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Mushrooms and brain health

BY: Camila Loew

Indigenous people used mushrooms for their mind-bending qualities for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the mid 1950s that we started hearing about them in the West, when amateur mycologist Gordon sampled mushrooms in Mexico and published a long article on his experience in Life magazine. Although we didn't quite know it then, according to Michael Pollan, Gordon's article represents a revolutionary feat in our culture, which coincides with scientific discoveries on the functions of neurotransmitters in the brain.

It wasn't until four full decades later that a new generation of scientists decided to go back to explore the powers of magic mushrooms, in order to research their potential to heal mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. By this time, they were also able to rely on new methods of monitoring the brain, hoping to unravel some of the many mysteries of its functioning. This resurgence in the interest of the potential of mushrooms on the brain is currently in full flux, and many contemporary researchers believe that mushrooms are the future of medicine.

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The most recent studies are honing in on the effects mushrooms on the nervous system -particularly the component psilocybin, the hallucinatory chemical present in magic or psychedelic shrooms, which Pollan so fascinatingly studied first-hand in his recent book How to Change Your Own Mind.

As the science progresses, researchers are looking into ways to use medicinal (or "magic") mushrooms to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental illnesses. Paul Stamets, one of the world's leading mycologists, has publicly told his personal story of how he overcame his lifelong stutter after an experience with magic mushrooms.

What the findings are showing is that the active compounds in mushrooms destabilize and reconfigure the brain's networks or neurotransmitters. What is now being examined closely is how we can therapeutically use that destabilization process to the benefit of many mental conditions.

Lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) is one of the foremost culinary mushrooms beneficial to the brain, particularly in terms of memory, cognition, and clarity. A Japanese researcher discovered in 1993 that this mushroom stimulates nerves to regrow, and could thus be a possible use in the treatment of Alzheimer's, which we have nothing for. A study conducted by the University of Southern Florida on mice treated with psilocybin (the compound in magic mushrooms) made them overcome the fear condition response. After being treated with psilocybin, they were not using the same neurological pathways as they had been pre-mushroom: this shows that the brain has a plasticity to heal and grow, it just needs the right compounds to help it develop the right neurological pathways. Mushrooms might just have that compound.

Once you have seen the fresh lion's mane mushroom, you immediately understand the name. Its flavor is amazing grilled, its texture almost like a very juicy piece of chicken or fish. You can of course go the culinary route, and cook up your mushrooms to enjoy their rich umami flavour. However, if you are searching for convenience and concentration to reap the highest possible benefits from mushrooms, you may prefer to consume them in one of their extracted forms, such as powder or as tinctures, which can be added to beverages, such as your morning coffee. Some varieties of mushrooms, in fact, are not tender enough to be cooked, and need to be extracted for human consumption. By adding mushroom extracts to your coffee or tea, not only do you get great taste, you can also drink your way to better health through your daily rituals.

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