Into the Woods: Our Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms
“I see the mycelium as the Earth’s natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate.”― Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World
Walking through the woods, we come across rainbows of mushrooms of all sizes and formations. The sheer variety of mushrooms seen by the casual hiker hints at some of the extraordinary properties of fungi.
Dig a little deeper and you will find networks of fine white filaments called mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus—the part of the plant we know of as “the mushroom” is the fruiting body. According to mushroom-guru Paul Stamets, mycelium is “the neurological network of nature… These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.” Beyond supernatural powers, glorious sights, and delicious flavors of fungi (when edible), mushrooms have been used for centuries across the globe for their antibacterial, anti-cancer and even anti-fungal powers.
These days, you can simply walk down the grocery isles and find baskets of gourmet mushrooms alongside wild, orange chanterelles, all boasting nutritional and medicinal qualities. Turn down the wellness aisle and these incredible fungi are in capsule form, packaged for immune defense, brain and memory health, liver support, and found in cancer-fighting blends. Leaving the store, you’ll find mushrooms have made their way into healthy beverages such as Chaga Mushroom Tea and Rebbl’s Reishi Chocolate, both known as “super herb elixirs.”
Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practitioners, alongside progressive companies, have made these incredible medicinal mushrooms available and alluring to the public, masking the mushroom flavor with chocolate, coffee and a little bit of something sweet.
But what exactly is so amazing about these fungi and how do we know which ones will support our health? Discover our three of our favorite medicinal mushrooms and their healing powers:
This incredible mushroom is an adaptogen that has been used in China, Japan and other Asian countries for centuries to promote health and longevity. Likened to a thermostat for wellness in the body, adaptogens help our bodies to adapt; they restore balance. Regardless of whether you are too hot or too cold, too up or too down, too dry or too oily, these adaptogens will help to bring you back to your ideal, stable state of being.
Reishi also boasts specific medicinal powers that benefit insomnia, anxiety, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, and hepatitis. Beyond treating specific ailments, the Chinese have long believed in the “spiritual potency” of Reishi, believing that the mushroom is intimately connected with our divine essence. Chinese medicine has developed a respect for the powers of mushrooms akin to Paul Stamet’s depth of scientific and, possibly, spiritual understanding of mycelium and fungi.
Cordyceps (aka Caterpillar Fungus)
When you are sipping Cordyceps masked by chocolate in a hip, modern beverage, you may be disconnected from the wild and surreal origin of this medicinal ascomycete fungi. Grown on the backs of caterpillars (it’s true!), this parasitic fungus has long been a rare (and expensive) medicinal delicacy in Asia also known as the “Viagra of the Himalayas.” An aphrodisiac for some, Cordyceps also promotes longevity by fighting cancer, boosting energy, supporting reproductive health, curing common illnesses (colds, coughs, the flu, respiratory infections), and supporting the health of the renal system.
At one time, this precious herb could only be found 12,000 feet above sea level in certain parts of the world where the ghost moth caterpillar thrives. These days, the Cordyceps we see are farmed using grains as hosts rather than caterpillars, making them available at much lower prices that those found in the wild, which sell for $50,000 a pound.
A couple of years ago, I was hiking and mushroom hunting in a mixed forest of mostly redwoods and oaks, with occasional bays and Douglass firs. Up in an old dead tree was a glorious off-white fungus that appeared to have hairlike spines coming down from a rectangular body, almost like a wig. Turning to my trusty mushroom guide, I discovered that I had come across the edible Lion’s Mane mushroom. Sautéed with butter, salt and pepper, my mushroom dinner was delicious… and also incredibly medicinal!
Prized as a brain and memory miracle herb, Lion’s Mane mushroom has been shown to improve cognitive function in people experiencing memory loss. Benefiting people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, this incredible fungus enhances nerve growth and regeneration in the brain and the rest of the body. In a study of mice with Alzheimer’s, Lion’s Mane “prevents the impairment of spatial short-term and visual recognition memory.”
Beyond these incredible brain-boosting properties, Lion’s Mane appears to be a miracle mushroom, treating anxiety and depression, preventing cancer, reducing inflammation, supporting the heart, battling fatigue and promoting longevity.
So next time you are hiking in the woods in North America, Europe and Asia, pay attention to dead or dying hardwood. You may look up and see this mushroom beauty looking down at you, ready to save your life.
Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash
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