Most people think of white button or Portobello when asked to name a mushroom. But there is a vast array of other mushrooms that not only absorb flavors when used in cooking but are healthful too. Some of the more common mushrooms provide antioxidants, fiber, protein as well as vitamins B6, B12 and D. When eating mushrooms, you are actually consuming the fruiting body of the fungi. This fungi is actually a shield for the mycelium – the part of mushrooms with the most health benefits.
The mycelium is in fact where the goodness of mushrooms lie. Mycelium are microscopic cells that actually recycle nitrogen, carbon and other essential elements in the course of breaking down plant and animal debris. This breaking down process actually creates rich, new soil. This critical role in the natural world is in addition to the health benefits gained from eating them.
Medicinal Properties of Mushrooms
For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has incorporated mushrooms into their remedies to support good health. The healing properties of mushrooms can be found in the pages of the first Chinese pharmacopeia, written over 5,000 years ago. Through eons of practical use, specific medicinal values from different mushrooms has been identified. Not surprisingly, some common Western medicines are derived from mushrooms. Penicillin is the most well-known example of this. Fortunately for consumers in modern cultures, Western science is looking more closely at the health benefits to be gained from fungi.
According to Paul Stamets, DSc, there are approximately 150,000 species of mushrooms today around the world. He claims that about 5% of these varieties have “interesting nutritional or medicinal properties”. That leaves a lot of types of mushrooms left to be studied!
It is thought that some mushrooms have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antioxidant properties, all of which support good health. Some believe that mushrooms may be helpful in preventing and treating several diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The belief is that mushrooms’ primary mode of helping is by supporting the immune system in both the healthy and the sick.
In today’s modern world, our immune systems are working overtime dealing with processed, genetically-modified food, air and water pollution, overweight and obesity along with stress. The good news is that there are a growing number of studies that point to the possibility of mushrooms having the ability of bolstering immunity.
How Mushrooms Work on the Immune System
In a good way, when consumed, medicinal mushrooms activate the immune system and trigger an immune response. The immune system becomes more alert and engaged. Scientifically, medicinal mushrooms have a large amount of polysaccharides – sugar molecules that have been shown to activate the immune system AND fight tumors. Modern science is carrying on the work of early Chinese medicine by identifying specific types of sugar molecules that trigger activity on different aspects of immunity. Some mushrooms trigger different types of white blood cells, which are a key to immune response. With some varieties, T cells are activated and with others, natural killer (NK) cells are triggered into action. This amazing intelligence gives mushrooms the ability to both help those that are already sick as well as provide prevention benefits against common cold-weather respiratory problems such as colds and bronchitis.
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Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets, DSc, Ten Speed Press, 2011
Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies for Modern Ailments, Andrew Miller, Georges Halpern, M. Evans and Company
Energy Times, Corinne Garcia, October 2012