Mushroom magic: embrace the fungus for good health
For their ability to fight disease and boost immunity, these blow way past your daily green smoothie
After turmeric, rose hip, activated charcoal and bentonite clay, medicinal mushrooms are the latest superfood to go viral, thanks to the world’s collective obsession with mushroom coffee. But mushrooms are hardly a new discovery; their unparalleled health benefits have been known for ages. “They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries,” says Dr Anjali Hooda, Delhi-based functional medicine practitioner. In fact, penicillin comes from mushrooms, and they’re now popular anti-cancer treatments too. “Mushrooms have lagged behind other herbs because many people just aren’t very familiar with fungi, and they have a natural fear of them,” says Dr Christopher Hobbs, internationally renowned herbalist and mycologist. We’re not talking about the usual button mushrooms, but certain fungi species that scavenge cell-damaging free radicals, boost immunity, and can be used effectively in parallel therapies to cope with cancer treatments. But in a world where we have the option to pick from several potent herbs, do we really need to turn to the fungi kingdom? That’s a resounding yes, say experts, and here’s why:
THEY’RE PACKED WITH NUTRIENTS
“In my experience, I’ve seen that most Indians are deficient in minerals,” says Shonali Sabherwal, Mumbai-based macrobiotic nutritionist and chef. “Selenium and vitamin E in mushrooms help enhance cellular function and reduce free-radical damage.” But these minerals still need a corresponding enzyme that allows the body to absorb it, and what do you know—mushrooms have that too! “They have glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that works in conjunction with selenium and vitamin E to prevent and heal acne.” Even better, they contain high amounts of vitamins B and D. “And insoluble fibre,” adds Sabherwal, “a bulking agent [that’s an excellent digestive aid].”
THEY’RE GREAT FOR IMMUNITY
Beta-glucans are natural sugars found in the cell walls of bacteria and fungi. They activate and modulate the immune system, and are often used to treat high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and HIV/AIDS. “Beta-glucans also work in cases of oestrogen dominance (levels can be elevated due to exposure to detergents, exhaust fumes, hair dye, etc.),” says Sabherwal. More importantly, their anti- carcinogenic properties activate certain cells and proteins, which in turn attack cancer-bestowing cells. “An extract of a mushroom’s fruiting body, such as lentinula edodes (shiitake) or trametes versicolor (turkey tail) might contain about 40 to 50 per cent beta-glucans,” writes Dr Hobbs in the Journal of The American Herbalists Guild (2015).
THEY’RE RICH IN PROTEIN
“I recommend a lot of shiitake mushrooms to replace carbs because they are so high in protein,” says Dr Hooda. “Shiitake contain up to 25 per cent protein,” agrees Sabherwal. A single cup of portobello mushrooms contains about 5.2gm of protein (according to Nutritiondata.self.com). And the best part is that they’re extremely low in calories (only 42).
THEY DELAY AGEING
A 2017 study conducted by Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Center For Plant And Mushroom Foods For Health at Penn State College, USA, found that mushrooms contain unusually high amounts of two antioxidants that help fight the harsh effects of ageing. Ergothioneine and glutathione are two of the most potent antioxidants that scavenge free radicals. Mushrooms also help bring down inflammation, which we know is the number one cause of premature ageing, as well as many chronic diseases.
For starters get familiar with the 5 most popular medicinal fungi:
It’s immensely popular with athletes who use it to improve endurance levels. Himalayan sherpas drink it like tea during high-altitude climbs, with low oxygen levels. “I recommend this to lung cancer patients because it reduces the harmful effects of chemo, and improves lung function,” says Dr Hooda. Dr Hobbs adds, “This species isn’t available in supplements, only as the original wild cordyceps,” and cautions that you must only pick the ones labelled, ‘cordyceps militaris’ and not ‘cordyceps sinensis’ that’s often grown on wild larvae and may contain toxins if not cleaned in the right manner.
This powerful adaptogen is an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine and helps reduce the negative effects of stress. “It protects the liver, benefits the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, calms the spirit, and promotes sound sleep,” says Dr Hobbs.
Rich in antioxidants, chaga’s earthy, nutty flavour makes it a good alternative to coffee. Preliminary studies suggest that it could improve skin conditions like acne and eczema. It is also high in different types of polyphenols that reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which are the main culprits behind cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and cancer.
Of all the mushrooms, Sabherwal considers shiitake as the highest in medicinal value. “My father had stage IV prostate cancer, and I would give him an extract of shiitake mushrooms and rice bran, and the doctors were amazed because all his [blood and tumour] markers were under control.” Her father kept walking right till the end (except in the last week), which is rare for prostate cancer patients. Shiitake are high in vitamins B and D, support cardiovascular health, fight cancer cells, reduce inflammation, and support the immune system. Sabherwal also prescribes shiitake tea to those who have low immunity.
Soak one or two mushrooms in a cup of water for 20 minutes. Then boil, and let it simmer for 10 minutes. “Remove the stem, chop up the mushroom and eat it with the tea,” recommends Sabherwal. Brew a cup every day during seasonal changes to improve your immunity.
A 2017 study published in the ISRN Oncology Journal shows that the turkey tail mushroom is one of the most effective varieties in helping the immune system fight cancer. When used as complementary medicine to chemo, they also speed up post-treatment recovery.
Dr Hobbs tells you how to get the most out of these potent fungi:
1.“You should always cook them well to break down the cell walls. Then blend the entire mushroom. Take one teaspoon at a time, once or twice a day.”
2. “Instead of an alcohol-based tincture, a mushroom medicine is best delivered through a water-based extract (by soaking and boiling it in water) or micro powder (by drying and creating a powder).”
3. “For prevention of cancer, prepare about 25gm of shredded or powdered crude mushroom fruiting body (that’s everything but the roots) as a decoction. Drink a cup of this twice a day for maximum effect, and less for prevention or maintenance. Two to three grams of a water-based extract every day should be enough for most people.”
4. “Some companies combine 10 to 14 species to make a comprehensive blend. But I prefer one or two species, so you can sense the effects.”