Since before recorded history, medicinal mushrooms have been used for food, medicine, and rituals. Western medicine took notice when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928—and since then extensive research has increased our understanding of their many beneficial properties, particularly for general immune health support, blood sugar regulation, and heart health. To find out more, we talked to Jerry Angelini, Education Director for Host Defense, creators of certified organic mycomedicinal supplements.
NF: Most people know mushrooms as either edible, poisonous, or psychedelic. Tell us about mushrooms as medicine.
JA: Beneficial mushrooms give more than nutritional support. Every mushroom provides you with polyunsaturated fats, polysaccharides (beta-glucans, heteroglycans, or alpha-glucans), protein, high levels of zinc, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, and E. They also come with multiple compounds that help all the systems in our bodies—especially the immune system.
NF: What are polysaccharides and glucans?
JA: Polysaccharides are a type of carbohydrate that, when broken down, activate the immune cells in our intestinal tract. They are tricksters because they mimic a pathogen to make our bodies believe they are under attack when they aren’t.
Glucans are complex polysaccharides that mimic bacteria. Like a key that fits into the lock of a receptor in the immune cell membrane, they fit in and turn on that immune system—like computer passcodes. With a similar structure to a pathogen cell wall membrane, these are the codes to get to the pathogens.
NF: Are all mushrooms beneficial?
JA: It looks that way, if their compounds are properly extracted. It’s a matter of testing and validating the beneficial compounds in their fruitbodies and root structures. There are about 1,000,000 fungal species on the planet, and science is only familiar with about 10,000.
Compounds in different types of mushrooms augment the immune system, provide building blocks at a cellular level, support digestion, neutralize free radicals, and help us deal with stress and environmental assaults.
There’s interesting demographic research in a province of Japan which has a significantly lower incidence of all types of cancer. The only difference in people’s habits, compared to other regions, was the daily intake of enokitake mushrooms.
NF: What’s the biggest myth about mushrooms?
JA: That they’ll cause candida or make it worse. In fact, we know for sure that cooked mushrooms can be a strong and effective prebiotic food for our probiotic microflora.
NF: Are mushrooms adaptogens?
JA: It depends on the mushroom. Certain types are more strongly adaptogenic, and seem to build energy in the system. Crimini, white button, portobello, shitake, maitake, and lion’s mane don’t seem to energize the system, but reishi, chaga, and cordyceps are very nicely adaptogenic and helpful.
NF: What kinds of mushrooms do you work with at Host Defense?
JA: We work with 17 different mushrooms, which strongly support the immune system, increase five specific immune cells in the body, and provide important modulation of those cells. The immune system is very complex; we want the entire system to play in harmony.
NF: Are medicinal mushrooms only beneficial when we are sick?
JA: We live in an ecosystem that’s in, and on, our bodies; trillions of microbes cohabitate with us—some probiotics, some pathogens. Our immune system’s function is to maintain our health and wellness, given that our bodies continually create mutations in our cells. (There’s research that suggests that our bodies produce 100 to 500 tumour cells a day.) We go along in our world, not paying attention to our immune system, until it’s out of balance.
We are seeing increases in immune-related issues, cancer rates, and antibiotic and bacterial resistance, worldwide. We have serious concerns about our soil and the quality of our nutrition. So we need to have strong, solid, balanced immune responses. Mushrooms are amazing for that, and I recommend them for anyone.
“With the rising popularity of mushrooms,” says Jerry, “many people are heading out into the woods to harvest them, and causing great damage to delicate ecosystems”.
“It’s critical that people understand the damage they can do. Chaga mushrooms, in particular, are being overharvested by people who don’t understand the structure and sensitivity of fungi”.
“Fungi break down plant material, and that decomposition cycle gives life to other populations. We now only have 10% of the wood debris in forests that we did 100 years ago—and as we lose biodiversity (30,000 species a year), the networks beneath our feet are being dismantled”.
“Host Defense practices sustainable cultivation, to protect wild species and their environments, and a portion of our proceeds goes to research to save rare strains of mushrooms that dwell within old growth forests.
“Our mushrooms are grown in the pristine Olympic Rainforest in Washington State (on organic brown rice and wood), and only harvested at their peak efficacy. Just a small sample is taken, to protect the habitat—we always leave the original mushroom intact and undisturbed.”
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.