The Magic of Mushroom Supplements for Horses
Updated March 9, 2023
Mushrooms and fungi have long been a staple in ancient Chinese medicine. The powers of these little spores have only semi-recently been tapped by western medicine specialists, world-class athletes… and now, your horse! Properties in mushrooms can support your horse through stress and help him flourish from the inside out.
Benefits of Mushrooms for Horses
Riding, trailering, vaccinations, allergies, and simply being in a stall can cause stress for your horse – both physical and mental. These internal and external stressors are part of life for many horses and have a direct impact on their health, notably the immune system and gut microbiome.
Researchers have been studying the medicinal uses of mushrooms in animals and humans and discovered their many benefits, such as fighting viruses, balancing the body’s stress response, and boosting immunity. In horses, mushrooms have been shown to provide the below key benefits.
Enhance Immune Response
When there’s a stressor, such as a virus, your horse’s immune system kicks into action, or upregulates, to protect itself. However, too much of a response can lead to an overactive immune system (also known as autoimmune disease). Mushrooms have immunomodulatory properties, meaning they can stimulate or suppress the immune system to keep it in balance. When your horse’s immune system is in homeostasis, all the complex systems of cells inside his body are better able to keep him healthy.
Powerful Beta Glucans
Mushrooms are made up of polysaccharides, and one very important type called beta glucans. Beta glucans have many impacts on the body, from enhancing the immune response by increasing production of disease-fighting white blood cells, to supporting the digestive microbiome. Research also suggests that beta glucans’ immune-modulating abilities could be beneficial if fed to horses before stressful events
, like trailering to a big competition.
Support Digestive Health
Over 70% of your horse’s immune system is located in the gut. Therefore, nourishing a diverse and healthy population of gut flora is the cornerstone of a strong, healthy, and robust immune system.
Beta glucans in mushrooms are well known for their ability to support the horse’s digestive microbiome – the foundation of the immune system. Plus, mushrooms have prebiotic properties that work to further support a healthy gut.
Protect Against Tumor Cells
Another key player in the immune system are the formidable natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are one of the most important lines of defense in your body as they can target and destroy tumor cells. Mushrooms have been found to increase the number of NK cells in the body, helping to prevent the replication or spread of tumor and cancer causing cells
Our cells’ everyday metabolic processes produce free radicals, which can cause harm if their levels become too high in the body. Mushrooms are full of antioxidants which fight free radicals and help reduce oxidative stress.
Types of Mushrooms in Horse Supplements
Below are some of the most commonly used medicinal mushrooms, along with their Latin names:
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) – reduces inflammation and fights cancer cells
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris) – known for its beta glucans and antioxidants
- Reishi (Ganoderman lucidium) – contain highly active beta glucans that activate immune cells
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) – rich in polysaccharides
- Maitake (Grifola frondosa) – high in beta-D-glucan
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) – powerful immunomodulator
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) – supports brain function
What to Look for in a Mushroom Supplement for Your Horse
As with any equine supplement, it’s very important to read the ingredients carefully to catch small but significant differences in the quality of products.
Processing Powders vs. Extracts
In Chinese medicine, herbs are added to water and boiled to extract their beneficial compounds and make medicinal teas. Following tradition, processing that involves concentrated extracts is the most effective method of delivering the potent benefits of mushrooms.
While the finished supplements may both be in fine powder forms, products labeled as “mushroom extracts” undergo a different production method that involves extracting. Products labeled as “mushroom powders” undergo no extraction procedures and are typically the result of all parts of the mushroom, mycelium, and grain (or the growing element) ground together into a powder. These non-extract powder forms are often less potent as they have not pulled the most vital benefits from the fruiting body and are not as bioavailable in the body.
Mushroom, Mycelium, and Mycelium on Grain
To get the most health benefits, considering the part of the mushroom that’s in your horse’s supplement (along with how it’s produced) is key.
A mushroom is the fruiting body of fungus that we typically see - this is the portion that grows above the ground which you can find in the produce aisle at the grocery store.
Mycelium is the underground root system that protrudes from the base of the mushroom and absorbs nutrients needed to produce the fruiting body. Some mushroom growers use cultures of mycelium as seeds and put them on a carrier material (such as grain or rice) to grow.
The fruiting body contains significantly higher amounts of beneficial medicinal properties than mycelium. Although they’re made of similar tissues, the mushroom’s fruiting body is genetically more complex, nutrient dense, and delivers drastically more medicinal compounds, like beta glucans.
Mycelium and mycelium on grain products are cheaper to produce but do NOT deliver the same benefits as a true mushroom product. They’re far less beneficial as mycelium products have minimal amounts of medicinal compounds.
Pay attention to the ingredient label of your product to see if it lists both mushrooms and mycelium. Combinations of these parts of the fungus are common and often marketed as “full spectrum,” meaning they’re using every part of the mushroom. However, the actual fruiting body portion could be nearly nonexistent or in trace amounts while the bulk of the product is made up of low potency, low-cost mycelium.
It’s always best to know exactly what you’re giving your horse, so look for an honest company that lists the amount or percentage of each fungal part on the supplement’s label.
The FDA tries to police mycelium products with regulations against these supplements being labeled as “mushroom.” Yet, many companies still will falsely label their products as mushrooms.
Organically Grown Mushroom Extracts
How mushrooms are grown, and the pesticides used in their farming, is important to the quality and health benefits they will deliver. Pesticide residue is harmful to our bodies and our planet. Organic growers follow toxin-free protocols that provide the highest quality mushroom products.
Moreover, mushrooms grown on substances that are native to that particular mushroom is a more natural way of farming, versus in sterile laboratories with artificial light. Fresh air, natural light, and safe sourcing help bring out the most potential in each mushroom.
Evidence Based Resources
- Picetti TS, Soveral LF, Miotto R, Erpen LMS, Kreutz Y, Guizzo JA, Frandoloso R, Kreutz LC. Orally administered β-glucan improves the hemolytic activity of the complement system in horses. Vet World. 2021 Apr;14(4):835-840.
- Chan, G.C.-F., Chan, W.K., & Sze, D.M.-Y.. (2009). The effects of β-glucan on human immune and cancer cells. Journal of Hematology & Oncology 2:25.
- Chilton, J. (n.d.). Redefining Medicinal Mushrooms. Nammex. https://www.nammex.com/redefining-medicinal-mushrooms/