Humans have known of the medicinal properties of mushrooms for centuries – in fact it’s thought that our earliest ancestors were well aware of the benefits mushrooms could offer. Perhaps the earliest evidence of this is the mummified body, named Ӧtzi the Iceman, that was discovered in a glacier in Italy in the early 1990s. Ӧtzi, who lived 5,300 years ago, carried two fragments of the medicinal mushroom Fomitopsis betulina, known to possess anti-parasitic properties. As Ӧtzi’s colon was found to be harbouring the eggs of a parasitic worm, some scientists believe he may have used the fungus medicinally. Since then, fungi have continued to be traditionally used for medicinal purposes the world over, in many cultures. And recent scientific advances have thrust them into the current medical and public spotlight as having rich benefits we should all be exploring a little more.
Many associate medicinal mushrooms with Eastern culture, which has embraced the use of mushrooms in medicine. For example, products using Coriolus versicolor extracts are approved as adjunct therapy in China and Japan for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy. However, many don’t realise that a significant percentage of pharmaceutical drugs used in the West, such as penicillin and statins, are derived from fungi. “The last two decades has seen a significant increase in research into mushrooms for medicinal purpose, applying scientific rigour to traditionally held knowledge,” says nutritional therapist Hannah Braye. “With public interest in ‘mycotherapy’ – the use of mushrooms for therapeutic purposes – also rapidly growing, expect to see a real buzz around medicinal mushrooms in 2019.”
Fungi are unique in that they belong to a kingdom of their own as they can neither be defined as being plant nor animal. However, research into the genomes of humans and mushrooms suggests that fungi and humans may actually share up to 50% of their protein sequences. “Mushrooms are also unusual in their ability to adapt and respond quickly to environmental stress and disturbance,” adds Hannah. “For example, 250 million years ago the Permian-Triassic extinction event wiped out around 90% of marine species and 75% of land species, however there is fossilised evidence of excessive fungal activity at this time.”
The ability of mushrooms to adapt and survive is likely due to the variety of chemical compounds they have developed over time, in order to defend themselves, and it is precisely this “chemical coat of protection” which provides them with their medicinal properties. “A review in 2011 identified no less than 126 medicinal effects of mushrooms,” says Hannah.
One of the most significant properties of medicinal mushrooms is that, similar to probiotics, they are able to modulate both the innate and acquired immune systems. “Medicinal mushrooms primarily do this via compounds called β-glucans,” explains Hannah. “These compounds, which are able to interact directly with receptors on immune cells, help the immune system remain vigilant against pathogens and cancerous cells and maintain immune tolerance.” For this reason medicinal mushrooms show exciting promise for the management of immune related disorders such as cancer, autoimmunity, allergies and other inflammatory conditions.
Mushrooms are also rich in a type of prebiotic, which help the growth of beneficial gut microbiota. “Similar to probiotics, certain species of mushrooms, such as Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane mushroom), have also been shown to protect against gastric mucosal injury, helping to regenerate and repair the gut lining,” says Hannah. And since over 70% of immune cells reside in our guts, this is a good thing! With a growing body of research evidencing the crucial role our gut microbiota play in supporting many aspects of health, medicinal mushrooms could be a useful addition to probiotics for helping our gut microbes and bacteria diversity.
So, how can we harness the powers of medicinal mushrooms to support good health? Increasing consumption of edible species in the diet easy and beneficial. “Mushrooms are a naturally nutritious food, having a high protein content – up to 45 % – and packed full of vitamins, fibers, minerals and trace elements, whilst also being low in calories,” says Hannah. “Shiitake, oyster and button mushrooms, all have medicinal properties and are available in many supermarkets and vegetable shops, or can be purchased from specialist suppliers online in either fresh or dried form.”
For those suffering with more acute medical conditions, mushroom supplements may be beneficial to obtain a more therapeutic dose. These come in both powder and extract form – extract being the stronger – and should ideally be made using the fruiting body of the mushroom, rather than the delicate mycelium, which can be easily damaged during processing.
They’re delicious sautéed with a little butter and garlic – put the lid on the frying pan so they steam in their own juices to give them a little added extra as a side dish. Or, you could whizz them up into a healthy soup.