Most people I’ve met either love or hate the taste of mushrooms. For me, mushrooms are a culinary extravaganza of flavor and versatility. Grilled portobello mushrooms drenched in olive oil and balsamic vinegar make a great vegetarian entree or side dish. Cremini and/or oyster mushrooms sauteed in butter and garlic and placed over a filet or T-bone steak would impress any dinner guest. And of course, my favorite mushroom, shitake, added to a stir fry or homemade miso soup. Aside from being delicious, mushrooms are an excellent source of protein, soluble fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and vitamin D. In addition to their nutrient content, I consume mushrooms for other wide-ranging health benefits they offer including immune system modulation, anti-cancer compounds, cognitive support, and their ability to support healthy energy and stamina levels. I firmly believe, and science supports this, that mushrooms are important keys to human and planetary health. We’ve known for centuries that mushrooms have a vital role in recycling organic matter, especially in our forested areas. The very lifecycle of trees and plants from seed to maturity depends upon a symbiotic association with mushroom mycelium, a vast network of fungal threads in the soil that connects plant roots with the nutrients they require. Whether you are hiking through a wooded area, doing yard work, or walking your dog in the neighborhood do you think about mushrooms? Probably not, but they certainly know where you are! Have you ever been hiking and noticed a log lying on the ground or maybe a dead animal that is covered in a white, fuzzy, cobweb-like growth? That is mycelium, one phase of the growth cycle of the fruiting body we call a mushroom. Do you know there are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America. And with every step you take on a lawn, field, path, or forest floor there are vast networks of mycelium channeling nutrients from great distances to form mushroom fruiting bodies. Think of mycelium as the “roots” of mushrooms that form sophisticated underground networks, transmitting signals through electrical impulses and electrolyte activity to not only communicate with plants and trees but facilitate the distribution of nutrients and water. The structure of mycelial networks can be compared to neural networks in the human brain. In fact, research has shown that mushroom mycelium “has a primitive intelligence with decision-making ability and memory”-and scientists are working to understand how and why they forage, share resources, and relocate when necessary . So, the next time you are taking a walk outside stop for a minute and consider what’s underneath your feet-a 600-million-year-old neurological network that forms the largest biomass of any individual organism on the planet, and connects all living things, is aware, reacts to change, and is essential for the long-term health of our environment .
The fruiting body of mycelium is what we recognize as a mushroom, and there are 10,000 known types that have been identified. Some are poisonous (70+), the majority have nutritional, medicinal, and culinary uses, and 200 are psychoactive (psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin). Interestingly, psilocybin has attracted increased attention among medical professionals and the research community because of its potential as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and select psychiatric illnesses. As it pertains to general health and nutrition, I would like to review some of my favorite evidenced based medicinal mushrooms and how they can enhance our quality of life.
The Japanese call Lion’s Mane Yamabushitake. Buddhist monks have used this mushroom for centuries to improve their concentration during meditation. Indigenous peoples of pre-colonial US, Canada, and Australia also used Lion’s Mane for medicine and food. Lion’s Mane is rich in neuroprotective, antioxidant, and immunomodulating compounds known as beta-glucans. In vitro and animal research has confirmed that specific compounds known as hericenones and erinacines can induce nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis in nerve cells . Research in adults with mild memory problems associated with aging found that those taking Lion’s Mane extract had better brain function compared with control participants who did not ingest the mushroom .
You may also know this mushroom as the caterpillar fungus, recently popularized by the HBO series “The Last of Us”. No, cordyceps will not infect the human brain and turn us into zombies, but the idea certainly makes for great entertainment! Cordyceps is my go-to mushroom for building strength and stamina. Cordyceps was traditionally used as a tonic because it has the capacity to revitalize and restore symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion, and chronic stress. Studies have shown that cordyceps can increase the production of ATP, the compound that gives cells energy. Other clinical studies have found cordyceps improves exercise performance in healthy older individuals . Traditionally, cordyceps has also been used for respiratory support, hormonal regulation, and immune function.
The “mushroom of immortality” as it’s often referred to, is one of the best immunomodulators in the fungi kingdom. Rich in potent polysaccharides, this mushroom has also been associated with promoting restful sleep and a calm mind, reducing occasional stress and restlessness, supporting lung and respiratory health, and supporting balanced blood sugar levels . In Japan, reishi is often used safely in adjunct with certain oncology medications and diagnoses.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine turkey tail has been used for supporting digestion, lung health, body fluid regulation, and supporting vitality. In Japan and China, a derivative of turkey tail has been used to strengthen the immune system. Turkey tail contains one of the highest amounts of beta-glucans of all mushrooms, which can help promote a healthy immune response when used over an extended period of time. Turkey tail improves immune function by stimulating cytokine production, increasing natural killer cells, and through other immune-boosting functions .
Also known as Hen of the Woods or the Dancing Mushroom, maitake strengthens immune function and builds resistance by stimulating lymphocytes, natural killer cells, monocytes, and T-helper cells . The fruiting body contains polysaccharides such as beta-glucans, which have been linked to healthy cell growth and turnover. Maitake gained international attention in the 1990s when the Japanese pharmacologist, Dr. Hiroaki Namba, began isolating and testing different polysaccharide fractions. Many of these fractions were quite potent immunomodulating agents and have been used by physicians as adjunctive cancer treatments.
This mushroom tastes absolutely delicious, which is probably why it’s considered the most popular mushroom in the world. Shiitake is a staple of Asian cuisine because of its versatility and meaty texture. Shiitake mushroom is great for immunity and liver health, and it supports the cardiovascular system. Lentinan, a polysaccharide in shiitake mushrooms, has shown great promise as an immune system-boosting agent . Research has also discovered a compound in shiitake, eritadenine, that can help maintain cholesterol already within a healthy range .
We talk a lot about diversity in the plant and animal kingdoms, but fungi, which have existed for billions of years, are the most diverse group of organisms in the world! They play a critical role as ecological decomposers while absorbing essential nutrients from plant and animal matter and transporting those nutrients to living trees and plants. Fungi have learned how to adapt to any environmental threat, perhaps this explains why they are so beneficial to human health, by helping us adapt to psychological and physical changes and threats in our environment. They strengthen us and help us become more resilient while supporting normal, balanced physiological functions. I recommend making mushrooms an integral part of your diet!
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics
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