There is a small but growing group of people that the folks in the know call, “mushroom people.” They’re considered fanatics of the amazing medicinal and ecological benefits of mushrooms. For most people, mushrooms are the small button variety that used to come in the blue styrofoam boxes in grocery stores, ready to go into a stir-fry. But there is so much more to mushrooms and you don’t need to be a mushroom connoisseur to take advantage of their amazing healing benefits. Mushrooms or fungi are surprisingly already well integrated into our world and our bodies already.
They grow and transform through a simple yet elaborate system that mirrors and yet predates the way humans have setup our information networks. The fruit of those interactions produces the mushroom itself and it turns out that even the common mushrooms we consume regularly are a delicious source of vitamins and minerals, powerful disease fighters, anti-inflammatory, and have the potential to save the world. There is so much we don’t know and so much that we do that’s under utilized. Mycologists, Paul Stamets, who you might know from the Stamets' mushroom blends we carry at the clinic, has spent his life studying mushrooms and there is a lot to discover in the world of fungi. Let’s find out more.
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. They were reclassified in the 1960’s into the separate Kingdom of Fungi. In some ways, mushrooms are more closely related to animals than plants. Like humans, mushrooms take in oxygen for their digestion and metabolism and “exhale” carbon dioxide as a waste product. Fungal proteins are also more similar in many ways to animal proteins. Mushrooms also differ from plants in that they lack the green chlorophyll that plants use to manufacture their own food and energy. For these reasons, they were placed in their own kingdom.
There are an estimated 1.5 to 3 million species of fungi covering the planet with only about 80,000 being properly identified and 270 that have known healing properties. That makes about six species of fungi for every one species of green plants and we share the earth with twenty five percent mycelium, or what can be considered the tree roots of mushrooms. Mycologist Paul Stamets called this mycelium network, the earth’s “internet.”
Now imagine if every tree or branch that fell down just stayed there forever, or imagine how deep the layer of autumn leaves would be after a few years if they did not rot. This is the main role of fungi and mushrooms; they’re the recyclers in nature. They break down wood and leaves back into their original components and therefore they clean the forest and they also provide food for living plants by returning dead trees and forest litter to simple organic materials, a form suitable for plant use.
Not all mushrooms grow on wood though. Another group of mushrooms grow from the ground feeding on humus and any organic materials contained in the soil, but at the same time they form a special beneficial relationship with live trees, called a ‘symbiotic relationship’ where the tree provides the mushroom with some of the glucose they produce and in return the mushroom gives the tree essential minerals for it’s growth. This exchange of nutrients takes place through the roots of the tree. That’s why some mushrooms are always associated with certain trees.
Medicinal and Nutritional Benefits
Most well-studied and known medicinal mushrooms grow on trees. Similar to the way that herbal medicine takes it nutrients from the soil, mushrooms take their nutrition from the specific trees they grown on. This is worthwhile to understand in the study of mushrooms in order to optimize their medicinal benefit.
According to a 2005 report published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, mushrooms contain “compounds and complex substances with antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antiallergic, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antiatherogenic, hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective activities.”
All medicinal mushrooms contain beta-D-glucan, a type of polysaccharide that keeps your immune cells awake. These chemical constituents are commonly found in some plant cellulose (Astragalus, Echinacea, etc) and fungi. Beta-D-glucan is responsible for physiological processes related to the metabolism of fats and sugars in the human body. Mushrooms are considered to be “immuno-modulators” attributed to their protein-bound polysaccharide nature that have strong effects on our immune system. Immuno-modulation is the effect of either up-regulation of a weak immune system that is compromised in its ability to fight infections or down-regulation of a strong but misdirected immune system that is causing autoimmune disorders such as allergies, arthritis, asthma and other gut disorders. This modulation of immune function in either direction is confounding to Western Medicine and pharmacological paradigms, which are accustomed to medicines that always “push” in one direction. The mushrooms basically know what the system needs and acts accordingly.
Nutritionally speaking, they are a good source of B vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, which help to provide energy by breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. B vitamins play an important role in the nervous system. Pantothenic acid helps with the production of hormones and also plays an important role in the nervous system. Riboflavin helps maintain healthy red blood cells. Niacin promotes healthy skin and makes sure the digestive and nervous systems function properly. Mushrooms are also a source of important minerals, including selenium, ergothioneine, copper and potassium. Selenium is a mineral that works as an antioxidant to protect body cells from damage that might lead to heart disease, some cancers and other diseases of aging. It also has been found to be important for the immune system and fertility in men. Many foods of animal origin and grains are good sources of selenium, but mushrooms are among the richest sources of selenium in the produce aisle and provide 8–22 mcg per serving. This is good news for vegetarians, whose sources of selenium are limited. Ergothioneine is a naturally occurring antioxidant that also may help protect the body’s cells and reduce inflammation. Copper helps make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. It also helps keep bones and nerves healthy. Potassium is an important mineral that aids in the maintenance of normal fluid and mineral balance, which helps control blood pressure. It also plays a role in making sure nerves and muscles, including the heart, function properly.
Much of the modern scientific research done on mushrooms is related to cancer prevention and treatment, HIV and AIDS, and other immune function disorders. Mushrooms can enhance almost every system in the body and protect from numerous diseases since they’re associated with lowered inflammation, attributed to the root of most diseases. Mushrooms also help alkalize the body, which is associated with improved immunity.
Mushrooms are even shown to have special fighting abilities against deadly multi-resistant bacterial strains and microorganisms responsible for gut and skin problems. In fact, some substances present in common antibiotics given to people when they’re sick — including penicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline — are derived from mushroom fungal extracts.
Let’s look at the major benefits on our health.
Eating mushrooms is one way to lower cholesterol levels naturally. Mushrooms have sterol compounds that interfere with the production of cholesterol in the liver, yet at the same time they can raise HDL cholesterol. They also contain potent phytonutrients that help keep cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plague buildup, which maintains healthy blood pressure and improves circulation.
Support Energy and Improve Brain Function
Mushrooms are a great source of B vitamins, which help support adrenal function and turn nutrients from food into useable energy. B vitamins benefits include the ability to help with neurotransmitter function, which makes them stress-defying nutrients that help break through “brain fog,” prevent thyroid disorders and support a healthy metabolism. Certain types of mushrooms, especially reishi, are also considered “adaptogens” that lower cortisol, which means they can help your body to deal with stress and keep your mood more upbeat. Mushrooms also lower inflammation that can trigger a decline in cognitive function, mood problems, low energy and age-related neurodegenerative diseases.
Cancer prevention is really the field where mushroom nutrition gets the most attention. For centuries, Asian cultures have used certain mushrooms as a natural cancer treatment because of these fungi’s ability to lower the risk for cancer through many mechanisms, including supplying germanium, a nutrient that boosts oxygen use in the body and fights free radical damage. Its immune-modulating function protects healthy cells and increasing the body’s ability to detoxify itself of dangerous substances. In fact, over 200 mushroom species are used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, and 25 percent of these are found to effectively fight harmful tumors.
What about the poisonous ones?
Some mushrooms are poisonous. Most are not deadly, though, there are only a handful of mushrooms that kill someone. Most of the other poisonous mushrooms, so called, ‘Toad Stools’, are harmful, but their effect is limited to sickness and stomach upsets. That doesn’t mean we should be eating them when we go out foraging, at least not without an expert nearby.
It also may be surprising that raw mushrooms are not good for you. They need to be cooked to reap their delicious benefits. Agaritine, a toxin found in small amounts in raw mushrooms that is destroyed by cooking. A quick sauté will do the trick.
People have used mushrooms medicinally and as food for thousands of years. The oldest written reference to people using mushrooms medicinally is from an Ayurvedic source from 5000 BP.
The Chinese have one of the most sophisticated uses of herbal and medicinal mushrooms and have a written history of using them that dates back several thousand years as well. Many medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao) and reishi (Ling Zhi) were so highly prized and rare that only the emperor was allowed to consume them. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, reishi is part of the spirit nourishment category. As we see, it has strong effects on the nervous system and regulating the immune system to create an element of calm.
The Ancient Egyptian royalty felt similarly. Hieroglyphics found in the tombs of the Pharaohs suggest that they believed the mushroom to be “the plant of immortality.” The mushroom’s distinct flavor intoxicated these demi-gods, that they ordered mushrooms to be food for royalty alone, and prohibited commoners from handling the delicacies.
The Greeks and Romans ate mushrooms frequently. The Greeks said mushrooms were the “food of the gods.” And some South American Amazon tribes have one word that refers to both meat and mushrooms. They consider mushrooms as equivalent to meat in nutritive value.
Research and Earth Matters
Scientists are still identifying species of mushrooms under rocks and clinging to old growth forests. We still have much to learn from this kingdom. This is another reason to protect our old growth forests, for the wisdom we have not yet gathered from its dense understory. We are still learning about great value in our wild mushrooms and we need places for our fungi friends to continue to thrive.
The potential for mushrooms to help us clean up our mess provides hope. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory conducted experiments with oyster mushrooms that brilliantly cleaned up diesel-contaminated soil. The bacteria died while the oyster mushroom cleaned up the toxic oils and bloomed huge bouquets of mushrooms all over the pile.
Much like bacteria, mushrooms are found everywhere. Mushrooms could be the next frontier in scientific research for saving the planet but for as much as we have known for thousands of years we are still learning more about the benefits for our health. Mycologist Paul Stamets and the “mushroom people” believe that mushrooms can save our lives, restore our ecosystems and transform the world. Check out Paul Stamets Ted Talk if you want to learn more.
You can also ask about one of the Stamets mushroom blends we carry here at the clinic. They're fantastic to have in your medicine cabinet during cold & flu season.
Adams C. “Uncloaking the Mysteries of Medicinal Mushrooms.” Nutraceuticals World.
De la Forȇt, Rosalee. Herbs with RosaLee. “Herbal and Medicinal Mushrooms”
Herbs for Health Staff. “Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms and How to Use Them” Mother Earth Living. May/June 2011.
Hobbs, Christopher. Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, & Culture, Botanic Press. 1986, Williams, OR
.Isokkauppila, Tero. Four Sigmatic Academy Online Course
Schultz. Colin. “Long Before Trees Overtook the Land, Earth Was Covered by Giant Mushrooms” July, 17 2013. Smithsonian Magazine Online.
Stamets, Paul. Ted Talk: “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” March 2008.
Ulrike Lindequist, Ha Won Kim, Evelin Tiralongo, and Leo Van Griensven. “Medicinal Mushrooms” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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