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Introduction to Mushrooms, Mycotherapy and their Health Benefits.

Updated on July 15, 2014
Baby Portobella mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus)
Baby Portobella mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) | Source

Mushrooms have long been valued as a natural medicine. Archaeologists have found remains and other evidence of humans using mushrooms as far back as 3300BC and mushrooms even have their own branch of herbal medicine known as Mycotherapy.

The term mycotherapy covers the medicinal use of mushrooms as a complementary treatment and includes some of the oldest remedies known. These have been used for thousands of years in Asia and interest in this therapy is spreading fast into Europe and beyond.

Mushrooms are also used to form remedies for other traditional medicine systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine. The ancient Chinese believed that mushrooms strengthened the body and prevented disease and so enabled people to live a longer life. Modern research has shown that Chinese and Japanese species of mushrooms are especially high in compounds that benefit the body, enhance the immune system and fight disease.

Over 14,000 different types of mushroom have been identified although only around 3,000 are considered edible by humans. Many species are extremely poisonous or contain psychoactive and hallucinogenic chemicals and around 700 types of mushroom have been recognized as having medicinal properties.

Virtually all forms of mushroom have disease prevention and fighting components as well as being versatile cooking ingredients. Mushrooms contain fibre and are packed with high levels of vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin D, potassium and selenium. They are also a good source of protein for anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet and can easily be used to create a wide range of delicious meals, from simply being stuffed with vegetables, rice or cheese to be using in nut/pulse loaves, cooked in stir fries and stews, soups or even made into burgers. Some varieties of mushroom such as shiitake and maitake also contain high levels of the powerful antioxidant known as L-ergothioneine. They are also rich in immune enhancing polysaccharides such as beta glucans.

Shiitake mushrooms growing
Shiitake mushrooms growing | Source

Some Varieties of Mushrooms and their Specific Health Benefits.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) An eastern mushroom that is commonly used in Chinese medicine to treat a range of conditions including upper respiratory diseases, poor circulation and liver problems. In Japan it is used as a treatment for cancer due to its ability to boost the immune system into producing more interferon, which the body uses to fight virus’ and other disease. Shiitake also contains lentinan, a strong anti-viral polysaccharide and eritadenine which is known to reduce blood cholesterol.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) – Another stable in Chinese medicine, maitake mushrooms may also be able to fight against cancer. Studies have shown that they have the ability to kill cancer existing cancer cells and suppress the grown of any more. A compound found in maitake, alpha-glucosidase inhibitor is able to normalise blood sugar levels and so maybe be useful as a treatment for diabetes and for people who are struggling to lose weight.

White Button (Agaricus bisporus) – Studies have shown that women who ate lots of these mushrooms, either fresh or dried were less likely to suffer from breast cancer than women who didn’t. This is thought to be due to them containing polysaccharides that help to boost the immune system and fight the grown of tumours.

Reishi (Ganoderma Lucidum) – These are known in China as ‘Lingzhi’ meaning the plant of immortality and are considered one of the best of all herbal remedies. These mushrooms have antiviral, antibacterial and anti-tumour properties as well as being good immune boosters. Reishi are used to treat lesions in the bowel, to protect the heart and for problems such as arthritis, flu, cold sores and diabetes.

Oyster(Pleurotus ostrestus) – Oyster mushroom are excellent for lowering blood cholesterol. One study found that heart patients, who ate 10 – 15g of oyster mushrooms a day for a month, lowered their LDL cholesterol levels by a third. In north-eastern Italy it is believed that these mushrooms stimulate T cells and so support the immune systems response to infections and other illness.

Almond mushroom (Agaricus blazei) – Also known as the murill mushroom or himematsutake, this mushroom originated in Brazil. It enhances the immune system and because of its strong anti-tumour properties is used as a complementary therapy in treating some cancers. Almond mushrooms also help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol.

Clouds Ear fungus Auricularia polytricha) – This mushroom has great blood thinning properties and so is believed to help prevent heart disease and strokes. Studies on rabbits have shown it may be effective at reducing LDL cholesterol.

Bay Bolete ­(Boletus badius) – These contain a substantial level of theanine which is known to help relieve anxiety and promote relaxation. Bay boletes are also rich in antioxidants and can be used to make a dye, which will be yellow unless a mordant is used.

Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) – In traditional Chinese medicine this mushroom is used to treat diabetes, circulation issues, piles and digestive disorders. It is a wild mushroom that can be found growing in grasslands and meadow. Great care should be taken if collecting shaggy ink caps from the wild as they are similar to the poisonous magpie fungus.

Enokitake (Flammulina velutipes) – These are a good source of the antitoxidant ergothioneine and also a powerful anti-tumour agent called flammulin. Enokitake are often available to buy in supermarkets as exotic mushrooms along with oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Also known as Enoki, this mushroom is believed to be able to fight again degenerative illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and to lower the risk of heart disease.

Lions Mane(Hericium erinaceus) – Used in Chinese medicine to treat gastrointestinal problems and also regulates blood sugar levels. This variety of mushroom has strong anti-tumour and antibacterial properties and has been shown to stimulate the growth of nerve cells due to the presence of erinacines.

A basket full of freshly foraged mushrooms.
A basket full of freshly foraged mushrooms. | Source

Using Mushrooms as Medicine

Like any medicine natural or otherwise, mushrooms can have a powerful effect and should be used with care. Mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes and varieties and it is vital to know what you are using especially when foraging for mushroom as some poisonous and even fatal varieties can be mistaken for edible types. Medicinal mushroom products can be bought online or from some health food shops. Take care to follow any instructions and watch for any reactions at first as adverse effects and allergies have been noted in some people. Dried and fresh mushrooms can also be bought from a range of places.

Evidence has shown that consuming whole mushrooms has better effects than taking extracts or isolated components from mushrooms. This may be due to us not fully understanding the active ingredients or that they are affected by extraction and preserving processes. Nutrients and other beneficial chemicals in raw mushrooms are well retained at around 80 – 95%.

Ideas on How to Incorporate Mushrooms into Your Diet

Even if you dislike mushrooms to eat on their own they are very versatile and can be easily incorporated into a vast range of meals or even completely disguised.

Eat raw in salads or as they are

Stir fries

Spring rolls

Casseroles and stews

Stuffed with rice, vegetables, cheese or meat and baked

Pizza topping

Buy or dry your own mushrooms and crush to a fine powder. Sprinkle this over salads, pasta dishes or pizza.

Make into burgers such as Free From Vegan Mushroom Burger

Soup

Nut and pulse loaves

Fry in a little butter or olive oil and garlic and eat with toast

Omelette filling

Mushroom pate

Free From Vegan Mushroom burger with salad.
Free From Vegan Mushroom burger with salad. | Source

© 2013 Claire

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    • roxanne459 profile image

      Roxanne Lewis 3 years ago from Washington

      Great article! I love mushrooms and I think it's great you are helping to spread the word about all of their benefits. :)

    • Elderberry Arts profile image
      Author

      Claire 3 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Thank you. Growing up I thought I hated mushrooms but when I became vegetarian I discovered varieties other than the very common white type and found I like some after all.

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