Take a moment to think about mushrooms. What comes to mind? Do you enjoy eating them sautéed in butter on your barbequed steak? Are they the food you avoid on the veggie platter because they are fungi? Or are they the annoying species popping up on your perfectly manicured lawn? Whether you like mushrooms or not, once you finish reading this article, the way you look at mushrooms will never be the same.
There is more than meets the eye to our little white-capped friends. Literally much more. Beneath the surface of what we recognize as a mushroom is a vast branched bacterial colony network called mycelium. The mycelium spread underground connecting plants to one another sending messages to either help or hinder other plant growth. Trees send nutrients through the mycelium to seedlings to help them grow. Without the mycelium, many seedlings would not be able to grow in densely forested areas because they would be growing in the shade of larger trees. The mycelium also protects plants from pests and pathogens because they transfer out chemical signals from plant to plant to set up their chemical defences when there is an invader nearby. Mycelium also transfers chemical signals from plants to eliminate the competition of plant growth in a crowded area or to prevent foreign species from growing and flourishing in their habitat. It is no wonder that mycelium is referred to as “nature’s internet.” Beyond sending messages, the mycelium also break down dead plants and decompose wastes making them essential for rich soil production and protection of the environment.
Mycelium produces the fruiting bodies we know as mushrooms. While you may be picturing the classic button mushroom or a commonly known portabella mushroom, there are even more varieties that contain many nutrients and antioxidants that are incredibly beneficial to the human body as well. These mushrooms are known as medicinal mushrooms for their health-promoting and immune boosting effects. Many medicinal mushrooms you will find growing on trees because the nutrients they contain are actually sourced from the trees they grow on. While all medicinal mushrooms are great for the immune system because of their antioxidant content and beta glucans (immune system stimulators), there are specific benefits to specific types.
The reishi mushroom is known as the queen of mushrooms. Reishi can help cleanse the liver, reduce bad cholesterol and balance blood sugars, and can even act as an antihistamine. The reishi mushroom is also an adaptogen, helping one adapt to stress, promoting grounding and relaxation. It is used to help improve sleep quality and can make an excellent evening drink.
Since there is a queen of mushrooms, there also must be a king, and that is the Chaga mushroom. Chaga is found on birch trees and grows abundantly in Canada and other northern countries. Chaga is mineral and antioxidant-rich containing the antioxidant superoxide dismutase which works on disarming some of the worst free radicals, superoxide radicals. Superoxide radicals instigate the breakdown of synovial fluid (the lubricant) found in our joints which can lead to friction and inflammation. The Chaga mushroom also contains melanin which supports eyes, hair, skin and nails, and the antivirals betulin and betulinic acid that help the immune system.
If there are relaxation mushrooms, there must also be energizing mushrooms. Cordyceps are the energizing type. They do so by increasing the lungs maximum oxygen intake, circulation and cellular energy production, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Cordyceps have been used by many Olympic athletes to improve their athletic performance and stamina. In the same way, cordyceps are used as an aphrodisiac. They are also great adaptogens.
One of the most fascinating of the medicinal mushrooms is Lion’s Mane. Lion’s Mane is a natural nootropic which means it can increase cognitive function, memory, motivation and creativity. It has been extensively studied for its ability to regenerate Nerve Growth Factors which are molecules that stimulate the differentiation and re-myelination of neurons. Lion’s Mane is so useful because it contains compounds that allow its nutrients to cross the blood-brain barrier and has been used in treatment for those with Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s.
The mushrooms listed above are only a few examples of the many different types of medicinal mushrooms available. Researchers are still exploring the benefits and uses of mushrooms for humans and the environment. Currently, they are being used to clean up diesel spills, and more research is being done on certain types that like to eat plastics that help speed up the rate of plastic decomposition. The world indeed depends on them.
Now that you have finished reading, will you ever be able to think of mushrooms the same way again?