How Fungi Contribute To Planetary and Human Health
“Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death.” -- Paul Stamets
Amazing facts about fungi:
- Mycologists have identified some 70,000 species of fungi.
- DNA analysis and genomic sequencing are helping us develop a greater appreciation for the power of fungi to break down and rebirth life forms, and to impact human health.
- Fungi evolved from other life forms sometime an estimated 1.5 billion years ago, shedding flagella and developing myriad ways to disperse spores--literally leading to life on land as we know it now.
- Trees communicate through a fungus called mycelium, sending nutrients to one another through an interwoven network of thin threads connecting tree root systems underground.
- The honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon measures 2.4 miles wide and is currently believed to be the largest living organism on planet earth today.
Fungi make enormous contributions to planetary and human health.
Historically overlooked as lower life forms, Fungi actually hold amazing potential to contribute to human health, support the environment, and unlock the planet's stored energy.
Fungi are defined as “any of a group of spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter, including molds, yeast, mushrooms, and toadstools.”
They are well-known for breaking down animal proteins as well as plant matter. While they may be associated with death and decay, they also provide the foundation for life to begin again.
Fungi have symbiotic biological associations with other organisms--some break down, some are neutral, and some are mutually beneficial. They can cause or cure disease. Fungi are used to make medicines such as antibiotics, cyclosporine, and more.
When you think about it, Fungi are much more like animals than plants. Fungi don't contain chlorophyll. They lack leaves and roots. They never develop flowers, fruits, or seeds.
Both plants and animals belong to a taxonomic supergroup called Opisthokonta. We used to group microscopic organisms as "plants" or "animals", but genomic sequencing has reorganized how scientists think about life.
Fungi with medicinal powers have been used for centuries
While basic fungi developed approximately 1.5 billion years ago, current evidence suggests mushrooms began to develop on Earth between 715 and 810 million years ago. Mushrooms have been revered for their healing and cleansing properties throughout history.
They have been foraged since prehistoric times and were first cultivated in China and Japan circa 600 C.E. Reishi mushrooms specifically were once reserved only for the Emperor’s family in China.
The hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” which have a red cap or stem contain psilocybin and psilocin. These compounds have been used during religious and spiritual ceremonies by Siberian shamans, vikings, and ancient Mexicans alike.
Many non-hallucinogenic mushrooms have medicinal traditions and are believed to hold healing powers, too. Some specific types of medicinal mushrooms include reishi, cordyceps, chaga, lion’s mane, and fu ling poria.
Additionally, the single-celled yeast fungi are also used in medicine. Certain yeasts and molds produce antibiotics for medical and veterinary use. Baker's yeast, for example, can be used to make penicillin (an antibiotic derived from the Penicillium fungi).
Our favorite mushrooms with medicinal traditions
Kasvi contains each of these five types of fungi:
Reishi the woodsy medicinal mushroom known as the “mushroom of immortality” supports longevity according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. It contains triterpenes and beta-glucans. As an adaptogen, Reishi combats negative impacts of stress to promote balance.
Cordyceps, another medicinal mushroom used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is believed to support kidneys, lungs, and immune strength. It contains the antioxidant Cordycepin.
Chaga, a dark brown rough fungus with a bright orange center, grows on trunks of birch trees in colder climates. It contains beta-glucans that stimulate lymphocytes to support immunity and help with energy and cognitive function. Chaga’s antioxidants surpass those of most other nutrition sources.
Lion's mane, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mushroom has nootropic characteristics that are believed to affect mental cognition, clarity, and memory. It reportedly increases the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
Fu Ling Poria is used in Traditional Chinese medicine as a diuretic. Compounds present in the Fu Ling Poria have antimicrobial effects in the body.
The bioavailability of healing properties -- cooking versus ingesting
Mushrooms contain many beneficial qualities, such as antioxidants, beta glucan, B vitamins (particularly riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid), vitamin C, and trace minerals (like copper, potassium, and selenium). Varieties grown outdoors or exposed to UV light indoors contain Vitamin D as well. Mushroom cell walls contain a compound named ergosterol, which when exposed to sunlight, transforms into vitamin D.
You may cook or ingest mushrooms raw and dried. It may be best to eat them a variety of ways for different benefits. Antioxidants like carotenoids and ferulic acid may become more bioavailable once cooked, since cooking alters enzymatic properties. Heat can also destroy toxins and carcinogens.
However, boiling and microwaving mushrooms can damage water-soluble nutrients like B vitamins and potassium and destroy some amount of vitamin C. To preserve nutrient value in cooked mushrooms, try a quick sautee or a long-simmering, low heat soup.
Ingesting dried mushrooms has healing and cleansing properties.Mushrooms such as Reishi are considered too tough to eat, but they are still used medicinally by cooking in water or drying and grounding into powder. Eating dried mushrooms can also help increase dietary protein, particularly for vegans and vegetarians.
An interesting alternative to the “either or” dried vs. cooked debate is to create a paste from dried mushrooms and boiling water and add it to foods, or to sprinkle dry mushroom powder on cooked mushrooms.
You’ll want to avoid all poisonous varieties of wild mushrooms, of course. Poisonous varieties are marked by rings around the stem or white gills below the cap.
Invite the mystery of fungi into your life
The more we learn, the more amazed we are. If you’d like to harness the mysterious powers of this biologically intelligent life form, check out your local farmers market and try curated dried culinary blends such as Kasvi.