Whenever you say the word “mushroom”, it conjures up many different images in peoples’ minds: “slimey, squishy, yuck!”, “mycelium, fungus, shrooms”, “healing, delicious, beneficial”. These seemingly alien networks of mycelium are some of the most unique and proliferated organisms on the planet, and our connections with fungi go much deeper than just consuming them. Humans share more DNA similarities with fungal genetics than any other kingdom of organic life on Earth (Paul Stamets, 2016). Not only has humankind’s evolution been influenced by fungi, but many species of plants and animals also come from fungal beginnings. We’re all made of mushrooms?! We can hear your scepticism through the screen… But the facts on mushrooms and their ability to support human, plant and animal health are profound.
Today, beneficial fungi are a popular health supplement & remedy used by millions of people for thousands of reasons. There are over 10,000 known species of fungi, with as many as 2-3 million more to be further explored and defined. Many hundreds of them like Chaga, Reishi, Turkey Tail & Lion’s Mane are used to treat and cure a growing list of conditions. Don’t let your head spin when you consider the vast history and science surrounding mushrooms... we’re going to dive into the weird & fascinating history of medicinal mushrooms and help you get to know the types of mushrooms that can benefit your health.
FUNGAL BODIES: How Humans Have Been Influenced By Fungi
When it comes to mushrooms, there’s no organism on Earth that is on the same level of biodiversity, medicinal efficacy and sentience. Yes, sentience! Fungi have exhibited behaviors akin to cellular intelligence (Paul Stamets, 2013) throughout many research studies, such as their ability to establish efficient, adaptive networks of mycelium. Fungi have shown time and again an almost conscious ability to respond to their environment, and not only adapt to changes in their network but in fact they can quickly optimize themselves in order to thrive in almost any environment. Going one step further, fungi are responsible for creating environments, not just interacting with them. It is becoming known, through a variety of scientific studies, that fungi are an essential player in the establishment and proliferation of natural environments. Fungi have been dubbed “the architects of ecosystems” because they’re involved in so much of the vegetative growth across the world.
How can mushrooms be so fundamental in nature, but we’re just scratching the surface (no pun intended) of their importance? The importance of mushrooms in the many ecosystems of the planet is nothing new, just a novel idea to our frail human minds. There is evidence of fungi as far back as 2.4 Billion (with a “B”!) years ago, contained in ancient lava rock, not to mention a genetic history spanning back 650 million years. The “stoned ape theory” devised by Terence & Dennis McKenna, suggests that fungi consumption may have influenced the evolution of the human brain and its capacity for intelligence (referred to as neurogenesis - the creation and mapping of new neurological pathways in the brain). Homosapiens are known to have had the sizes of their brains double over a period of several hundred thousand years… was the inclusion of beneficial mushrooms like psilocybin responsible for this neurological evolution? This idea of fungi positively affecting how humans have biologically taken shape is still a hypothesis, but it nonetheless highlights how impactful mushrooms can be if they’ve indeed been a part of the human story for millions of years.
We mentioned mushrooms’ profound abilities to adapt to changes in their environment, especially in such an efficient and speedy manner. This concept is being lauded as one of the reasons that consuming medicinal mushrooms can lead to such drastic, positive changes in our health. Mushrooms’ adaptive qualities can help our brains and bodies to overcome debilitating conditions like depression, immunity deficiencies and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); if there exists an imbalance in our biochemical makeup, fungi introduced to the system enables the body or mind to adapt and prevail over their serious issues.
How are people consuming fungi today? Mushrooms have been relied on as a natural remedy in teas, an important source of nutrition, a popular flavor & texture ingredient in culinary arts, and taken as a psychedelic in the form of psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”). Medicinal mushrooms, or those beneficial species of fungi that are used for everything from cardiovascular support to energy and brain health, can be found on the shelves of many natural vitamins & supplements stores across the globe. Not only are mushrooms a popular natural remedy, but they’ve been involved in developing many important pharmaceuticals, such as penicillin and a number of cancer treatments. There are currently thousands of beneficial fungi products, with the majority of them comprising of Chaga, Reishi, Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, Agarikon, Maitake or a combination of these profilerant fungi. Most mushroom users rely on fungi in a supplemental role. Beneficial fungi have been shown to have very positive influences on brain health, energy & focus, improved rest & recovery (including sleep), and improving immunity. As a treatment, medicinal mushrooms have demonstrated an innate ability to reduce stress, anxiety and help people suffering from depression to reverse the effects of this crippling mental condition. Psilocybin is currently undergoing many clinical trials for its positive effects on PTSD, depression and other neurological trauma. In fact, there is a strong push for psilocybin legalization, similar to the recent surge of cannabis legalization, in a few pioneering States like Oregon and Colorado. Suffice to say, medicinal mushrooms have deep seated roots (again, no pun intended) in the realms of pharmaceuticals, natural remedies and health & nutrition throughout many societies and cultures.
If you’re curious about experiencing the benefits that fungi have to offer, where can you get some of these uniquely efficacious products that are seemingly tailored to work directly with our bodies and minds? Next, let’s dig through the layers of fungi and explore the properties and benefits that they can bring to the table, whether you’re brewing tea, cooking them into a meal or taking medicinal supplements.
FUNGAL BODIES: How Humans Have Been Influenced By Fungi
Just like a fruit-bearing tree collects and packs a lot of its beneficial nutrients into the convenient and delicious form of its fruit, medicinal mushrooms are typically consumed in the form of the caps and not the stems. The cap of the mushroom - the bulbous, cylindrical or wavy shaped part that typically exhibits the colors and textures we associate with a certain species of mushroom - usually contains the majority of the ‘active ingredients’. There is a contingent of fungi proprietors that are adamant that the “whole mushroom” consumption is the best way to experience all of the benefits of a particular mushroom. This school of thought is growing in numbers and influence, so it may come to pass as research continues to pour in, that consuming all the mushroom parts is favorable to just selecting caps. Nonetheless, mushrooms’ health boosting properties appear to be concentrated in the pileus (cap) and so people have been eating, cooking, encapsulating and brewing these portions of fungi for their host of benefits.
What kinds of mushrooms are there? Again, there’s literally millions of species of fungi, and we’re not sure how much time you have to read this article so we’ll shrink the list to the most widely used medicinal mushrooms today: Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, Maitake, Reishi, Shiitake, and Turkey Tail.
The immunity boosting, sickness busting wonder mushroom that is easy to find on a hike throughout Canada and the United States, Chaga is usually one of the first medicinal mushrooms people encounter because it is so effective at helping us fight those nasty colds and flus. Chaga is a significant source for antioxidants - in fact, it’s known to be one of the most concentrated sources of antioxidants in nature! - and so it has become a highly sought after mushroom across North America. Chagas are also an adaptogenic mushroom - it helps our bodies to balance themselves without actually providing any stimulant (energy source). Chaga is known to be a very long-living mushroom, and one of the prevailing thoughts is that it is so potent in health benefits because it is such a slowly developing fungi. While it slowly grows throughout the wooded areas of colder, northern climates (Canada, Russia, Northern Europe) Chaga builds itself into a nutrient-dense source of vitamins B & D, potassium and over 200 phytonutrients.
Have you ever thought to yourself: You know what, I’m perfectly energized for today, I don’t need any boosts at all… Of course you haven’t, because there’s never enough energy or mental fortitude to go around in your day-to-day life. Cordyceps mushrooms have become a popular source for a mental and physical boost because of how they interact with our bodies. Cordyceps do not actually stimulate us like caffeine does because this useful fungus is an adaptogenic mushroom. An adaptogen empowers us to maintain consistent energy levels for extended periods of time, due to its ability to activate our body’s own energy production cells. Basically, cordyceps aren’t necessarily a fuel for our cells, but they instead provide assistance in our body’s energy production. Cordyceps boost our mental focus and physical energy in a balanced, long-lasting way that makes coffee or energy drinks feel like a hallucination. Many athletes, fitness advocates and sports enthusiasts have tried cordyceps for themselves or their clients and the results have been very favorable. There are no known side effects or risks associated with long-term use.
Lion’s Mane looks like some alien hive-mind creature out of science fiction, which is very appropriate because it is primarily taken for its positive influences on the brain. This brain boosting mushroom has been shown to increase cognitive function, stimulate creativity and learning, improve memory and assist people with their concentration (especially if they have a learning disability like ADHD or OCD). The beta glucans contained in Lion’s Mane have also been used to fight inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Lion’s Mane is one of the most researched of the beneficial fungi species because it is purported to have neurogenesis properties; similar to psilocybin, Lion’s Mane can apparently assist with the creation of new pathways in the brain, in addition to promoting a healthy nervous system through nerve growth factor (NGF) support. When your mind is awake, focused and sharp, you will also notice another benefit of this mushroom species: increased energy. Lion’s Mane does this in two ways: reducing mental fog by increasing brain activity, and decreasing physical fatigue through its ability to reduce lactic acid in the bloodstream, which is a common cause for tiredness after physical exertion. In summary, this weird looking, white-tentacled blob of fungi may seem strange in appearance, but just trust us and eat/drink/swallow it as an edible, tea or capsules - the benefits are incredible.
You might not associate mushrooms with balancing blood sugar levels or helping with digestion, but Maitake is just the fungi for these kinds of jobs. Maitake helps people living with diabetes by regulating glucose levels, increasing insulin levels and promoting a balanced exchange of energy within the body. Maitake is regularly ingested by mushroom pickers for a variety of other reasons too: excellent source of vitamin D, it’s immune-boosting properties, and a prominent antioxidant profile. Because it has balancing effects on blood sugar and digestion, some cultures have relied on Maitake mushrooms as a weight management supplement. Diabetic persons have included regular maitake mushrooms in their routine to help balance their blood sugar levels and improve their body’s ability to absorb insulin.
The history of Reishi consumption is long and storied, with many people turning to this fungi as a source of calm, relaxation, and better sleep. Reishi has exhibited many positive qualities, chief among them are its properties for balancing hormones. Reishi is sometimes known as the “Queen of Immortality” because many dynastic rulers of ancient Asia were known to consume Reishi for its anti-aging, health-boosting benefits. Mushroom of immortality?! This might sound like a tall tale, but in fact Reishi was used then and still is today as a powerful anti-stress remedy. When you’re less stressed, you’re generally happier and healthier - therefore, you’re more likely to live longer. Makes sense, right? Stress and anxiety are never in short supply, but when you include Reishi in your daily routine you’ll find yourself calmer, more chill, clearer of mind and able to take on the challenges of the day with increased vigor.
You might have eaten this mushroom before in a pasta or Asian dish - Shiitakes are a popular choice among many cuisines. As a medicinal mushroom, Shiitake has been prominently used for its benefits to skin, hair and support a healthy liver. For centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, Shiitake has been considered “the beauty mushroom” because it helps to enervate the skin and blood, boosting a person’s vitality and allure. Shiitake also works by balancing cholesterol and cardiovascular health due to substances contained within it like DEA (D-eritadenine) and Lentinan. DEA helps to balance cholesterol and modulate blood sugar and pressure, while Lentinan is an important supporter of fighting infections and promoting a strong immune system. Shiitake mushrooms taste great, and they’re full of iron, so many cooks like to create rich, hearty and savory dishes with these mushrooms - and hey, they taste as good as they are healthy.
This saprobic mushroom - saprobic meaning it grows on/over dead or dying organic material, such as a felled tree - is one of the most commonly found in the wild of North America. Turkey Tail fungi are very popular among mushroom pickers because they’re so widely spread across forests of Canada & U.S., but also because of their widely known health benefits. Like their Chaga fungi brethren, Turkey Tails are high in antioxidants - a potent defense against free radicals and a key element in combating the effects of oxidative stress. These fungi species also help to improve the immune system, and assist in maintaining healthy biome in the gastrointestinal system, but their main use (and why they’re so sought after) has to do with their inclusion in some cancer treatments. Turkey Tail mushrooms can be a source for PSK (Polysaccharide-K) which has been included in cancer treatments for decades. PSK derived from Turkey Tails has led to many successful cases of overcoming cancer in many of its forms, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer and gastric cancer. Many studies continue to delve into its cancer-fighting potential, but for the time being the consensus is that Turkey Tail empowers the body’s natural immunity response, therefore increasing one’s ability to fight off the cancer cells and reduce the risk of becoming weaker as treatments continue. All in all, Turkey Tail is a pricey, popular medicinal mushroom that continues to see its popularity grow as quickly and widespread as this fungi does in nature.
GET GOING, START GROWING: Invest In Medicinal Mushrooms, Invest In Your Health
There’s so many benefits to consuming beneficial fungi, that the only conundrum you face now should be: Which mushrooms should I try first? It is important to try each medicinal mushroom and get to know the benefits, because like every species has its own profile of healing properties, so does each of us have unique health conditions. Experiment with every species of mushrooms you can find in stores and online - mushroom teas, capsules, creams, powders, and even chocolates await you. Once you’ve experienced the fungi-life, maybe try your hand (and knowledge of mushrooms) at a local mushroom picking trip - it’s important to go with a guided group, because you don’t want to accidentally eat the wrong kind of fungi, there are some poisonous ones out there.
The world of mushrooms is as vast and diverse as our own cultures and societies, so get out there and get to know these life-changing organisms. The more mushrooms you have in your life, the longer of a life you will lead.