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Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal Mushrooms

Mushrooms for Immune Health and Wellness

Mushrooms have been used in Eastern Medicine as medicinal therapies for thousands of years. It is only recently that Western Medicine practitioners have begun to integrate them into their medical practices.

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I was initially very reluctant to consider mushrooms as a nutritional supplement, beyond cooking with them.

I actually avoided learning about medicinal mushrooms because of the reputation that a certain set of mushrooms have for their hallucinogenic effects.

But, medicinal mushrooms are DIFFERENT than psychedelic mushrooms!

When one of my clients told me that a highly-respected integrative MD in New York prescribed medicinal mushrooms as part of her medical therapies, I decided to learn about medicinal mushrooms and their potential role in supporting health.

Mushrooms for Immune Health and Other Medicinal Uses

Clinical studies show that most if not all edible mushrooms support the body’s immune system. Research is being conducting all around the world. In the U.S. the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studied Turkey Tails for its role in immune system support.

Some mushroom species have also been studied for their support of other bodily systems. For example, research suggests that Reishi mushrooms support the cardiovascular system, Turkey Tails mushrooms may be an effective supplement to modern cancer treatments and Lion’s Mane mushrooms may support the brain and nervous system.

Some mushrooms have aromatase inhibitors which interrupt the conversion of androgens to estrogens (significant for women at risk for breast cancer). And some mushrooms inhibit an enzyme that converts testosterone to dihydrotestotosterone, which stimulates growth in prostate  (associated with growth of prostate cancer.)

Mushroom varieties may work synergistically with each other and offer benefits over a single species of mushroom.

Modern Scientists Have Identified Protective Compounds in Mushrooms

The science behind the healthful properties of mushrooms is catching up with the historical experience of its benefits. Some of the potent compounds identified in mushrooms include:

  • beta glucans – a polysaccharide found in mushroom cell walls, recognized for immune modulation; their tumor-retarding properties have been clinically studied.
  • ergosterol – a biological precursor to vitamin D2, found in fungal cell membranes.
  • glycoproteins – compounds important in cell to cell interactions including white blood cell recognition and connective tissue support.
  • triterpenoids – compounds that form natural structural building blocks for all steroids.
  • natural antibiotics – compounds that can inhibit the growth of harmful microbes or cure an infection. For example, mushrooms produce natural antibiotics that fight Candida albicans – yeast.
  • enzymes – hundreds of enzymes are used to break down plants in their environments.

Why Have Mushrooms Developed These Protective Properties?

While we are most familiar with the mushroom cap or fruitbody, mushrooms also have an incredible underground network of mycelium filaments.  The mycelium utilize an array of protective enzymes and compounds to repel competitors and predators.

Mycelium and bacteria compete with each other in the soil. As survival is the overriding goal in nature, mycelium have evolved chemical defenses against bacteria and viruses.

“Mycelium is the immune system of the mushroom.”
— Paul Stamets, mycologist and author

The Genetic Connection Between Humans and Mushrooms Allows Us to Benefit From Their Protective Compounds

Scientists have determined that humans and fungi share about 30-50% of identical DNA, much more than what humans share with plants! Fungi and humans also share common infections from many of the same microbial pathogens.

Fungi are thought to have evolved about 1500 million years ago; compared with humans, they have had much more time to develop the ability to manufacture compounds to fight these pathogens.

However, fortunately for us, the similarities between fungi and animals allow humans to benefit from their protective compounds; we can digest the mushrooms and utilize thousands of natural chemical compounds to help protect ourselves against harmful microbes too.

Mushrooms are Neither Plants nor Animals

Mushrooms have their own classification — they are part of the Fungi Kingdom. Because mushrooms and other fungi grow on the earth or other organic substrates, and are permanently attached, we often think of them as plants.

However fungi have no chlorophyll and cannot make their own food like plants can through photosynthesis. Mushrooms and other fungi get their food by absorbing nutrients from their surroundings, decomposing organic material and returning nutrients to the soil.

Cooking with Mushrooms

You can benefit from the healthful properties of mushrooms by incorporating them into your diet. However, in order for our bodies to access many of the potent healthful compounds, mushrooms need to be cooked or heated. (Eating raw mushrooms does not provide access the same health benefits.)

Mushrooms, a functional food, offers additional health promoting benefits beyond basic nutrition.

For Further Reading: If you would like to learn more about the science behind medicinal mushrooms and clinical studies conducted on specific mushroom species, I suggest MycoMedicinals: An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms, by Paul Stamets.

Stamets also reviews historical and cultural uses of each species as well as their biological nomenclature and common names.

Today’s Dietitian – Integrative Nutrition: Mushrooms as Medicine which includes an interview with Janet Zarowitz, MS, RD, CDN.

Watch the Fantastic Fungi Movie!

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