by Sandra Williams, Ph.D.
We cannot have life on this planet without fungi. Mushrooms are the underpinnings of plant growth over the entire Earth, transporting water and nutrients, decomposing organic matter into soil, and for their medicinal properties. The fungal kingdom and its sphere of influence are enormous. Nobody knows how many species exist; estimates range from 750,000 to 2,000,000. According to the book The Mushroom Journal, about 10,000 species grow in North America. Researchers at the 2013 International Medicinal Mushroom Conference estimated that about 725 species have been studied.
Around the world, particularly in traditional cultures, mushrooms are highly valued as medicines. Research is exploding across the globe, and medical and alternative health practitioners are paying attention. In Japan, shiitake and reishi mushroom extracts are the official first line of treatment against cancer and AIDS. These compounds can strengthen the immune system so the body can kill disease. Shiitakes can actually consume certain tumors. Mainstream medical practitioners in the U.S. do not use mushroom treatment, but some doctors use these and other mushrooms as supportive therapies; they can reduce side effects and recovery time from chemotherapy and radiation.
Specific mushrooms are active against specific diseases. Researchers and trained practitioners use these mushrooms to address diabetes, nerve degeneration, anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, erectile dysfunction and more. Several studies published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine and other publications have shown that lion’s mane mushrooms, which contain nerve growth factor, helped patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The patients ate lion’s mane with their meals and experienced improved memory, cognitive function, concentration and mood. Reishi, an immuno-regulator, raises or lowers immune function as needed. It can fight disease organisms by stimulating immune function and stops allergies by reducing the immune system’s heightened responses to allergens. Mushrooms can also benefit autistic children.
Mushrooms can help us stay healthy and happy. Reishi, shiitake, maitake, oyster, enoki, and our common white button mushrooms build the immune system and support healthy organ and tissue function. Lion’s mane stimulates creativity. These are foods, though some are not tender and tasty, and are best taken powdered as teas or capsules or as liquid supplements. Eating mushrooms often and eating a variety of them can contribute to better health and well-being, both physically and emotionally.
Paul Stamets, of Fungi Perfecti, has brought to public awareness the many ways that mushrooms contribute to the health of the earth. His books, presentations and TED Talks have dramatically extended our understanding of fungi. Stamets’ book Mycelium Running shows how mushrooms connect life on this planet, much as the internet connects us through cyberspace.
Oyster mushrooms help clean up oil spills and render the toxins harmless to the environment. Stamets has developed a fungal insecticide safe for all other life forms. Certain fungal species are used to control other fungal diseases threatening our forests and timber industries.
Mushrooms and their byproducts supplement animal feed and control diseases; they increase plant production and health. To cure mosaic disease on plant leaves, Japanese pumpkin farmers till spent shiitake logs into the soil. Mushrooms and mushroom products recycle organic waste and decompose paper and plastics; they’re used in packaging materials, fabric and clothing, skin care products and cosmetics, and in construction.
Sandra Williams, Ph.D., and her husband, Doug, own Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, in Perkins. She is also director of the nonprofit, Mushrooms for Well Being Foundation and gives classes at Radiant Living, in Oklahoma City. For more information on the farm and growing mushrooms, visit ShiitakeMushroomLog.com. To learn more about Mushrooms for Well Being Foundation, visit MushroomsForWellBeing.org.