Why mushrooms are so good for you
My last journal article on Amazing plant facts: how they talk, defend and attack each other through mushrooms gave the background on why the fungi kingdom is so important to us. With similar physiologies, we both hate the same bacteria and viruses, except mushrooms are much better at developing those antibacterial and antiviral properties than us as they need them to survive in their own environment. It is for this reason that ingesting mushrooms allows us to absorb those healing properties and better equip our immune system, conditional on the preparation method. Not all mushroom products were created equal! Mushrooms are a nutritional powerhouse but you need to be vigilant to reap the most rewards and not get sucked into clever (false) marketing of some mushroom brands. Mushrooms may be known as a superfood but there is nothing super about them if you can't absorb their medicinal compounds.
This post focuses on the "mundane" mushrooms - those with non psychoactive properties. The hallucinogenic or "magic mushrooms" also know as psilocybin mushrooms, also possess medicinal properties, which I will touch on down the line but here we focus on "mundane" mushrooms as sadly it is more difficult for us to get our hands on the "fun" ones. For the curious check out this page on the medicinal benefits of magic mushrooms.
what can mushrooms do for me?
Dr Axe brilliantly articulates the medicinal properties of mundane mushrooms, which I have summarised below...
- Anti-cancer properties
- Improve immunity and lower inflammation
- Protect heart health
- Support energy and improve brain function
- Aid in weight management
- Provide vitamin D
These medicinal benefits come from the fact mushrooms are really high in:
- Beta-glucans (carbohydrates not produced by the human body, but found in cell walls of fungi, yeast, algae and plants which have powerful immune stimulating properties)
- Triterpenes (known to kill cancer cells and stimulate immune responses)
- Ergosterol (antitumor and antioxidant properties, and converts to Vitamin D when exposed to UV light even after extraction)
The biggest benefit is immune support which is attributed to the beta-glucans, and it is this compound which really gives mushrooms their medicinal properties. BUT not all beta-glucans are the same. Beta-glucans in oats are different to those in mushrooms, and it is the structure of beta-glucans that determines their activity. The beta-glucans you want are (1,3) and (1,6) - it is these two types of beta-glucan that possess the immunological properties. Different mushrooms also possess different levels of beta-glucans.
However, that is not to say these mushrooms with lower beta-glucan levels are "not as good" for you, as mushrooms contain other medicinal compounds such as triterpenes, which are found in Reishi and Chaga.
Beta-glucans work their magic by:
- Activating macrophages (type of white blood cell that identifies "bad" cells and engulfs them)
- Activating T-lymphocytes (sub-type of white blood cell)
- Stimulating Natural Killer cells (sub-type white blood cell that kills virally infected cells, and can detect and control early signs of cancer)
In our large and small intestine, we have receptors for beta-glucans, where our immune cells will be activated upon detection of the beta-glucans at these receptors. One thing to note is that you won't wake up and feel like superman. Taking mushrooms in this manner sets you on a course towards homeostasis, a new equilibrium - a strong baseline, i.e. it is preventative medicine, which I am a HUGE advocate for - don't wait until you have to cross the river to build the bridge - start those construction plans now.
Triterpenes have both potent antimicrobial and antiviral properties, and are very beneficial for the liver (which is connected to your nervous system hence why you see statements that mushroom extracts can improve anxiety, depression, focus and sleep). The other just as significant benefit is the cytotoxicity of triterpenes against cancerous cells - they are toxic to (bad) cells.
Mushooms also contain Ergosterol, which has a similar function to cholesterol in humans. Ergosterol allows mushrooms to manufacture Vitamin D from sun exposure even after they have been harvested.
Mushrooms are also adaptogens. An adaptogen is a unique group of plant/herbs/fungi that support your adrenal system, enabling your body to better control "stress"...more on them later.
However, this all sounds great but mushrooms also contain chitin - one of the hardest materials in the natural world (chitin is also found in the exo-skeleton of insects and in crustacean claws). All of the aforementioned bad-ass properties of mushrooms are locked up in the chitin, so this chitin needs to be broken down in order to enhance the bioavailability (the human body's ability to digest and absorb the ingredient). This is why mushrooms must undergo extraction to break down the chitin, releasing all the "good stuff" - this is where consumers can get caught out and purchase inferior mushroom products that have not undergone the proper extraction process making the bioactive ingredients un-bioavailable to them. In other words...useless. Heat is most commonly used to break down chitin.
How can i get more mushrooms in my life?
Mushrooms can be ingested in the body in a variety of ways. You may be most familiar with sautéing some button mushrooms or having them in a pie (terribly British I know!). But, there are all sorts of ways you can incorporate your fungal friends into your daily lives. I have always eaten mushrooms about 3-4 times a week, through both teas and in my food. This is also in line with mushroom expert Jeff Chilton's recommendation.
What to buy
1. Purchase an array of raw exotic mushrooms, from Shitake, Oyster, Enoki as well as the classic button mushroom.
2. Get a really good mushroom extract. I have mentioned Jeff Chilton and I now use his 5 mushroom blend (Reishi, Shiitake, Maitake, Turkey Tail and Chaga) but Jeff recommends Reishi is the best all-rounder to start with. I use Jeff's line Real Mushrooms, as they are organic, undergo the dual extraction method and are not grown on grain (which offers negligible nutritional content).
What to do with them
- Add to your hot meals
- On a high heat, heat some Olive Oil and throw the mushrooms (not too finely sliced) in the pan. Try Japanese Enoki mushrooms as a replacement for noodles. Mushrooms go with everything - mix them in with a stir fry, sautéed vegetables or check out our Vegan pulled pork recipe which uses mushrooms as the meat alternative
- Add mushroom extract (either just Reishi or a blend) to a smoothie
- Add mushroom extract to a warm mylk drink
- Reishi extract is a wonderful accompaniment to a hot cacao drink
- Add to your morning porridge
- Make porridge using oats and nut milk (I use almond). Add maple syrup/honey/cacao nibs/chopped fruit/ground flax and your mushroom extract
- Brew some mushroom tea or have some mushroom coffee
- Add a teaspoon of mushroom extract to hot water
- OR I have also used dried chaga (which has not undergone any extraction process) and brewed it in a slow cooker for 8-10 hours. This will break down the chitin and release the beta glucans (which are water soluble) but WILL NOT release the triterpenes as they are not water soluable (and require the dual extraction process). In spite of this I do still enjoy brewing raw dried chaga and there are still some benefits, albeit not as potent as the extract.
I have already mentioned Real Mushrooms as a great place to source mushroom extracts. When buying mushroom extracts look out for:
- Mushroom extract
- Dual extraction process (extraction uses both water and alcohol to release the soluble and non-soluble compounds. The heat breaks down the chitin making the bioactive ingredients bioavailable to humans to absorb)
- Not grown on grain/rice (negligible nutritional benefit)
- Certified organic
- The list of specific bioactive ingredients (beta-glucans and triterpenes) and their concentrations
- some companies list polysaccharides - even though beta-glucan is a polysaccharide this is insufficient as starch is also a polysaccharide and is often used to inflate the nutritional content of mushroom extracts)
- Does the company offer the testing documentation to confirm the active compound content
I have also just ordered WunderWorkshop's Golden Shrooms - an adaptogen and medicinal mushroom blend. Adaptogen's are plants/fungi that target your stress centre (your adrenal system) by bringing balance to your adrenal system and counteracting the adverse effects of stress. WunderWorkshop is a turmeric based brand, and Founder Zoe has always used Cordyceps mushrooms as a way to manage energy and endurance. She created Golden Shrooms as she "wanted to combine Cordyceps with some other powerful and potent ingredients such as of course Turmeric, Ginger, Cacao and Reishi - another mushroom with potent qualities, foremost its immune-boosting effects. In combination with all the ingredients, it creates an anti-inflammatory, immune boosting and endurance enhancing blend".
For over a year I have used Four Sigmatic's mushroom coffee and the cacao blends. Mushrooms possess a really earthy flavour and are therefore a great complement to coffee and cacao.
Do you have any favourite mushroom products you would like to share? Either comment below or share on Instagram with #wilde4theworld. Mushrooms are easy to integrate into your daily routine and can have powerful long term benefits. I personally know people who have had miraculous results from using mushroom extracts, but as I said at the beginning I believe in living preventatively and integrating mushroom extracts into your daily life is an optimal super way.