The Illustrious History and Future Potential of Medicinal Mushrooms

By Sandra Nomoto

2020 wasn’t just a year of self-reflection; it groomed the way for both the cannabis and psychedelics industries to rise, despite few changes made on the governmental level globally. While not everyone may have jumped on the bandwagon for either, mental health and wellness took centre stage, and opened the door to awareness of the natural healing options offered by the plant and fungi world, including medicinal mushrooms.

History of Medicinal Mushroom Use

Humans have used mushrooms for thousands of years, from the Egyptians and Aztec peoples to Ötzi, the Ice Man who used amadou mushrooms (Fomes fomentarius) and Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) to survive in the Italian Alps between 3400 to 3100 BCE. Indigenous Americans used puffball mushrooms (Calvatia) to heal wounds. (“Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies Meet Modern Science”, Paul Stamets and Heather Zwickey, 2014).

Traditional Chinese practitioners valued reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi) and Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) among the 100,000 species that exist today, and used them as both a tonic and in powder form. Buddhist monks spread information about the healing benefits of fungi.

In ancient Greece, physician Hippocrates documented amadou as potentially anti-inflammatory and a wound cauterizer, and Socrates, Plato and other elite Greeks drank Kykeon, a hallucinogenic beverage made of ergot-barley and mint, during the Eleusis festival. The Vikings were believed to have consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms before battle.

Mushrooms are widely known to be a reliable source of protein, vitamin D, B vitamins, and selenium. Recent research has focused on manufacturing mushrooms into antibiotics and potential applications as antivirals and antidepressants. Three of the most valuable medical discoveries from mushrooms include penicillin, derived from Penicillium notatum, cyclosporin, derived from Trichoderms polysporum and Cylindrocarpon lucidum, and krestin, derived from extracted from Turkey tail (Tramates versicolor).

Photo: Timothy Dykes
Photo: Timothy Dykes

The Future of Medicinal Mushrooms: Viruses, Cancer, and Mental Health

The declaration of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 and the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 accelerated research into the antiviral properties of medicinal mushrooms. In 1989, Tochikura, Nakashima and Yamamoto from the University of Yamaguchi found that lentinan sulphate, shiitake mycelium extract, and Turkey tail were effective agents against four strains of HIV-1 and one strain of HIV-2. While AZT (zidovudine, azidothymidine), commonly known as Retrovir, is still a widely used antiretroviral drug for HIV/AIDS and studies continue, there are currently no anti-HIV drugs derived from medicinal mushrooms. (mykosan.com)

In the mid-90s, 144 scientific studies of beta glucan molecules in reishi, cordyceps, agaricus, maitake (Grifola frondosa), phellinus, trametes, hericium and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) demonstrated effectiveness as anti-cancer agents.

In other areas of the world, the South American species Agaricus subrufescens, called the “mushroom of life,” is an immunomodulator and combats tumours, while Phellinus linteus in Korea is used to inhibit tumour growth and reduce the frequency of metastases. Krestin is used as an anti-cancer drug in Japan, which accounts for 80% of the global production of shiitake. Shiitake contains many nutrients and is the primary extract in Lentinan, a widely prescribed anticancer drug (spiritofchange.org).

A 2010 study determined that a high dose of Oyster mushroom laccase was shown to inhibit Hepatitis C entry into cells and inhibit viral reproduction rates.

In 2021, mental wellness will continue to be one of the most prevalent health concerns among all ages, and we’ll likely see an increase in products available to aid mental health, including medicinal mushrooms. In December 2020, Canada’s Canbud Distribution announced that it would formulate medicinal products to support the immune system using functional mushrooms. A recent research report estimated the global brain health supplements market to reach $10.7 billion USD by 2025.

There is evidence that mushrooms contain compounds which contribute to nerve growth factor synthesis (which is known to directly affect cognitive function) in vitro. Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) has been studied and named as a potential complementary and alternative medicine for treating depression. In other studies, Sarcodon scabrosus, Ganoderma lucidum, maitake, and especially Lion’s mane were reported to have activities related to nerve and brain health. Tiger milk mushroom (Lignosus rhinocerotis) has nutraceutical potential to reduce or prevent age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

Recent acclaimed films and books such as Fantastic Fungi and Entangled Life have opened our eyes to the healing potential of mushrooms. The global functional mushroom market was said to be worth $23 billion USD in 2020. Perhaps the concerns around mental health propelled by COVID-19 will lead more people to explore medicinal mushrooms as allies in their wellness.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise readers to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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