Mushrooms are truly magical. We have always used mushrooms as food and medicine. In fact, many mushrooms have long been used throughout Asia for medicinal purposes. There are at least 270 species of mushroom that are known to have various therapeutic properties. The practice of using mushrooms in Chinese herbal medicines has been recorded in early records of the Materia Medica.
Although mushrooms are still harvested in their natural habitats, our ability to cultivate many different mushroom species has improved greatly over the past few decades. As a result, large numbers of scientific studies on medicinal mushrooms over the past three decades, especially in Japan, China and Korea, have confirmed the traditional uses and also demonstrated new applications for health benefits.
Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms
While much attention in recent years has focused on various immunological and anti-cancer properties of certain mushrooms, they also offer other potentially important health benefits, including antioxidants, anti-hypertensive and cholesterol-lowering properties, liver protection, as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. These properties have attracted the interest of many pharmaceutical companies, which are viewing the medicinal mushroom as a rich source of innovative biomedical molecules.
By Dr. Isaac Eliaz, M.D., M.S., L.Ac.
Importance of Fungi
Humans have been indirectly aware of fungi since the first loaf of leavened bread was baked and the first tub of grape must was turned into wine. Ancient peoples were familiar with the ravages of fungi in agriculture but attributed these diseases to the wrath of the gods. The Romans designated a particular deity, Robigus, as the god of rust and, in an effort to appease him, organized an annual festival, the Robigalia, in his honour.
Fungi are everywhere in very large numbers—in the soil and the air, in lakes, rivers, and seas, on and within plants and animals, in food and clothing, and in the human body. Together with bacteria, fungi are responsible for breaking down organic matter and releasing carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil and the atmosphere. Fungi are essential to many household and industrial processes, notably the making of bread, wine, beer, and certain cheeses. Fungi are also used as food; for example, some mushrooms, morels, and truffles are epicurean delicacies, and mycoproteins (fungal proteins), derived from the mycelia of certain species of fungi, are used to make foods that are high in protein.
Studies of fungi have greatly contributed to the accumulation of fundamental knowledge in biology. For example, studies of ordinary baker’s or brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) led to discoveries of basic cellular biochemistry and metabolism. Some of these pioneering discoveries were made at the end of the 19th century and continued during the first half of the 20th century. From 1920 through the 1940s, geneticists and biochemists who studied mutants of the red bread mold, Neurospora, established the one-gene–one-enzyme theory, thus contributing to the foundation of modern genetics. Fungi continue to be useful for studying cell and molecular biology, genetic engineering, and other basic disciplines of biology.