Michelle is a licensed herbalist and acupuncturist practicing in Chapel Hill, NC, at Chapel Hill Acupuncture.
Many images spring to mind when you imagine the mushroom. Wrinkly shapes, button tops, neon colors of red and yellow, forest greenery, and culinary delights.
Musing on mushrooms can be downright liberating, and fun. A delicacy to the palate, one can dream of Bon Appetit grilled shitake mushrooms with a savory sauce or sautéed chanterelles in butter and garlic. Health and well being are part and parcel of mushroom magic, as the medicinal value of mushrooms can be used to boost immune function and slow degenerative processes. Literary types can link the mystical journey of Alice in Wonderland with a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Mushrooms not only fascinate, they bend our minds. The fungus that is edible could enlighten us, or poison us. Not to mention heal us.
Is it a food, a drug, a medicine, or all of these? The answer would appear to be “yes,” to all, which begs the question: What do we really know and understand about mushrooms?
Botanical and Biological Idenifications for Mushrooms
Mushrooms fall under the taxonomic classification of fungi. Interestingly, this identification by biologists did not occur until the 1960’s when the uniqueness of this organism finally became evident (Vidyasagar, 2016). Before that, mushrooms had been considered members of the plant kingdom. Studies done in the 1960’s revealed that mushrooms did not, in fact, fit the criteria to be classified strictly as plants because they do not use chlorophyll and sunlight to generate their own food.
Mushrooms are similar to animals in that they do require an external source of nutrition. But, unlike animals, mushrooms have cell walls, a sort of exoskeleton, that allows them to stand upright in their environment. Animals do not require cell walls and are able to move and adapt to their environment, an ability that enables them to seek many sources of food and shelter.
It was therefore concluded that mushrooms straddle both categories of taxonomy and, at the same time, they do not meet the criteria to fit into either group exclusively. They resemble animals in the sense that they require an external source of nourishment to ingest and grow. Yet they do this externally, by secreting an enzyme into their food that allows them to digest it. And, mushrooms resemble plants in that they are stationary and rely on firm cell walls to grow and develop.
Understanding how mushrooms take in nutrition is perhaps the most fascinating thing about them. They actually expand their branch-like structures, called hyphae, and secrete enzymes to digest other organisms, such as rotting animals, plants and other life (Vidyasagar, 2016). They are supreme recyclers.
As more knowledge of mushrooms and their distinctive nature came to light, further exploration of the different types of fungi began. Mushrooms are currently identified as one of five main types of fungi. Mushrooms are the most complex of these types, in that they are multicellular organisms with a highly developed network of symbiotic cells that coalesce and branch together, much like a tree.
Forests, Soil, and Regeneration
Fungi are ubiquitous, found in rivers, forests, soil, and on and within plants and animals (Moore, et al., 2020). They are also extremely diverse, some living as single organisms, while others exist symbiotically with other plants or animals.
The role of fungi in the preservation and balance of ecological systems is vital, and has many important implications for the survival of many plant and animal species. The expanding network of mycelia, or fine filaments that lie beneath, and in the soil, share nutrients, especially sugars, across forests, and other ecosystems.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia uncovered a network of forty seven Douglas fir trees connected by a single network of mycelia (Maloof, 2016). Further, they discovered that these chains of mycelia are able to share nutrients amongst several different species of trees, as well as other plants that are shaded and not able to obtain nutrients via photosynthesis (Maloof, 2016). For example, beechdrops and Indian Pipe, are both examples of plants that rely on fungal nutrition since they do not photosynthesize at all.
Mushrooms for Healing Purposes
Polyporus (Polyporus sclerotium), or zhu ling, is the stem of the polypore mushroom, a native of southeastern China. It is used in traditional Asian formulas to promote urination, thereby easing urinary problems. It is able to “purge heat” from infection from the urinary tract (Rister, 1999). Whether combined with other herbs, or used as a single supplement, polyporus also has many protective properties including normalizing levels of ALT, an enzyme that is elevated when there is potential liver damage. ALT is routinely tested in patients taking drugs that can potentially tax the liver. It has other benefits as well. Japanese studies show it lowers blood cholesterol significantly (Sugiyama, et al., 1992). It is also used along with mitomycin-C to increase the activity of macrophages, the cancer-eating cells (Rister, 1999).
Maitake (Grifola frondosa is a Japanese mushroom closely related to polyporus. It is recognized by its small, overlapping fan-shaped caps, making it look like the tail of a feathered bird, thus the colloquial name “turkey tail.” It is usually found on tree stumps or tree roots (Rister, 1999). It has many medicinal uses, including protecting liver cells, and potential anti-cancer benefits. Numerous studies show that it can slow the growth of tumors, and increase the activity of immune cells by an average of 150 percent (Mori,1987). A collaborative study, performed by the University of Minnesota and Bastyr University, showed immune function was significantly enhanced in women suffering with Stage I-III breast cancer (Weil, 2011); pill preparations of maitake allowed for precise monitoring of dosages and response.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) or ling zhi, is a mushroom that is rare, historically speaking, found only on plum trees. Nowadays, it is cultivated by Japanese farmers, with a slow-growing technique that takes every bit of two years to grow a usable culture of wild reishi spores on plum-tree sawdust (Matsumoto, 1979). Reishi is medicinal for many disorders such as allergy and asthma, and has a special affinity for lung problems (Rister, 1999). Reishi stimulates maturation of macrophages (cells that engulf bacteria) in the lung to prevent secondary infections such as bronchitis (Rister, 1999). This makes it a good addition to any supplementary regimen for those prone to seasonal allergies, bronchitis, and sinusitis. Studies also show that Reishi is effective against leukemia by causing leukemia cells to become differentiated, therein disrupting their ability to reproduce wildly. These animal studies show that leukemia cells will respond to Reishi extract and reproduce normally at the end of a regular life cycle (Lieu, 1995).
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), or hou tou gu, is a mushroom that grows almost exclusively on birch trees. The fungus, once thought to cause destruction of trees, is now known to actually protect the trees by entering into the bark and spreading networks, thereby protecting the “immune system” of the birch trees (Wolfe, 2012). Chaga is very popular as a supplement because it contains many minerals, beta glucans, and the unique constituent betulinic acid. Beta glucans is a polysaccharide contained in many different types of mushrooms, including chaga, reishi, maitake, and polyporus. Beta glucans, also found in oats, is very useful for slowing the absorption of foods through the intestines, which helps regulate blood sugar and carry cholesterol out of the bloodstream. Betulinic acid is more rare, unique to certain mushrooms, such as chaga, and due to its low pH it is able to act as a chemotherapeutic agent (Wolfe, 2012).
Choose Mushrooms Wisely
While most of us will not be out foraging for our own mushrooms, although that sounds like great fun, we will be able to purchase them readily at health food stores, through a practitioner, or online. Before you do that, please do a bit of research either on your own, or consult with an herbalist.
This is just a simple introduction to the healing benefits of mushrooms, and how valuable they are in our world. I have emphasized the medicinal value of mushrooms because this is of special interest in my practice. Knowing the best use of mushrooms for a specific purpose is helpful, and that means an understanding of how often to take, and in what form. Mushrooms are rather unique and while they are great adjuncts to any supplemental regime, it is usually best to take them intermittently or seasonally.
For example, taking Reishi prior to allergy season is a preventative and can greatly assist in reducing severity of seasonal allergies, and may also help to prevent secondary infections such as bronchitis and sinusitis. Ingesting mushrooms three or four times a week for a couple of months before seasonal allergies occur can meter out a powerful immune boost. Stopping supplements is often just as important as starting them, as the body does require resetting of its homeostatic mechanisms to balance immune responses.
It is awesome to be one's own advocate by reading books, articles, and researching online. It is wise, however, to consult with a professional herbalist or practitioner trained in the use of mushrooms if you feel that you could use some help in choosing the correct medicinal mushroom for your specific health. Herbalists are trained in the use of many types of supplements, including herbs, mushrooms, minerals, vitamins, and some nutrition as well.
Lieu, C., Lee, S. & Wang. S. (1992). The effect of Ganoderma lucidum on induction of differentiation in leukemic U937 cells. Anticancer Research, 12(4), 1211-1215.
Lui, L. (Producer) & Schwartzberg, L. (Director). 2019. Fantastic Fungi [Documentary film]. United States. Moving Art Studio.
Maloof, J. (2016). Nature's Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
Matsumoto, K. (1979). The mysterious reishi mushroom. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press.
Moore, D. et al. (2020). Fungus. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/fungus
Mori, K., et al. (1987). “Antitumor activities of edible mushrooms by oral administration," In Wuest, P., Royse, D., & Beelman, R. (Eds.) Proceedings of International Symposium on Scientific and Technical Aspects of Cultivating Edible Fungi (1-6). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Science.
Rister, R. (1999). Japanese herbal medicine, The healing power of Kampo. New York, NY: Avery Publishing Group.
Sugiyama, K., Kawagishi, H., Tanaka, A., Saeki, S., Yoshida, S., Sakamoto, H., Ishiguro, Y., “Isolation of plasma cholesterol-lowering components from ningyotake (Polyporus confluens) mushroom,” Journal of Nutritional Science & Vitaminology, 38(4), 335-342 (August 1992).
Senthilingam,M. (2020) Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/28/health/magic-mushrooms-psilocybin-cancer-patients-study-wellness/index.html
Vidyasagar, A. (2016). Facts About the Fungus Among Us. Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/53618-fungus.html
Weil, A. (2011). Turkey Tail Mushrooms for Cancer Treatment? Retrieved from: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/cancer/turkey-tail-mushrooms-for-cancer-treatment/
Wolfe, D. (2012). Chaga: King of the medicinal mushrooms. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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.