Medicinal Mushrooms 3 Part Series
By Don Gauvreau, MSc, CSCS
aka The Supplement Godfather
Mushrooms have been consumed as a food and medicine for thousands of years, but they still remain quite mysterious and are relatively understudied from a scientific standpoint. But all of that is changing. In this 3-part series, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about the mystery of mushrooms and their miraculous properties. In this first part, we’re going to look at the history of use for food, medicine and spiritual and personal growth purposes, how they differ from plants, and why mushrooms and the mycelium network are such critical regulators of ecosystems, the environment and the world. In part 2, we will cover the mushroom-immunity connection and highlight which medicinal mushrooms are the top immune boosters and how they work. Finally, in Part 3 we will take a look at some of the other wonderful functional benefits mushrooms can offer, especially how they can support brain health and optimize critical aspects of mental health and wellness.
Medicinal Mushroom History of Use
Mushrooms represent a unique division of botanical medicine and are classified in the kingdom of fungi. The use of medicinal mushrooms dates back to the Neolithic time (the Stone Age). In fact, one of the earliest records of mushrooms being used as a food and medicine comes from as far back as 5,300 years. Ötzi, also called the Iceman, is the natural mummy of a man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. The mummy was found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, hence the nickname “Ötzi,” on the border between Austria and Italy. The iceman carried an amadou mushroom (Fomes fomentarius) and a birch polypore to help him survive in the Alps of northern Italy. It’s believed that the birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) was used for its antibiotic properties and as a natural parasite killer. Around 450 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates (450 BCE) classified the amadou mushroom (also called Horse’s Hoof) as a potent anti-inflammatory and for cauterizing wounds.
Mushroom Use in Ancient Civilizations
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics show that mushrooms were considered ‘plants’ of immortality and called them a gift from the Gods. Mushrooms were regarded as a royalty food reserved only for Egyptian nobles and pharaohs. Common folks were not even allowed to touch mushrooms. In ancient China special mushrooms, particularly lingzhi (more commonly known as reishi), were valued as a tonic herb and forbidden to common people. Medicinal mushrooms also had a presence in ancient Greece and Rome. In ancient Greece, kykeon, an ergot-barley and mint drink was the hallucinogenic potion used by Socrates, Plato and other elite of ancient Greece during the Eleusis festival celebrating birth, regeneration and the return of spring. Lysergic acid is found in the ergot mushroom and it is what LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) is derived from
As far back as 4000-7000 years BCE there is evidence that psilocybin mushrooms were used in rituals. Deep in the mountain ranges of Tassili, Algeria, there are ancient rock carvings that provide evidence that mushrooms were used for spiritual purposes. Many of the figures carved in the mountain ranges in Algeria are unusually large-headed, some are missing body parts, some bodies are floating in space and some images resemble actual mushrooms. These carvings depict the experience of shamanistic psilocybin mushroom rituals.
Mushrooms in the Middle Ages
In medieval times mushrooms continued to be used as a food and medicine. The Chinese alchemist Tao Hongjing, from the 5th century (401-500 AD), described several medicinal mushrooms, including lingzhi/reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), which is referred to as the ancient “mushroom of immortality”. (1) The Vikings are believed to have eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms before battle, which could have helped produce the ferocious fighting state they are noted for. Buddhists monks traveling from monastery to monastery spread information about the curative effects of fungi, which they and Taoists priests used in rituals. In the 11th century, the Khanty people of Western Siberia are historically known as the first known users of the ‘King of Mushrooms’,Chaga.
Indigenous Use in the Americas
In the Americas, there is a long history of medicinal mushroom use. Indigenous people have always understood the benefits of mushrooms as a food and healing medicine. The Aztecs used sacred mushrooms called “the flesh of the gods,” which they consumed in holy rituals, and still do so to this day. During the 13th-16th centuries, statues and depictions of reverent mushroom usage were made by people in Aztec, Mixtec, and other cultures in Central America. As European traders and colonizers arrived in America, they attempted to forbid and outlaw mushroom usage, deeming it unholy and dangerous.
The Fungi Kingdom in the Modern World
Mushrooms are well known to enhance the flavour of foods and are a culinary delight to many, but now they're being studied more often for nutritional and medicinal properties. They’re an incredible source of nutrient-dense food and deliver many functional benefits to human health. In fact, many experts would argue that mushrooms have even greater potential applications as a medicine than plants already do.
Mushrooms are classified in the kingdom of fungi and are made up of eukaryotic organisms that also includes microorganisms such as yeasts and molds. Medicinal mushrooms have many active constituents including, but not limited to, polysaccharides, polysaccharide peptides, proteins, terpenoids, and nucleotides. In fact, many of the compounds discovered have yet to be named. The most common active ingredient in mushrooms is β-glucan.
The Mycelium Network
Mushrooms reproduce as spores. The fungal body can be a single cell or a structure called a hypha or mycelial threads. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, which is the vegetative part of a mushroom, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae (finger-like branches and webs). The mycelium of mushrooms creates an expansive network that connects all life together. Fungal colonies composed of mycelium are found in and on soil and many other substrates and permeate all landscapes. The mycelium network is the foundation of the worldwide food web. It’s comparable to the internet, except the mycelium network connects with all life on the planet, including fungi, plants and animals, and that includes us humans too. Many health experts and mycologists (myself included) believe that mushrooms and the mycelium network will be crucial to the survival of the human species. However, as it stands right now, very little is known about the true biodiversity of the fungi kingdom, which has been estimated at 2.2 million to 3.8 million species. Of these, only about 120,000 have been identified.
The Difference Between Plants and Mushrooms
About 100,000 species of mushrooms of the fungi kingdom grow and fruit. In this respect they mimic plants but they lack roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. They also lack chlorophyll and cannot manufacture simple sugars from water and carbon dioxide using the energy of sunlight. Mushrooms had to develop three special methods of living, symbiosis, saprophytism and parasitism.
Most of the mushrooms growing on the forest floor are intimately linked to trees by symbiosis. This association, called mycorrhiza, occurs between the root ends of a tree and the vegetative system of a mushroom. Mycorrhiza benefits both organisms as there is an exchange of nutrients, one providing to others what it cannot synthesize or extract from the soil by itself. In general, mushrooms help the tree extract minerals and water from the soil. In exchange, the tree supplies mushrooms with sugars (carbohydrates).
Saprophytism is another important living method for mushrooms, especially for species which grow on lawns, on rotting wood or on excrement. In this situation the mushroom’s role is decomposition. It feeds itself by digesting the organic matter and at the same time returns nutrients to the soil.
Some mushrooms are parasites. There are several kinds of parasitism, ranging from the species which attacks a healthy host (tree, plant or insect) and lives on it without killing it, to the kind which attacks only unhealthy hosts, thereby speeding up their death. The parasitic species are generally microscopic mushrooms.
Natural Recyclers of the Environment
Mushrooms are recyclers in their natural environment. To feed itself, a mushroom can break down organic matter and at the same time clean the earth. It transforms dead organic matter into usable nutrients that get cycled back into the soil for nourishment of trees and plants. If there were no mushrooms Earth would be densely crowded with dead animals and plants.
Mushrooms Keep Disease in Check
Mushrooms live in very hostile environments amongst decay in a harsh layer of the ecosystem where they encounter disease-causing pathogens far more frequently than other life forms. To live they must have very robust immune systems, and what makes their immune system so robust makes them valuable to the human immune system. Lacking chlorophyll, mushrooms obtain their food by absorption from the soil and decaying wood in their environment. They develop slender filaments, which penetrate underground sucking up nutrients. These microscopic cells serve in reproduction and initiate new organisms; they are agents of dispersal, which allow the fungus to spread. These cells or spores become dormant, enabling the fungus to withstand adverse conditions such as winter.
Mushrooms Have Intelligence
There are many examples of mushrooms showing intelligence in nature. One great example is the cordyceps mushroom, which has powerful adaptogenic properties and is even used in sports supplements. Cordyceps mushroom starts its life by attaching its spore to an ant. The ant lives its own life with the mushroom on its back until one day the ant is driven to climb a tree. When the ant reaches a height sufficient for the release of the spores, it will do so and will remain there until it dies and all the spores are spread. During this symbiotic relationship the cordyceps could have eaten the ant, but it did not, and instead demonstrated the intelligence to know that the ant was more important to its life and reproduction than as a food source. The cordyceps mushroom seems like it has more intelligence than the current Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. LOL
Looking Ahead to Part 2 of this Series
The list of medicinal health benefits that mushrooms can provide continues to grow as modern science catches up to these ancient remedies. More research on mushrooms is being conducted now than ever before and in the next issue of IFM I will discuss how some key mushrooms can act as intelligent and powerful regulators of our immune system. Many, again myself included, believe that certain mushrooms are the most powerful and effective immunomodulators known to man – and now the science and research is starting to pile up and support this line of thinking. Check out Part 2!
Guggenheim, A. G., Wright, K. M., & Zwickey, H. L. (2014). Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 13(1), 32–44.
Hawksworth DL, Lücking R. (2017) Fungal Diversity Revisited: 2.2 to 3.8 Million Species. Microbiol Spectr, 5(4), 10.
Stamets, P. & Zwickey, H. (2014). Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies Meet Modern Science. Integrative Medicine, 13, 1.