BY: Camila Loew
Like tea, mushrooms are a very ancient food, and have been traditionally used for thousands of years in East Asia for their medicinal properties. East Asian practitioners have known for a long time that medicinal mushrooms enhance and protect the body's innate defense mechanisms. In so doing, they are perhaps unlike anything we have in Western medicine, where all we have is things designed to identify agents of disease and limit or destroy them. That of course has its place, but we do almost nothing to support the good (i.e. preventive).
Again like with tea, although mushrooms are millenary, very recent scientific studies are bringing to light more and more health benefits from the active compounds found in fungi. Finally, modern science is catching up to what traditional healers have known for a very long time.
Mushrooms, the fruit of mycelium, are known to help with stress, digestion and the microbiome, the immune and endocrine systems, and the brain, among other functions. Similar to some herbs you may have heard of (such as ashwaganda, tulsi, or maca), mushrooms function as adaptogens: they help our bodies become resilient and adapt to the stressful conditions around us, whether these stressors are physical, chemical, or biological. As adaptogens, they meet you where you are, and help boost you in the right direction: if you are excited and frantic, they help ground you; if you are sluggish and tired, they help balance your energy.
In his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind author and journalist Michael Pollan describes the renaissance of interest in magic mushrooms, after a four decades long dormant phase after the counter-culture interest in magic mushrooms in the 1960s. Pollan points out a fascinating reunion of what have traditionally been considered incompatible opposites: science and spirituality. This unexpected unification between fact-based tangibles and mystical out-of-mind experiences is just one of the areas in which the research on mushrooms is contemporary, intriguing and promising.
Neither vegetables nor animals but somewhere in between, the fungus is its own kingdom altogether. There are over 1.5 million species. About twenty thousand of them produce mushrooms, which come in incredible diversity of shapes, colors, lifestyles. There is still much we don't know yet about mushrooms, they are a true frontier of knowledge. Yet what we do know is that they have an incredible capacity to make things change very quickly, and as such, have the potential to help us change our health (and the health of the planet) in many very beneficial ways.