by Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), Registered Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator
In spite of the many cultures in Asia and Europe that adore mushrooms, most Americans are fungalphobes with the exception of an occasional button mushroom gravy smothered steak. This autumn, I encourage you to break out of your plant-loving shell and venture into this amazing kingdom of healing creatures. I consider medicinal mushrooms part of “herbal medicine” even though, genetically, they have more in common with humans than plants. The unique nature of mushrooms is part of the reason why they offer so many healing properties that other remedies and foods do not.
Mushrooms as Food
Mushrooms are unbeatable for fiber and boast a good amount of protein and trace minerals. In fact, it’s 25 times more efficient to get protein from mushrooms than meat, according to herbalist Christopher Hobbs, author of Medicinal Mushrooms. And adding mushrooms to a dish provides a meaty, savory texture and flavor that can replace or stretch meat. Another impressive attribute is their ability to make vitamin D when exposed to the sun or ultraviolet light, much the same way we make vitamin D in our skin. Vitamin D is extremely difficult to get from food and nonexistent in plants. In one test performed by mushroom guru Paul Stamets, vitamin D levels in three ounces of shiitakes jumped from 110 IU to an astonishing 46,000 IU after six hours. If your mushrooms haven’t been “pre-treated” with sunlight, you can place fresh mushrooms, gills up, in the sun for a few hours. All edible mushrooms should be cooked, which helps make certain nutrients and compounds more absorbable and also destroys problematic compounds. Try them sauteed or simmered in soups. Shiitakes are a classic culinary medicinal, but you can also experiment with oyster mushrooms (often available from local sources), maitake (more rare), and an array of specialty dried mushrooms. I love adding them to soup broth.
Mushrooms as Medicine
All mushrooms contain polysaccharides (best extracted through cooking or simmering in water), which stimulate and modulate our immune function in a variety of ways and also tend to lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Alcohol-soluble compounds called triterpenes (which taste bitter) give medicinals like reishi the ability to reduce histamine in allergies and improve oxygen utilization and liver function. You can use them in food or buy them as tinctures or capsules. If you want to make your own remedies, do some research – they require special treatment to get the most benefit.
Preventing Common Infections: Because mushrooms strengthen and modulate immune function, they are a great way to bolster your immune system in expectation of wintertime infections. While some compounds in mushrooms may directly attack viruses and bacteria, mainly they help your immune system work better and smarter. They’re also perfect for people who just keep getting sick or catch every bug that comes their way. Consider reishi, maitake, shiitake, chaga, and blends like Host Defense MyCommunity and New Chapter’s LifeShield Immunity. You can take them as a supplement or simmer them in broths.
Autoimmune & Allergy Support: Our immune-enhancing mushrooms (see above) also help correct an over-reactive immune system, as in the case of allergies and autoimmune disease. Reishi is particularly useful.
Cancer Prevention & Treatment: Many mushrooms improve our immune system’s defense against cancer, the outcome of conventional care, and survival rates. Turkey tails, maitake, shiitake, reishi, and chaga can be a useful adjunct in cancer prevention and treatment. However, you should always work with your oncologist before adding supplements to your regimen.
Lung Support: Alongside their general immune benefits, certain mushrooms strengthen lung health and improve the body’s ability to utilize oxygen. Reishi and cordyceps, in particular, can be used alongside other remedies for asthma, chronic lung infections, and other respiratory ailments to slowly improve respiratory capacity. I have seen good results with Host Defense Cordychi and New Chapter’s Breathe.
Nerve & Brain Support: Recent research on lion’s mane mushroom supports its ability to improve mental clarity amongst the elderly, and practitioners use the mushroom to heal nerve damage.
Energy, Vitality & Stress Response: Reishi and cordyceps are also noted for their ability to improve mental and physical energy and allay some of the effects of stress and aging. Reishi is often called the Mushroom of Immortality and grouped with stress-busting herbs as an adaptogen.
This information is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. Always check with your doctor before taking new supplements.
Maria teaches classes and sees clients at Wintergreen Botanicals in Allenstown. Find lots of information about herbs, health, recipes and more at www.wintergreenbotanicals.com.