I’ve watched the reactions of many people at the mention of Mushrooms for their health over countless years. Some people think I’m peddling mushrooms from the grocery store and others assume I’m offering a psychedelic experience. There’s very little middle-ground in the world of mushies and it’s entertaining to say the least.
Specialty mushrooms have spored their way into supermarkets and onto our plates, and what was once a bland choice between button or flat mushrooms is now a smorgasbord of shiitake, oyster, swiss or enoki varieties. Like the thousands of years that preceded their arrival they bring with them a sense of fascination, wonder and intrigue. Mushies belong to neither the plant nor animal kingdom - they belong to their own exclusive kingdom of Fungi and I think that’s why they’re regarded almost alien in their appearance, aetiology and behaviour. Palaeontologists have found Fungi fossilised in amber dating back 90 million years ago. Which is very old indeed and it’s in this incredible age and steady evolution throughout millennia that mycologists have uncovered an ancient wisdom. Just think about that for a second - from their earthly roots millions of years ago, through the evolution of mankind, ice ages, dynasties to the post-modern mushrooms in our hands today. A timeline worthy of some reverence.
We live in a fast-paced world where medicine, technology, tablets, pills and 6-week-shred diets are common course for the masses. Health is sold in air-tight plastic containers with glossy brochures and supermodel endorsements. One pill-popping model has been duplicated by another and people are bamboozled by empty promises and generic outcomes. I believe we are consciously looking for a more real, authentic and intelligent approach to our health and that’s why Medicinal Mushrooms are so ‘on trend’ right now. And here’s a few reasons why:
Mushrooms have been scientifically proven to be a beneficial source of B2 riboflavin , B5 pantothenic acid and B12 cobalamin vitamins, iron and protein but they also contain selenium, vitamin D, glutathione and the amino-acid Ergothioneine. All function as antioxidants that can mitigate oxidative stress and are also known to decline during ageing. Which makes Mushies an utterly worthwhile addition to our diet wherever possible, and certainly promising as a medicinal tonic for our wellbeing.
To appreciate how mushrooms function it’s important to understand their purpose in Nature. Fungi fortify the forest floor with their mycelium - fine branching, thread-like tendrils beneath the soil and within decomposing matter. These tendrils are known to spread over hundreds of square miles. Mycelium continuously responds to changing demands within the forest floor, communicating information and transporting nutrients between species of trees - it’s Nature’s Homeostasis, and this ingenuity is thought to be part of the innate healing wisdom of medicinal mushrooms - their ability to unify the systems, organs, cells and tissues of the physical body. Medicinal (functional) Mushrooms you may be familiar with are Chaga, Reishi, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail and Lion’s Mane (among others). Each contain a unique bounty of nutrients like beta-glucans, fibre, antioxidants and various polysaccharides that regulate immunity and improve GUT function. Current research is shining a light on how these compounds work, though traditional Chinese Medicine harnessed the power of these Mushrooms thousands of years ago.
Beta-glucans have been shown to build our resistance to allergies and bacteria and improve the metabolic processes of fats and sugars in the body. In our grossly over-weight and pre-diabetic Western culture this alone is a remarkable gift. Medicinal mushrooms exercise the immune system to make it stronger, more adaptive and help normalise its responses to stress and viral attack. In fact, experiments on tissue cultures show that the polysaccharide Lentinan, isolated from the Shiitake mushroom stimulates cells of the immune system (in mice) to attack cancer cells and cells infected with viruses. I’m not suggesting it should be a replacement for Chemotherapy but certainly it’s an notable action for science to uncover.
The fibre and polysaccharides in mushrooms create the perfect prebiotic fuel for resident bacteria living in our GUT establishing a better environment for the bacteria that keeps us healthy. The benefits of a healthy bowel microbiome is well researched and that’s what makes Medicinal Mushrooms one of my favourite applications for stressed, inflamed and intolerant Gastro-Intestinal tracts in both adults and children. The bowel itself houses up to 2kg of microbes, trillions of neuronal cells and over 3 million genes unique to each person. It’s relevance to our total wellbeing has been historically underrated. The processed and pre-packaged western diet and the daily drudgery of stress is a lethal weapon within our gut responsible for unleashing all kinds of immune and neurological imbalances.
Reishi is known as the Queen of Mushrooms. It grows wild in parts of Northern China and upon the Southern mountain ranges of the USA. It has a slightly bitter flavour and thrives on the bark of living and dead hardwood. Reishi, like all mushrooms is an intelligent and adaptive powerhouse of nutrients and immune-enhancing antioxidants. It’s survival in the wild from internal bacteria and external predators is the precise way in which it consolidates its medicinal power. Ultimately, Reishi produces the necessary compounds to protect itself from such stressors much like it does for our bodies when we take it. It’s used by traditional Taoists for mama’s during pregnancy and breastfeeding to protect the baby’s developing immune system and instil a sense of peacefulness and calm - a very old Chinese tradition.
If you’re choosing a mushroom tonic remain respectful of the living bio-active properties of the fungi and the handling of raw material before you purchase. Intelligent compounds don’t thrive under extreme processing, ultra-violet lighting and long periods of storage in plastic containers. Be sure the company you choose supports the sustainable growth and ethical trade of the Mushroom and has the relevant experience and research to clarify their claims. Refreshingly, the best approach to taking medicinal mushrooms is by slow and steady integration. No fast fads. No one-hit wonders. Just a genuine relationship between you and the mushroom(s). Like food, health is better when it’s built with purpose, intention and intelligence and not swallowed on a momentary whim. Digging deep for the meaning of health can lead us down the forest path but it’s here that we may find some interesting and powerful truths… and probably some mushrooms too.
HOT REISHI + RAW CACAO (Recipe for 2)
A perfect night-cap through cold wintery evenings for the whole family. Reishi is received well before bed, promoting a more restful sleep as your Immune system restores itself.
1 generous tsp of *Superfeast REISHI powder
2 heaped tsp of Raw Cacao powder
1/2 tsp of ground Cinnamon
1 slice of fresh Ginger
2 cups of Almond, Rice or Coconut milk
Optional Honey, Rice malt or Maple syrup to taste or little Cayenne for extra heat
Blend ingredients over the stove top - heating gently to preferred temperature. Pour, sip and enjoy!
*Superfeast only uses wild-harvested, dual extracted, pure Reishi extract.
Melanie Lock ND BHSc
Naturopath | Herbalist | Nutrition | Writer | Mushroom Geek
Conflicting flows: the dynamics of mycelial territoriality (Rayner, A. 1991)
Superfeast Mushrooms (Taylor, M. 2018)
How old are today's mushroom species? (Williams, G. 2013)
How the lowly mushroom is becoming a nutritional star (Beelman, R. 2018)
Are mushrooms medicinal? (P.Money, N. 2016)
Ergothioneine. A New Vitamin? (Greger, M. 2013)