By Ram Rao, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist for Apollo Health

Romans called them the “Food of the Gods,” and ancient Greeks believed that they provided strength and energy to warriors in battle. For centuries, the Chinese culture revered them as an “elixir of life.” Mushrooms have been a part of human culture for thousands of years and have made important contributions to the culinary and medical fields. Both the pharma and food industries consider mushrooms as mini-pharma factories as they produce hundreds of compounds with numerous biological properties.

While groceries label it as a vegetable and place them in the “vegetable” aisle, mushrooms are actually fungi, another living kingdom alongside those of plants and animals. Medicinal/edible mushrooms are valuable foods as they are low in calories, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium and are also cholesterol-free. Furthermore, they provide important nutrients, including selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, proteins, and fiber. From time immemorial, mushrooms have been used for their antibacterial properties, as immune system enhancers, and as cholesterol-lowering agents. Mushrooms are also consumed for the prevention or treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, and stroke. Mushrooms have been used to treat infections for hundreds of years and as an adjunct to standard cancer treatments in Japan and China. In these countries, mushrooms are used either alone or in combination with radiation or chemotherapy.

● Mushrooms are a powerful source of ergothioneine, an amino acid and antioxidant that prevents or slows cellular damage. Cooking releases this powerful nutrient from the mushroom cells.

● Certain chemical compounds, such as polysaccharides (β-D-Glucans) present in these mushrooms, strengthen the immune system. Immune-enhancing effects are present in nearly all mushrooms, including chanterelle, cremini, oyster, portobello, reishi, shiitake, and white button.

● β -D-Glucans also stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria, so mushrooms are excellent prebiotic foods that promote good gut health
Being naturally low in sodium, the addition of mushrooms maintains the flavor of the food while reducing sodium intake considerably.

● Mushrooms and, in particular, shiitake are natural cholesterol busters as they contain ingredients that inhibit the production of cholesterol, block cholesterol from being absorbed, and lower the overall amount of cholesterol in the blood.

● Mushrooms are also a great source of vitamin D

While there are hundreds of mushroom species, only a few are nontoxic and edible. Great care should be taken when eating mushrooms for the first time, as some mushrooms trigger allergic reactions. Furthermore, old or improperly stored specimens can go rancid quickly and cause food poisoning. Mushrooms also have the tendency to absorb chemicals from soil, so some edible species of mushrooms grown in polluted areas are also a source of toxic metals. Cooking reduces the toxicity of edible mushrooms. Being a rich source of proteins, carbohydrates, essential minerals, and secondary metabolites, edible mushrooms are considered safe substitutes for meat, eggs, and milk.

While there are more than 100 types of edible or medical mushrooms, some of the more common ones are Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi), Coriolus versicolor (Turkey tail), Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane), Lentinus edodes (Shiitake), and Grifola frondosa (Maitake). Lion’s mane (Lm) is of special importance for its neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties and its role in increasing the expression of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF stimulates neurite length, triggers hippocampal neurogenesis, and improves cognitive performance. Research studies show that people who consume mushrooms as part of their diet appear to have a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

Dried extracts of mushrooms are now commercialized as dietary supplements for their properties, mainly for stimulating immune function and antitumor activity. Here are some guidelines regarding choosing a quality medical mushroom supplement:

Beta-D-Glucans: β-D-Glucans are one of the main components responsible for making a mushroom therapeutic or medicinal.

Color & Taste: A medicinal mushroom product should be rich in color, ranging from white to a very dark brown, and should have a vibrant, rich flavor.

Fruiting Body Only: The fruiting body, and not the mycelium, contains the highest level of beneficial compounds.

Organic: Mushrooms have the ability to absorb from their surrounding environment, and so if the substratum is not organic, it could result in the absorption of unwanted toxins and contaminants.

Extraction: Proper extraction makes the beneficial compounds in the mushroom bio-available. Extraction procedures include hot water (for beta-glucans), alcohol (for fat-soluble compounds, like triterpenes), or both. Dual extraction is recommended to enhance the availability of all the beneficial compounds.

In this country, the Shasta Trinity National Forest is well known as a productive and fun place to harvest mushrooms. Visitors come from around the globe to hunt for and harvest many varieties of wild mushrooms that are enjoyed by all ages and is a fun family experience. A Mushroom Festival (during The fall Matsutake season) begins there in late September. It runs through November, where one can purchase dried or fresh mushrooms, participate in a mushroom gathering workshop, or experience live music and wild mushrooms in various dishes prepared by vendors.

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