Fungi. Our world could not exist without them. Without them, there would be no soil. No trees. No forests. Many plant species would go extinct along with their animal pollinators. Whole ecosystems would collapse. Our earth would literally be one giant garbage heap of refuse. There would be no wine, no beer, no bread and no cheese. We would not have the life-saving benefits of antibiotics. And most importantly, our agricultural lands would yield crops so deficient in minerals, they could not sustain life. Fortunately for the living things on this planet, the molds, the yeasts, the mushrooms and the polypores are still here. The amazing kingdom Fungi, our distant relatives on the tree of life, are essential to Earth’s survival.
Not only do fungi play a key ecological role here on Earth, but many mushrooms and other edible fungi are nutritious foods as well. Fungi are the source of many unique compounds, with a multitude of health benefits. Medicinal fungi excel as natural products in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as type II diabetes, cancer, autoimmunity, and more. Medicines from fungi are also employed as adjuncts to conventional medicine, especially cancer. As of 2018, $24 billion dollars were spent in the annual global trade of medicinal mushrooms and products made from them. Medicinal mushrooms are available as fresh produce or dried, as alcohol-based extracts or powders. They are even combined with other herbs and nutrients in the form of nutraceuticals.
Safe Wild Foraging
If you prefer to acquire them for free, wild foraging for edible and medicinal fungi is another option. The mushroom hunter must be educated on the life cycle, habitat and identification traits of each species that is collected. Fungi have relationships with specific trees, whose traits must also be learned. Poisonous look-alike species need to be recognized as well. Identification traits include color, shape, size, spore type, odor, texture, taste, habit of growth, habitat, and more. It takes many years of practice to learn to forage for mushrooms. This art can be effectively learned from a trusted mentor, such as a seasoned forager, amateur or professional mycologist. Joining a local mushroom club is also highly recommended for those who are eager to learn. There is a saying worth remembering here: “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” Newbies might take these words of wisdom to heart.
Mushroom foragers should also take great care to become educated about the sustainability of mushroom gathering and respect the important ecological niche that fungi occupy on our planet.
Fungi as Medicine
While fungi as medicine may be new to many Westerners, in the Orient the traditional practice of eating fungi to strengthen the immune system and the body’s vital energy or “Qi” dates back a few thousand years. Classical medical texts from China contain information about several of the most well-researched and highly prized medicinal fungi, such as Ganoderma lucidum or Reishi (“Ling Zhi”). Fungi used in Asian traditional healing have been shown to be immune-modulating in vitro and in multiple animal studies. The polysaccharides (beta glucans) in fungi normalize the immune system, exhibit hepatoprotectant (liver protective) properties and display anti-fatigue effects. Some fungi also contain potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, such as terpenes and polyphenols. All edible and medicinal fungi contain a potent, unique antioxidant called ergothioneine, the importance of which is yet unknown.
Fungi have fibrous cell walls which contain chitin. Chitin is unique in that it is only found in one other group of organisms—in the protective shell-like exoskeletons of insects, crustaceans and other arthropods. As a dietary supplement, chitin has been clinically studied for its cholesterol-lowering effects. The chitin in mushrooms make them a valuable, low-caloric food to add to the diet to help normalize blood sugar, LDL cholesterol and other blood lipids. Mushrooms and edible fungi are high in vitamin D, selenium, B vitamins and several trace minerals, yet contain very few calories. (Note: To enhance the amount of vitamin D present in dried mushrooms, it is recommended to place them directly in sunlight for several hours before eating.) Blenditarian.com supports the “Blended Burger Project,” an effort which entices consumers and chefs to blend minced mushrooms into meat products. The goal is to make meat-based meals healthier and more sustainable.
Medicinal fungi can play a role in the prevention and treatment of cancer. While most of this evidence is not supported by human clinical trials, there are a few medicinal fungi preparations which have passed the test. In both Japan and China, the standard of care for cancer treatment is to combine chemotherapy and or radiation treatment with medicinal mushroom extracts. One adjunct therapy widely used is an extract of the common turkey tail polypore (Trametes versicolor, also known as Coriolus versicolor), called “PSK.” This extract has a proven safety record and improves quality of life in cancer survivors.
There also have been numerous studies on the health benefits associated with Ganoderma spp. or Reishi, which is known as the “ginseng of the fungal kingdom” for good reason. It helps the body combat stress, promotes relaxation, benefits those with allergies and asthma, enhances mental function and reduces fatigue. Recent research conducted by Paul Stamets at Washington State University has also found that extracts of Ganoderma polypore fortify the immune systems of honeybees and may play an important role in preventing colony collapse disorder (for more information visit HostDefense.com/pages/bees).
Another important medicinal mushroom is the cultivated Shitake mushroom, or Lentinula edodes. In one human clinical trial, healthy young adults who ate a small portion of dried shitake mushrooms daily for four weeks had improved immunity and lower levels of inflammation.
Grifola frondosa or maitake, (aka “hen of the woods”) is another great-tasting, edible fungus which fruits in the autumn. A specific fraction of maitake (D-fraction) has yielded benefits for those with cancer. A different fraction of this fungus was found to be helpful for those with insulin resistance.
The exquisite-tasting Lion’s Mane or Bear’s Tooth fungus, Hericium erinaceus, currently is being studied for its beneficial effects on the nervous system. It may enhance nerve re-growth and cognitive function. Compounds called hericenones and erinacines may someday prove to prevent or treat neurological diseases, such as dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
No discussion of medicinal fungi is complete without mentioning one of the most highly prized (and expensive!) kidney and lung restorative tonics of the natural world—Ophiocordyceps (Cordyceps) sinensis and related species. The cordyceps fungus is truly remarkable in that the fruiting body emerges out of an insect (a caterpillar) that is completely devoured by the fungus from the inside out. It’s straight out of a science fiction thriller! But this is not fiction, and while the insect-devouring fungus may seem strange, the Chinese were spot-on when they used this fungus in soups to strengthen the weak and the elderly. And there have been instances where cordyceps extracts help with shortness of breath due to asthma and COPD, as well as improve singers’ voices. This amazing adaptogenic fungus also protects the kidneys, as evidenced by several positive clinical trials in those with chronic kidney disease.
How amazing is the natural world, in all its wisdom, that the fungi which sustain life on this planet are also able to support human health in the face of chronic disease? There is so much yet to learn about this incredible group of organisms. So, the next time it rains, go outside and look beneath your feet! The answer to many of our modern-day problems may lie in the soil.