Mushrooms have captivated us for millennia, playing significant roles in our cuisine, medicine and folklore. The ancient Greeks celebrated mushrooms for their hallucinogenic properties, the Chinese for their medicinal value and the Romans for their effectiveness as weapons of assassination. The ancient Egyptians prized mushrooms so highly that dining on them was reserved solely for the Pharaohs.
Egypt and Greece shared the mythos that mushroom spores made their way to earth on lightning bolts hurled by the gods—and they might have been onto something. Japanese scientists recently discovered that lightning makes mushrooms multiply! (1)
Folklore aside, mushrooms contain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Perhaps the strength of their healing powers is related to the fact that they share more DNA with us than with plants. Many of our pharmaceuticals are derived from fungi, including numerous antibiotics, statins, immunosuppressants, antimalarials and even antifungals.
What you recognize as a “mushroom” is actually just the fruiting body of a vaster fungal body that invisibly blankets nearly every landscape: the mycelium. Mycelia are thin cobweb-like structures that allow the fungi to absorb nutrients from their environment. A single cubic inch of soil can contain eight miles of mycelium cells. In fact, the largest organism in the world is a 2,000-year-old mycelial mat in Eastern Oregon that spans 2,200 acres!
Mushrooms help the environment by cleaning up polluted soil and restoring habitats—they absorb and concentrate everything in their environment, good or bad. It is their ability to concentrate certain phytochemicals that gives rise to their powers of healing. Only recently have mushrooms’ medicinal benefits become a serious focus of scientific inquiry, at least here in the West, and the research is giving us plenty to be excited about—particularly in the battle against cancer.
Mushrooms as Cancer Assassins
One of the reasons mushrooms are so beneficial for cancer is they contain extremely powerful immunosupportive agents. Chief among these are alpha- and beta-glucans, phytochemicals that enhance our immune system’s ability to find and destroy cancer cells, as well as pathogens. Mushrooms appear to stimulate several different types of immune cells, including natural killer cells, as well providing some protection from damage by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
One study showed eating just one button mushroom per day may lower your breast cancer risk by 64 percent. (2) Some animal studies have discovered complete tumor regression after treatment with mushroom extracts.
Although these amazing fungi show promise in preventing and treating many types of cancer, some are unique as breast cancer treatments because they inhibit the enzyme aromatase, which is involved in estrogen synthesis. (3) You won’t have to forage old-growth forests to find aromatase-inhibiting mushrooms because they can be found in the produce section of any grocery store—just look for common white button mushrooms, Portobellos and cremini (which are just younger Portobellos).
Mushrooms also contain specialized lectins that recognize cancer cells and prevent them from growing and dividing, such ABL (Agaricus bisporus lectin). Agaricus bisporus is just the scientific name for the common white button mushroom. Because ABL is resistant to digestion, it enters your bloodstream intact where it can modulate autoimmune responses and exert anti-proliferative effects. ABL has shown effectiveness against stomach, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers. (4)
Several different mushroom varieties have bioactive compounds being studied for their cancer-fighting mechanisms. Six are highlighted in the table below, but realize this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
|Maitake: Kills cancer cells by augmenting T-helper cells. In one study, maitake extracts reduced bladder cancer growth by 90 percent (5). Other studies show promise for breast, prostate, colon and liver cancer. (6)||Shiitake: Contains lentinan, which inhibits cancer cell proliferation, including breast cancer and myeloma; increases cancer patients’ survival rates. (7, 8, 9)|
|Reishi: Contains ganoderic acid, which shows promise against lung and liver cancer by inducing apoptosis. (10, 11, 12)||Turkey tail: Boosts cancer patients’ immune systems during chemotherapy, as well as direct toxicity to cancer cells, including prostate and breast cancer. Research has identified activation of seven different immune pathways. (13, 14)|
|Cordyceps: Found to inhibit the division and proliferation of cancer cells. (15)||Chaga: Toxic to colon, liver, cervical and melanoma cells; radioprotective; contains betulin and betulinic acid, which have potent anti-tumor properties. (16, 17, 18)|
Benefits Beyond Cancer
You might want to throw a few mushrooms into your diet, just for their nutritional value. They provide a significant amount of protein, fiber, polyphenols, B vitamins (riboflavin, folate, thiamin, pantothenic acid and niacin), vitamin C, and important minerals including calcium, selenium, copper, iron and phosphorous. Mushrooms are also the only natural vegan food with significant amounts of vitamin D, which is actually enhanced by exposing them to sunlight. (19) They’ve been shown to optimize metabolism and body weight, exerting positive effects on blood sugar, insulin response and satiety. (20) Mushrooms also offer a wealth of antioxidants, including ergothioneine, which is fairly exclusive to mushrooms and helps protect your DNA from oxidative damage. Ergothioneine may function as a “master antioxidant,” similar to glutathione. (21)
Top 10 Mushrooms for Overall Health
* Contains ganoderic acid (anti-cancer); adaptogenic; immune strengthening; antibacterial, antiviral (herpes), antifungal; anti-inflammatory; anti-allergy; improves gut microbiome; blood pressure and lipid normalization; reduces prostate-related urinary symptoms in men; radioprotective
* Reduces insulin resistance; balances and boosts immune system; induces cancer cell apoptosis; supportive after organ transplant; helps skin ailments
3.Himematsutake (Royal Sun Agaricus)
* Remarkable anticancer properties, chemoprotective, radioprotective; immune system booster; antiviral; antibacterial; reduces insulin resistance; normalizes lipids; improves hair and skin; polio treatment
4. Turkey Tail (aka Coriolis or “cloud mushroom”)
* Bolsters immune system during cancer treatments; tumor inhibition; antiviral; hepatoprotective; relieves chronic fatigue; strengthens microbiome
* Contains lentinan which has antitumor properties; antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal; hepatoprotective; stomach ailments; anemia; pleural effusion; blood sugar stability; reduced platelet aggregation; atherosclerosis
* Tumor inhibition; blood sugar and insulin stability; radioprotective; assists clotting/platelets; increases ATP; enhances athletic performance; anti-aging; aphrodisiac effects; hepatoprotective; anti-inflammatory; kidney protective; asthma and cystic fibrosis; lupus; arrhythmias
7. Lion’s Mane
* Impressive nervous system benefits, neuroprotective; peripheral nerve regeneration and remyelination; relieves muscle cramps; depression, anxiety, memory, cognition; augments chemotherapy; cancer cell apoptosis; improves lipid metabolism; immune boosting; accelerated wound healing; adrenal support; antihypertensive (25, 26)
* Powerful antioxidants; adaptogenic; tumor inhibition; hepatoprotective; immune boosting; antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic; chemoprotective; radioprotective; autoimmune disorders; fatigue (27)
9. Psilocybin mushrooms
More than 180 varieties
* Stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD (28); improvement in mental states across the board
10. Zhu ling
* Hepatoprotective; diuretic; hair regrowth
Pick Your Poison
“Falling in love is like eating mushrooms, you never know if it’s the real thing until it’s too late.” ~ Bill Balance
The danger posed by poisonous mushrooms is not a myth. Poisonous mushrooms are often referred to as toadstools, derived from the German word “Todesstuhl,” which translates as “death’s stool.” The unique ability of mushrooms to concentrate elements not only gives rise to their healing powers but also to extremely potent poisons. According to the North American Mycological Association (NAMYCO), there are 14 distinctive types of mushroom poison found worldwide, but only 10 have been reported in North America. (29)
The Amanita virosa, appropriately called “death cap,” poisons and kills more people each year than any other mushroom. Death caps contain amatoxins, which aggressively attack the kidneys and liver and can lead to organ failure, coma and death. (30) According to the National Capital Poison Center: (31)
Symptoms of mushroom poisoning vary with the type of mushroom eaten. Many wild mushrooms will cause vomiting and diarrhea; that could lead to dehydration and an emergency room visit. Others can interact with alcohol to cause severe stomach upset, headache, and high blood pressure. Some can cause hallucinations and coma. A few cause no effects right away, but can damage the liver; a liver transplant may be necessary to survive.
How can you tell the difference between an edible wild mushroom and a poisonous one? Unless you are very experienced in mushroom identification, you can’t! There are many look-alikes, and they often grow in close proximity. Mushroom identification requires extensive knowledge of features such as cap and stalk shape, color, texture, gills, spore color, growth habit and others.
IMPORTANT: It is never safe to eat a wild mushroom unless a mushroom identification expert gives you the all-clear. If you think you might have eaten a poisonous mushroom, call Poison Control immediately.
How to Sneak More Mushrooms into Your Diet
As long as you’re careful, consuming a variety of different types of mushrooms has tremendous health benefits. Cooked mushrooms are preferable to raw because heat breaks down the chitin in their cell walls, maximizing bioavailability of the active compounds. Several raw culinary mushrooms contain a potentially carcinogenic substance called agaritine, and cooking mushrooms significantly reduces agaritine levels. (32) When consuming whole mushrooms or supplements, make sure they are organic in order to avoid contamination. Mushrooms absorb and concentrate everything in their surrounding air, water and soil, such as heavy metals and industrial toxins.
You might enjoy foraging for mushrooms, as long as you have someone with you who is highly proficient in mushroom identification. Mushroom foraging dates all the way back to Paleolithic times. Many people today are growing their own mushrooms, which may be a safer albeit less adventurous option.
Mushrooms can be consumed whole or as concentrates, extracts or powders. Whatever form you choose, make sure it’s from a reputable manufacturer that uses the whole organism, which ensures it contains the full complement of naturally-occurring phytonutrients. Mycelium tissue, especially when finely milled, has higher bioavailability than the above-ground mushroom fruit body tissue.
If you hate the taste or texture of mushrooms, you’re not alone! Here are a few tricks for painlessly “sneaking” them in:
- Mix them into dishes that have multiple ingredients, pairing them with ingredients you love
- Chop them into small pieces
- Add the mushrooms to the dish early in the cooking process so they meld with other flavors
- Powdered mushrooms can be added to soups, sauces, dressings, gravy, casseroles, chili or stew, and gives a great nutritional boost to smoothies
- Use a reasonable quantity—no need to overdo it
Ready to Forage?
Whether you’re seeking to give your immune system a kick in the pants, or you’re just a foodie, mushrooms have plenty to offer. The latest science suggests they can help protect you from infections, take down inflammation, optimize your metabolism, protect your liver and brain, improve your gut health—and even make cancer cells hit their self-destruct buttons. If you want to venture into the world of mushroom foraging, the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) has a wealth of information about classes, clubs and forays. Canadian Mycological Associations also provides a list of organizations, broken down by region.