medicinal mushrooms

Seeking balance with medicinal mushrooms

How the healing powers of an ancient remedy are making a comeback in the modern era

It was only a matter of time before medicinal mushrooms started to hit the headlines. In addition to being a rich source of vitamins and minerals, mushrooms offer an entourage of health benefits, most widely known for their anti-inflammatory and immune regulating properties – and goodness knows we’ve realised the importance of a healthy immune system during this little chapter of human existence! As such, over the past few years, it’s likely that mushrooms have popped into your awareness in some form.

So, what are mushrooms exactly? The first kingdom to exist on earth: technically speaking, they sit somewhere between the kingdoms of animals and plants; with both plants and animals relying heavily on the world of fungi for life support. Most of the time their work is invisible to the naked eye. Intricate structures of mycelium (essentially a mushroom’s root system) creating an intricate web-like structure just below the surface of the earth. This system is largely responsible for complex nutrient exchange between the soil, trees, wild animals and insects. You might say they provide balance to the natural world all around us.

As humans we’ve been using mushrooms for food and medicine for millennia. Sadly, industrially advanced countries temporarily lost their valuable connection to the power of fungi. For instance, for centuries mushrooms were an integral part of an English apothecary’s toolkit. However, fast forward to the 19th Century and these natural medicines were slowly replaced by the likes of opiates and antibiotics. However, with more and more people in the West beginning to understand our inherent connection to nature, that wisdom is slowly starting to return. Perhaps mushrooms can help us reconsider the intricate balance both within us and within our precious world, restoring a delicate inner equilibrium that so many of us seek.

Immune regulation

All medicinal mushrooms contribute to regulation of the immune system. Referred to as ‘immunomodulating properties’: in other words, they don’t simply strengthen, but re-educate the immune system, calming it down or revving it up depending on what the body needs at the time. They are able to do this due to the molecular structure of fungi beta-glucans, which are inherently recognised by receptors in the immune system.

This capacity to balance rather than boost or suppress is particularly important in the case of cancer and auto-immune diseases, both of which are on the rise. As, coincidentally, is conversation around one of the most studied medicinal mushrooms of all: Turkey Tail, otherwise known as Trametes versicolor. The ability of this mushroom to bolster the immune system and help it fight many different types of cancers has been supported by a significant number of clinical trials across decades of research. A key talent of a Turkey Tail extract, ideally in tincture form, is that it can be used alongside conventional chemo and radiotherapy. Like many other mushrooms, Turkey Tail contains prebiotic compounds essential for a healthy gut biome, that help to strengthen overall digestive health.

If the immune system has been overwhelmed and starts to overreact, as is the case with so many auto-immune conditions, a mushroom called Reishi is an excellent candidate to help. Its well-researched immuno-modulatory activity means it’s increasingly used to help with allergies and conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Reishi also possesses powerful adaptogenic qualities by nourishing the central nervous system and endocrine system — helping us to both build resilience, and to relax as and when required.

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Hormonal balance

While there are now a number of medications available to help manage symptoms of hormonal imbalance and transitions such as menopause, there is no such thing as a magic bullet for flare ups. An increasing number of women report experiencing overbearing side effects from hormonal therapies, from weight gain and fatigue to restless sleep and psychological distress.

In the East, Reishi is celebrated for its ability to assist with restful sleep, improve energy levels, and regulate oestrogen — however, it's not the only mushroom with the ability to assist hormonal balance. In a small study of post-menopausal women, those who took a daily supplement of Maitake mushroom for eight weeks reported a significant reduction in hot flashes and night sweats. Maitake also helps restore hormonal balance by regulating progesterone and improving insulin sensitivity, which is a key symptom for women suffering from conditions such as PCOS.

Hormonal balance

There is an increasing amount of interest and billions of dollars currently being poured into human trials researching how one particular type of mushroom could help provide relief to people suffering with PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders. Doctors, activists and investors alike are convinced that the ‘next big thing’ lies in a psychoactive compound called psilocybin, which metabolises into psilocin before crossing the blood-brain barrier.

This ability to cross the blood-brain barrier isn’t unique to ‘magic mushrooms’ though. A mushroom called Lions Mane is currently experiencing it’s heyday in the western hemisphere thanks to two unique compounds called hericenones and erinacines, that have the capacity to cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis, which is essential for the survival of neural cells in the brain. While Lions Mane is already prescribed to patients with early onset dementia in Japan, anecdotal evidence suggests its ability to improve focus and alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders could be a useful ally for the growing number of people diagnosed with ADHD every year.

With more and more rigorous clinical trials confirming the therapeutic qualities of mushrooms, it’s only natural that many more companies are emerging in the ever-growing medicinal mushroom space. Bristol Fungarium is the only one of these companies in the UK to not only forage, clone and organically grow medicinal mushrooms at its farm in Somerset —it uses a comprehensive extraction method to produce the most effective mushroom products tried to date.

Medicinal mushrooms contain many incredible compounds for human health that simply do not exist anywhere else, bridging some of the gaps between ancient knowledge and modern medicine. If you’re seeking a more balanced existence, incorporating medicinal mushrooms into your regime may help you do just that.

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Om Magazine

First published in November 2009, OM Yoga magazine has become the most popular yoga title in the UK. Available from all major supermarkets, independents and newsstands across the UK. Also available on all digital platforms.