Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Mushrooms and their associated mycelial networks are nature's grand organic disassemblers, breaking down matter and providing the vital nutrients that allow plants to thrive. There are over 5 million species of fungi. They outnumber plant species 10:1, with many living in hostile environments, encountering disease-causing pathogens far more frequently than other life forms. Interestingly, their genetic makeup is remarkably similar to our own and at a molecular level, their cells are identical to ours.
Humans have used mushrooms for thousands of years. The oldest human mummy, dating back 4,000 years, was found with Piptoporus betulinus in his medicine kit, a mushroom used for its antibiotic properties and as a natural parasite killer, it is still in use today. Egyptian hieroglyphics show mushrooms as the plant of immortality, called the “sons of the gods” sent to Earth on lightning bolts and eaten only by nobles and pharaohs. The Aztecs also had sacred mushrooms called “the flesh of the gods” which they consumed in holy rituals. Only in the past few decades have scientists began to take fungi more seriously by researching and understanding how different species can be used to treat a range of health issues.
Let’s start by taking a look at the Trametes Versicolor, more commonly known as the Turkey Tail mushroom. There have been a range of studies, especially into its immune-boosting activity when prescribed for cancer patients. A clinical study by the New York Academy of Medicine found that a 6g dose of Turkey Tail “dependently enhanced killer cell activity in breast cancer patients in the post immune therapy setting". One truly remarkable story comes from an 84-year-old woman who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and was given 3 months to live. After taking 9g of Turkey tail daily for the past 3 years, she now leads a healthy, cancer-free life.
Depression affects millions of people globally, most commonly antidepressants are prescribed and have been proven to work, the downside is that they are often associated with negative side effects. A recent, albeit small, study was conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. Researchers gave two doses of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to 12 volunteers, all of whom had moderate to severe depression and had not responded to other treatments. They found the 12 volunteers tolerated the drug with minor side effects that did not last long. Eight of them had no symptoms of depression one week after treatment, and five were free from depression after three months. There are many similar success stories from a range of different studies. The major issue with psilocybin is the fact that it is a controlled drug in many countries so it is difficult to access for research purposes. I believe that more research needs to be done to understand in greater detail about how these mushrooms can potentially be used to treat mental illnesses.
A range of other mushroom species have all been shown to be useful at treating different diseases and ailments. Shittake mushrooms have also been shown to have anti-cancer properties, Lion’s Mane mushrooms have been shown to reduce the traumatic effects of Alzheimer’s disease and the Armadou mushroom has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. If this has been an interesting read for you, I strongly advise you to check out ‘Paul Stamets’ TED talks on fungi. He is one of the worlds leading mycologists and goes into even greater detail into how mushrooms can solve some of the world's greatest issues.