You’ve probably heard about “magic mushrooms” – the kind that contain psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive, hallucinogenic compound, celebrated in religious rites and ceremonies down through the ages, and today by many in pursuit of personal growth and enlightenment.
These have their place, but we’re talking here about a different kind of magic found in a wide spectrum of wild or cultivated mushrooms (“medicinal fungi”). These don’t make you high, but they do help keep you healthy by boosting both the levels and activity of many vital components of your immune system. This includes improving gut microbiota, strengthening anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal capability, protecting organ and gland integrity, enhancing blood flow, nerve regeneration and much, much more. In short, scientists are discovering that mushrooms contain some of the most powerful natural medicinal substances on the planet!
NOTE: Eat ONLY organically-grown mushrooms. What makes mushrooms so powerful is their capacity to absorb and concentrate whatever is in the medium they’re growing in — good AND bad. So you want to make sure the soil they live in is rich with natural nutrients and free of chemical pollutants, heavy metals or the like. Mushrooms can be toxic! This is why you don’t want to go foraging for wild mushrooms without expert knowledge. Grow your own or buy certified organic from a reputable vendor.
What are mushrooms: plants vs. fungi?
At first glance, most people would regard mushrooms as just another type of plant: they can’t move around like animals, they come in many varieties with uniform stem and root systems. But, unlike plants, they have no leaves or chlorophyll and, thus, cannot produce energy from the sun as plants do.
Mushrooms are classed as fungi. They can thrive in sunless areas because they produce energy, not from the sun, but via a series of enzymes that break down organic matter from their natural environment. This turns organic matter into a density and range of nutrients not usually found in plants. Indeed, mushrooms produce Vitamin B and D that most plants do not (which makes them an excellent addition to more vegetarian-type diets). Mushrooms are, in many cases, a richer source of nutrients than most plants, e.g., fiber, minerals like potassium, selenium, zinc, manganese, choline, copper, vitamins, like B1, B2, B12, C, D and E. They also have important bioactive components, like alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenes, phenolic compounds, polyunsaturated fatty acids and polysaccharides — all with immune-stimulating and prebiotic properties.
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
While there are over 140,000 mushroom varieties, only about 100 species are currently undergoing intensive study for their health-promoting potential, so there is much more to learn. Thus far, the list of benefits explored encompasses:
Liver protection, including from negative effects of alcohol consumption
Destruction of cancer cells
Improved blood flow
Improved respiratory illnesses, including asthma
Improved skin and hair
Normalization of cholesterol and blood sugar
Antiviral, antibacterial, anti-fungal properties
Reduced risk of heart disease, decreased platelet aggregation
Increased sexual function and athletic ability
Superstars, so far….
Of the 100 mushroom species being researched — representing less than 10% of all mushroom-forming fungi — here are just a few of the standouts:
Cordyceps (also called caterpillar fungus) is favored by athletes because it increases energy, strength and endurance, along with anti-aging effects. It also has hypoglycemic and, possibly, antidepressant benefits, protects the liver and kidney, improves blood flow and has been found useful in treating Hepatitis B. As if that is not impressive enough, cordyceps has antitumor and strong anti-inflammatory properties to fight infection, treat coughs, chronic bronchitis, respiratory disorders and more.
Shitake ((Lentinula enodes) is effective to treat viral infections, as well as conditions where the immune function may be compromised. Enhancing the immune system supports cardio health and provides anticancer, antimicrobial and antibacterial benefits. There is also evidence that shiitake can help prevent cavities!
Reishi ((Ganoderma lucidum) has been found to boost many components of the immune system, such as natural killer cells which detect and destroy cancer cells and cells infected with viruses. It’s also suggested for stress reduction, kidney, liver or bronchial disease, preventing fatigue, insomnia, gastric ulcers. Reishi is believed to have the longest history of medicinal use of all mushrooms. However, these fungi are woody in texture and have a bitter flavor, so you won’t want to simply sauté up a batch. It’s usually used in soups or tea, or dried and made into a powder as an extract or in capsule form.
Turkey Tail ((Trametes versicolor) is best known for use in cancer treatment because it contains a variety of strong antioxidants and other immune-boosting compounds. Studies have shown its immune-enhancing effectiveness in many cancers, e.g., breast, stomach, colorectal, lung, esophageal, nasopharyngeal, cervical and uterine. It has also shown promise in improving gut bacteria balance.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) grows in big clusters the size of basketballs. It is being used to normalize high blood pressure. It’s also found to have anti-cancer activity on breast cancer, melanoma and to treat diabetes. Maitake is as renowned for its culinary as well medicinal prowess because of its good texture and mild flavor. In short, it a medicine that tastes great!
Mushrooms in the Kitchen
The best way to take advantage of the therapeutic value of mushrooms is to eat a blend of several kinds in one dish, e.g., salads, sautés, soups, stews. This is because each species has its own unique assortment of anti-infection, immune-supporting agents — polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, etc. When several species are eaten together, pathogens have little chance of developing resistance to one type and are more likely to be overwhelmed by the arsenal!
You need not limit yourself to the superstars mentioned above. Any edible (organically-grown) mushroom has important immune-supporting activity. More common ones like Portobello supply antioxidants and are a good source of riboflavin, selenium, copper, potassium. Crimini are a good source of protein and folate and a very good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, mangaese, selenium. Even your run-of-the-mill white button mushrooms have a lot to offer: fiber, protein, Vitamin D, C, selenium, phosphorus, iron.
These easy-to-find varieties also have the advantage of tasting great, while some of the “superstars” not so much. Reishi and Turkey Tail, for instance, are too tough to eat. They need to be made into tea, soup, powders or tinctures. To make a tea or soup, just boil in water for an hour or more and consume.
Medicinal mushrooms are also taken as capsules or tinctures. Look for a manufacturer who offers 100% organic mushroom extracts and supplements, produced, stored and packaged under strict guidelines to preserve the nutrient content and effectiveness. One excellent company is Raw Revelations, which carries several mushroom powders, such as Immune Matrix which contains an 8 mushroom blend of “superstars” plus other berry and root extracts.