Next to supplements, nothing contains more nourishment value per gram of edible material than superfoods which WebMD defines as “multitasking food substances that provide multiple disease-fighting nutrients”. Although a quick internet search will reveal dozens of various foods that claim superfood status including eggs, yogurt, algae and various fruits and vegetables none can boast more nutritional value than the humble, crepuscular and manure-munching mushroom.
Mushrooms and their uncouth and downright toxic cousins called toadstools (“tod” is the German word for death) are neither plant or animal or bacteria and instead fall into a separate classification called fungi. They are botanically referred to as “fruiting bodies”, a plant structure that produces spores, which can be thought of as a type of seed specific to fungus and molds.
Mushrooms are members of one of the six great kingdoms of life, the Fungi (the others are the Plant, Animal, Archaeal, Protistal and the Bacterial), and like their fungal cousins, the molds and yeasts they contain have tremendous medicinal value. And, although many are inedible and some deadly, the nutritional relevance of edible mushrooms, appreciated by culinary types as a delicacy since ancient times, is off the charts.
The most important of their nutrient elements are a type of non-sweet sugar called polysaccharides which compose the bulk of the solid portion of the typical mushrooms. Polysaccharides can be thought of long chains of repeating and identical chemical chunks that from cage-type network that allows them to effectively trap water. This ability to hydrate itself in what is essentially a sponge-like fashion, accounts for the characteristic gel like texture of the typical mushroom. One of these polysaccharides, a substance called chitin, which gives the mushroom cell a certain solidity and structure, is regarded as one of the most common organic molecules in the natural world, second in abundance only to its chemical cousin cellulose which provides a similar structural support for the cells of plants.
The mushroom’s polysaccharides also are responsible for many of the important health benefits associated with mushrooms, most especially when it comes to fighting cancer. In fact there is no food that has ever been shown to have more anti-carcinogenic effects and their tumor fighting properties have been exploited by medical men throughout history. They’re a mainstay of ancient Chinese anti-cancer medicine and even today modern medicine has come to appreciate the significant t immune boosting properties of the simple fungi. In a 2012 article published in the journal Food and Function, mushrooms were described as having evident clinical (anti-tumor) results and having the ability to activate numerous human immune cancer destroying cells of the human immune system including white blood cells and natural killer cells. But polysaccharides do more than strengthen immunity and fight cancer. One in particular called beta glucan has been used for everything from improving liver health to lowering blood fats and fighting wrinkles. Its wonderfully sun protective and I’ve formulated many a sun protecting skin care product with it. It’s particularly effective in eye creams.
Mushrooms are also an important and rare source of vegan friendly Vitamin D. Typically only found in animal foods, Vitamin D has powerful immune strengthening properties of its own. And as it turns out Vitamin D from mushrooms, although not as long acting as Vitamin D3, animal version is absorbed as effectively. Keeping in mind the best Vitamin comes from the reaction between skin cholesterol and the sun, food based vitamin D from animal products or mushrooms can be an important secondary source. And vitamin D does more than boost the immune system and fight cancer. Adequate levels in the blood can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and immune disorders, the big 3 causes of degenerative disease and an early demise.
Mushrooms are also a source of other helpful nutrients including the B-vitamins, Vitamin C and helpful non nutrients like nerve cell growth factors for improving brain health and anti-microbials to fight viruses and bacteria’s. When you include the easy to absorb minerals like magnesium and potassium which are especially easy to absorb in their mushroom form and fibers, with blood sugar stabilizing and hormone balancing properties, it’s hard to imagine a more nutrient dense superfood than the simple little mushroom.
Four most common medicinal mushrooms:
- 1. Maitake Mushrooms – mineral rich mushroom, often found growing on the bottom of trees supports immune system health, used to treat cancer supports healthy blood sugar and provides cardiovascular health benefits.
- 2. Reishi Mushrooms – One of the oldest of the medicinal mushrooms, use recorded in Chinese medical texts as early as 200 BC and handbooks on Reishi were the first illustrated publications in the history of Chinese mushroom medicine. High concentration of medicinal elements including blood thinning compounds and plant steroids give Reishi a bitter taste that makes them difficult to eat but when sipped on as a pre-meal tea, the same bitter qualities can help improve secretion bile, enzymes and stomach acid for digestive health benefits.
- 3. Shitake Mushrooms – One of the tastiest of medicinal mushrooms considered to be the most popular gourmet mushroom in the world. Produces high amounts of Vitamin D3 when exposed to sunlight. Detoxification properties being studied for removal of heavy metals and hydrocarbon (oil spill) contamination from soil.
- 4. Cordyceps – The athletes mushroom, Cordyceps supplements used by Chinese Olympians for its respiratory and oxygenation support properties. Loaded with anti-oxidants and prized for its anti-aging and adaptogenic (biochemistry stabilizing) properties, may stimulate libido and improve male sexual performance. Contains sedative properties that can be leveraged as in a soothing, sleep promoting bedtime tea