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Introduction to Mushrooms and the Benefits of Mycotherapy

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I have a diploma in vegan and vegetarian nutrition and enjoy experimenting with new recipes and ingredients.

Baby Portobella mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus)

Baby Portobella mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus)

Mushrooms have long been valued as natural medicine. Archaeologists have found human remains and other evidence of humans using mushrooms as far back as 3300 BC. 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 mushrooms have been identified although only around 3,000 are considered edible by humans. Many species are extremely poisonous or contain psychoactive and hallucinogenic chemicals. Around 700 types of mushrooms are recognized as having medicinal properties.

Virtually all forms of mushrooms have disease prevention and fighting components. They're also 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 used in nut/pulse loaves, cooked in stir-fries and stews, soups or even made into burgers. Some varieties of mushrooms 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

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 viruses and other diseases. 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 growth. A compound found in maitake, the 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 growth 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 – 15 g 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 system's response to infections and other illnesses.

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 meadows. 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 antioxidant 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 against degenerative illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and 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.

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 looking for especially when foraging. Many mushrooms are poisonous – 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 eating mushrooms 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-fry
  • 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 veggie burgers
  • 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Claire


Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on March 19, 2020:

Thank you :)

Michelle Thelen from Chapel Hill, NC on March 16, 2020:

Nice information about several varieties. Very well written. Thank you.

Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on April 16, 2013:

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.

Roxanne Lewis from Washington on April 16, 2013:

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