," says Papanikolov, who founded Rainbo in 2018 after a personal experience with mycotherapy, the study of the use of mushrooms as medicines or health-promoting agents. She offers the example of the immune-boosting, stress-reducing reishi mushroom, which, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is held in such high regard that it's considered the "mushroom of immortality," of spiritual potency.
"For us that's a harder thing to translate, but those traditional uses are something I really hope our Western culture starts to find the words and experiences for," she says, "that mushrooms become much more of a common way that we start to speak about a holistic tool of healing ourselves in facets of our spirit and and our physical body."
Why have functional mushrooms, in particular, entered the Western wellness discourse? For Tero Isokauppila, founder and CEO of functional foods brand Four Sigmatic, it's simply because, well, they work, and results are increasingly important to modern-day consumers. Yet people are also seeking natural alternatives to conventional forms of treatment.
Still, he says, most of the U.S. is "mushroom illiterate," so the brand remains in the early stages of its instructional journey. "Technically, we work with 11 of the top mushrooms, but most of our education is focused on three," he says, those being lion's mane, chaga and the aforementioned reishi, all extracted from wood-growth fruiting bodies, with no fillers or carriers.
Lion's mane, he says, is the trendiest variety of fungi currently represented in Four Sigmatic's product range, with alleged benefits ranging from heightened productivity to supercharged brain power. Chaga, meanwhile, is a legendary antioxidant, with immune-supporting properties that, studies have shown, slow the growth of cancer cells. Then there's reishi, one of the most versatile members of the functional mushroom family, which has been found to target everything from stress to fatigue, physical and mental, as well as to improve sleep and help treat high blood pressure and cholesterol.
There's others, Isokauppila notes, that are just as dynamic. Take skin-plumping tremella, or cordyceps, a bright orange parasitic fungi that stabilizes energy and stress levels, enhances athletic performance and may even boost libido. And there's even more still — we just haven't studied them.
"I'm excited for more clinical trials to be done on all of these medicinal mushrooms, so that we can cement their health benefits and integrate them into our medical community," says Nadine Joseph, who founded adaptogen line Peak and Valley in 2019, while working as a burned out neuroscientist research. "I'm particularly excited about psilocybin," a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of fungi, that shows potential to treat depression and anxiety.
So, does CBD, largely advertised as providing relief for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, even compare? They may occupy similar corners of the wellness market, but functional mushrooms and CBD don't stack up against one another, and shouldn't necessarily be correlated as such.
"It's really challenging to compare CBD and medicinal mushrooms, especially since medicinal mushrooms encompass hundreds of different types of mushrooms, all with a unique set of beneficial compounds, and CBD is just a single compound in the cannabis plant," says Joseph. "Though CBD has been shown to aid in everything from anxiety to epilepsy, the 'medicinal reach' for mushrooms is wider in terms of benefits, simply because of the wide array of compounds in each different mushroom."
Like CBD, though, functional mushrooms are typically served as a "decoction," a type of extraction done by boiling the fungi over long periods of time and packaged for consumer use from there. Both Peak and Valley and Four Sigmatic offer its fungi in the form of herbal blends, designed to dissolve in your beverage of choice, be it a latte or a smoothie. Other brands, like Rainbo, work with extracts, which are so highly bioavailable that absorption can start right in the nearest membranes of the mouth and quickly enter into the bloodstream.
Looking ahead, how else could consumers ingest or otherwise engage with fungi? According to Isokauppila, they’ll first spread throughout health- and wellness-centric categories where people seek benefits, "because fungi can deliver benefits." But over time, mushrooms could easily be applied to all kinds of consumer products and eventually, increasingly crucial planetary activities, like restoring ecosystems after forest fires or providing alternatives to leather goods. The sky, or rather, the soil, is the limit, and they're not going anywhere.
"Mushrooms have existed for 2.4 billion years, and us humans have existed for barely 200,000," says Isokauppila. "They will be here well past when humans have left this planet one day. They will be part of our lives whether we want it or not. They're trending in Western culture and society, but they're fundamental to all living cultures in our existence."
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