new_health (2006-15)

Eat Your ’Shrooms

Who knew a fungus could be so good for you?

by Wendy C. Smith

I love mushrooms. They are my favorite fungi. Now, the fact that I’ve actually thought enough about fungi to come up with a favorite is a bit worrisome, but I do have to think about these things in my line of work. Anyhow, medicinal mushrooms are currently all the rage. They have been used for centuries in multiple cultures to cure a myriad of maladies.    

Mushrooms are generally thought to have little nutritional value, but in truth they have decent protein content as well as trace vitamins and minerals. It’s compelling that mushrooms might have great therapeutic value. Humans share more DNA sequences with mushrooms than with plants, which is kind of eerie since many types of mushrooms, like portabellas and chanterelles for example, have a meaty taste and texture when cooked.

Recent research has indicated that certain mushrooms have a high antioxidant quotient and might offer protection against cancer, diabetes and high cholesterol. Additionally, specific mushrooms are thought to increase sexual stamina and brain function and contain anti-aging components.

The most common and well-known mushroom is the brown or white button mushroom, which is known as the portobello in its mature and much larger form. While button and portobello mushrooms do provide some of the health benefits of their more exotic brothers, as usual, we have mainstreamed the least nutritional of the varieties available into our food chain.

However, Asian species such as shiitake, enokidake and maitake, and wild types including morels, chanterelles and porcini are becoming easier to find in both restaurants and groceries. Those mushrooms have strong, complex flavors as well as important health benefits.

Shiitake and maitake mushrooms, for example, are curly, flatish mushrooms that are usually purchased dried. They have a fleshy, chewy texture when reconstituted or cooked. Research has shown both of those mushrooms to have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-tumor, cholesterol-reducing and stress-reducing benefits to name a few. Shiitake mushrooms are also used as a kidney and liver tonic, to increase sexual function and as a remedy to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Studies have shown that the anti-viral effects of shiitake might be useful in fighting AIDS and hepatitis, while maitake mushrooms are showing promise as a strong cancer and tumor fighter. Maitake and shiitake mushrooms can be brewed as tea, cooked and eaten, or taken as a supplement. (And I personally think shiitake cream soup is one of the greatest treats in the world.)

Other types of mushrooms are not as easily found or used in recipes and are more widely known for their medicinal uses. Reishi, cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, Birch Polymore and Mesima are examples of these. Reishi mushrooms have the same basic health properties as shiitake in addition to having extremely strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. Reishi mushrooms are also thought to help remedy asthma and to elevate the mood and spirit. Individuals can consume reishi in soups, stews, teas, tinctures and other supplements.

Cordyceps mushrooms are different from the other mushrooms that have been mentioned because they occur in nature growing on dead caterpillar larvae. They are best known for their strength-building properties and for increasing sexual stamina and respiratory function. Cordyceps have been used by athletes for years to increase their athletic potential without using steroids. Cordyceps are generally taken in supplement form.

Speaking of supplements, mushrooms are a fungus and, if grown in a toxic medium, will often absorb and carry those contaminants.

Heavy metals are an example of a toxin that mushrooms can pass on. Cordyceps have even more specific problems. Because they naturally grow on dead caterpillars, they can contain bacteria and other dangerous microorganisms that are passed on from the caterpillar larvae. If a cordyceps product is desired, buy a brand made from organic, cultured cordyceps that have been grown in a growing medium instead.

New Chapter has a line of medicinal mushrooms entitled MycoMedicinals that is organic. “Breathe” is mixed mushroom supplement made of cordyceps, reishi and maitake that offers lung support and stamina. “Cordyceps” is a product to increase strength and libido. Two other products are “Native Man” and “Native Woman,” which are both multiple mushroom products designed to enliven the physical stamina and sexual energy of both sexes. Most of these products come in capsules and tinctures.

The amount that can be written about mushrooms and their healing properties is vast and really deserves much more space that I can offer in one column. I do find it interesting that the fungus among us might be so very beneficial. Maybe tonight’s menu calls for mushroom soup.