Mushrooms contain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Of the 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi, science is familiar with only 10 percent, according to world-renown mycologist Paul Stamets, who has written six books on the topic.
About 100 species of mushrooms are being studied for their health-promoting benefits. Of those hundred, about a half dozen really stand out for their ability to deliver a tremendous boost to your immune system.
It's important to eat only organically grown mushrooms because they absorb and concentrate whatever they grow in — good OR bad. This is what gives mushrooms their potency. Mushrooms are known to concentrate heavy metals, as well as air and water pollutants, so healthy growing conditions is a critical factor.
While it may sound strange, we're actually more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom, as we share the same pathogens, meaning bacteria and viruses.
As a defense against bacterial invasion, fungi have developed strong antibiotics, which also happen to be effective for us humans. Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline all come from fungal extracts.
The FASEB Journal recently published nine studies on mushrooms that were also presented at Experimental Biology 2013, which detailed a wide variety of health benefits including:
- Weight management: Substituting red meat with white button mushrooms can help enhance weight loss. Obese participants with a mean age of just over 48 years ate approximately one cup of mushrooms per day in place of meat. The control group ate a standard diet without mushrooms.
At the end of the 12-month trial, the intervention group had lost an average of 3.6 percent of their starting weight, or about seven pounds. They also showed improvements in body composition, such as reduced waist circumference, and ability to maintain their weight loss, compared to the control group.
- Improved nutrition: Mushroom consumption was associated with better diet quality and improved nutrition.
- Increasing vitamin D levels through your diet: Consuming dried white button mushroom extract was found to increase Vitamin D levels.
- Improved immune system function: Adding one or two servings of dried shiitake mushrooms was found to have a beneficial, modulating effect on the immune system.
Parasitic Fungi Showing Promise for Immune Disorders and Cancer
Cordyceps, also called caterpillar fungus or Tochukasu, is a favorite of athletes because it increases ATP production, strength and endurance, and has anti-aging effects.
It has hypoglycemic and possible antidepressant effects, protects your liver and kidneys, increases blood flow, helps normalize your cholesterol levels, and has been used to treat Hepatitis B.
More recent studies suggest it also has potent anti-inflammatory characteristics that may be helpful for those suffering from:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Renal failure
- Stroke damage
Foragers, Beware of Toxic Mushrooms
An November 2012 article in The Atlantic12 highlighted recent cases of lethal food poisonings related to eating wild mushrooms, and the need for caution when foraging food:
“Of the over 10,000 species of mushrooms, only about 50 to 100 are toxic. About 6,000 Americans each year end up eating them. Over half of those cases involve unsupervised small children. So if you're considering treating that special person in your life to a wild mushroom-based dish, take the following into consideration: Over 90 percent of deaths, including these most recent ones, are caused by amatoxins.”
Examples of Mushrooms to Add to Your Diet
A few of my favorite health-enhancing mushroom species include:
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes): Shiitake is a popular culinary mushroom used in dishes around the world. It contains a number of health-stimulating agents, including lentinan, the polysaccharide for which it was named. Lentinan has been isolated and used to treat stomach and other cancers due to its antitumor properties, but has also been found to protect your liver relieve other stomach ailments (hyperacidity, gallstones, ulcers), anemia, ascites, and pleural effusion.
One of the more remarkable scientific studies demonstrating shiitake's antitumor effect was a Japanese animal study where mice suffering from sarcoma were given shiitake extract. Six of 10 mice had complete tumor regression, and with slightly higher concentrations, all ten mice showed complete tumor regression.
Shiitake mushrooms also demonstrate antiviral (including HIV, hepatitis, and the "common cold"), antibacterial, and antifungal effects; blood sugar stabilization; reduced platelet aggregation; and reduced atherosclerosis. Shiitake also contains eritadenine, which has strong cholesterol-lowering properties.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum): Reishi is known as Lingzhi in China, or "spirit plant." It's also been called "Mushroom of Immortality" — a nickname that kind of says it all. Reishi has been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years. One of its more useful compounds is ganoderic acid (a triterpenoid), which is being used to treat lung cancer leukemia and other cancers. The list of Reishi's health benefits, includes the following:
- Antibacterial, antiviral (Herpes, Epstein-Barr), antifungal (including Candida) properties
- Anti-inflammatory, useful for reducing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
- Immune system up-regulation
- Normalization of blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure
- Reduction of prostate-related urinary symptoms in men
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor): Turkey Tail is also known as Coriolis, or "cloud mushroom." Two polysaccharide complexes in Turkey Tail are getting a great deal of scientific attention, PSK (or "Kreskin") and PSP, making it the most extensively researched of all medicinal mushrooms with large scale clinical trials.
A seven-year, $2 million NIH-funded clinical study in 2011 found that Turkey Tail mycelium improves immune function when dosed daily to women with stage I–III breast cancer. Immune response was dose-dependent, with no adverse effects. PSP has been shown to significantly enhance immune status in 70 to 97 percent of cancer patients. Turkey tail is also being used to treat many different infections, including aspergillus niger, Candida albicans, E. coli, HIV, Herpes, and streptococcus pneumonia, and is hepatoprotective. It may also be useful for chronic fatigue.
- Himematsutake (Agaricus blazei): Himematsutake, also called Royal Sun Agaricus, is a relative of the common button mushroom. Himematsutake was not cultivated in the East until fairly recently but is now a very popular natural medicine, used by almost a half million Japanese.
Himematsutake mushroom is attracting many scientists worldwide due to its remarkable anticancer properties related to six special polysaccharides. Like many other medicinal mushrooms, this fungus can also protect you from the damaging effects of radiation and chemotherapy. But its benefits don't stop there — Himematsutake may also help decrease insulin resistance in diabetics, normalize your cholesterol, improve your hair and skin, and even treat polio.
Recommendations for Mushroom Supplements
When it comes to mushroom supplements, there are two primary types:
- Whole food/raw mushrooms — Consuming the mushrooms raw or using a whole food mushroom (powdered pill) product is generally a better alternative if you're reasonably healthy and looking to maintain optimal health, as they help maintain ideal function of your various systems as opposed to imparting a direct effect. Most of the knowledge about mushrooms comes from ancient Chinese medicine where mushrooms are regarded as tonics. Tonics are considered to have non-specific beneficial effects across several systems of your body that do not decline over time.
- We love MycoFern at Fern Life Center because the mushrooms in this extract capsule have anti-viral activity against chronic viruses like Epstein barr and HPV and even herpes.
As mentioned earlier, if you choose to eat your mushrooms raw, make sure they are organically grown, as their flesh easily absorbs air and soil contaminants. Likewise, you'll want to make sure any product you buy is certified organic for the same reason. In addition to valuable nutrients, whole mushrooms also provide healthful dietary fiber that acts as prebiotic platforms for the growth of probiotic organisms in your gut, which is very important for digestive health. This is yet another reason to opt for a whole food mushroom product.
Adding Mushrooms Is a Simple Way to Boost Your Health Through Your Diet
With all the evidence supporting mushrooms as little powerhouses of potent nutrition, I highly recommend adding some to your diet. They’re an excellent addition to any salad and go great with all kinds of meat and fish. “Let food be thy medicine” is good advice indeed, and with mushrooms that is especially true, as they contain some of the most powerful natural medicines on the planet.
Just make sure they’re organically grown in order to avoid harmful contaminants that mushrooms absorb and concentrate from soil, air and water. Also, avoid picking mushrooms in the wild unless you are absolutely sure you know what you’re picking. There are a number of toxic mushrooms, and it’s easy to get them confused unless you have a lot of experience and know what to look for. Growing your own is an excellent option and a far safer alternative to picking wild mushrooms.