Mushrooms hold a special place in human history. As much as green plants, mushrooms (the fruiting bodies of fungus) have been an important resource for humans, used for many thousands of years for food, materials and for their bioactive qualities. When the almost perfectly preserved body of an ancient hunter, who died approximately 5,300 years ago, was discovered in the Alps in 1991, his pack was found to include pieces of dried Formes fomentarius for fire-starting tinder and a piece of a Piptuporus betulinus mushroom, which is commonly believed to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits.
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The use of mushrooms for their healthy properties has been found all over the world and in virtually every culture. An entire field of anthropology called ethnomycology even exists to study how mushrooms are used, including for traditional healing. Writings from centuries ago also show that mushrooms were prescribed for ailments in ancient Greece, 2,000 years ago, and continue to play an important part in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurveda medicine. The mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (called ling zhi, “spirit plant” in China and mannentake, “10,000 year mushroom” in Japan) has a documented use even more ancient than the Greeks.
There are so many different genera and species of mushrooms that it is difficult to make general statements about their bioactivity and use in traditional healing. Some, such as Cordyceps sinensis, found in southern China and Tibet, have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to improve blood circulation, energy and sexual vitality. Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceum) has long been used in East Asia to aid the digestive tract, while the maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) has been used to improve the immune system. Dozens of other species have been – and still are – used in both Chinese and Indian traditional medical systems, as well as surviving as folk supplements in other societies. Traditionally, various species of mushroom have been eaten as part of the regular diet, both for their flavor and as a special boost to health, or dried and used in pill or potion form for their health benefits.
Modern chemical analysis of the various species of mushrooms shows that many of them contain a wide variety of bioactive materials, vitamins and minerals. Mushrooms can also synthesize chemicals that have benefits for the human body. Species that grow in the sunlight, for example, are rich in vitamins D1, D2 and D4, which cannot be obtained from animal sources. Others contain phenols, statins, amino acids, antioxidants and other compounds which can be beneficial to human health. Medicals researchers are intensely investigating the constituents of mushrooms, discovering materials that can lead to synthesized medicines. There is even a research journal dedicated to the subject.
Mushrooms continue to be used as popular dietary supplements today. Most mushroom supplements are provided in dried and purified form in pills or capsules. Some supplements contain the dried form of one specific species, while others provide a range of species and sometimes include other botanical extracts.
Consult a physician before beginning to use mushroom supplements. The active compounds in a supplement may have interactions with other medications or affect an existing condition.
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