Medicinal mushrooms
No need to search the woods ... just go to the produce aisle

Medicinal mushrooms
Marija Helt - 03/19/2020

With celebrity doctors on the medicinal mushroom bandwagon, many folks have become curious about those functional fungi beyond the ubiquitous buttons, crimini and portabellas. (All three are the same species, by the way.) Not everyone has the expertise to go out to the woods and forage for more interesting mushrooms. So, what’s a newly budding fungiphile to do?

A way to more or less guarantee that the mushrooms you’re gathering aren’t going to earn you a dirt nap, or at least a long sojourn on the toilet, is to forage at your local market. The United States is not the most mushroom-friendly place in the world, but we’ve come a long way in our grocery store offerings. Also, those buttons, crimini and portabellas are more interesting than you may think; but that’s a topic for another time.

Edible mushrooms are loaded with nutrients. Dried mushrooms are 10-40 percent bioavailable protein and contain all nine essential amino acids. Mushrooms also provide multiple B vitamins. Some contain significant levels of vitamin B12, such as those tasties: chanterelles and black trumpet mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, even more so if you expose them to sunlight (similar to our need for sunlight to synthesize this vitamin). Add on the potassium, selenium, zinc and copper found in mushrooms, and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid meal.

Medicinally speaking, all edible mushrooms support healthy immune system function. Many benefit the cardiovascular system, liver and kidneys. Edible mushrooms also have anti-microbial effects against bacteria, viruses and other fungi. (Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are fine on a “candida diet” and may be helpful if candida overgrowth is actually the problem.)

(With respect to immunity and anti-viral effects, obviously a hot topic currently, the current pandemic presents an unusual immunological picture in which the life-threatening manifestation of the disease is from immune system over-reactivity that causes severe inflammation. So it’s unclear – to me, at least – how these mushrooms effect the immune system apply when taken in “medicinal” doses. Many mushrooms may either stimulate or suppress inflammatory responses, depending on the circumstances. So if you’re asking whether the mushrooms here may be useful in the current pandemic, my answer is “I don’t know.”)

Here are just a few of the tasty, health-promoting mushrooms you may find at our local markets…

Lion’s Mane – The scientific name of this lovely white mushroom is Hericium erinaceus, meaning, redundantly enough, “hedgehog hedgehog.” The mushroom does, indeed, look like an albino hedgehog. Or in some cases, like a lion’s mane or maybe a bunch of icicles stuck together. The flavor of this mushroom has been compared to lobster, crab and mild seafood. Even if you’re not interested in the medicinal qualities, it’s a delicacy.

Of the multiple ways lion’s mane may benefit our health, brain health is one of the most active areas of research. Small, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have revealed improvement in mild cognitive impairment, depression and anxiety. Preclinical studies are uncovering the interesting ways in which lion’s mane interacts with our nervous system. For example, lion’s mane components can stimulate nerve regeneration in experimental conditions; though whether this happens in people remains to be seen. Still, these are some promising results.

Oyster Mushroom – Unlike lion’s mane, oyster mushrooms grow in Colorado. Truth be told, I’ve only found them a handful of times here in the San Juans, but I have friends here who’ve had better luck. Not to worry, though: oyster mushrooms are commonly found at the grocery store, where you might find sake oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, and maybe even king oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus eryngii, aka “king trumpet”). Wild oyster mushrooms are much more aromatic, but the tamed ones are tasty enough. In the French countryside, oyster mushrooms are esteemed and folks will water their local “oyster logs” to encourage growth.

Herbalists who work with mushrooms often use oyster mushrooms for lung support. Such traditional usage is being backed up by research. For example, clinical trials have shown reduced incidence of respiratory tract infections in children and adults given an oyster mushroom syrup. Oyster mushrooms have many other uses that date back centuries, some of which are also under investigation by the geeks in white coats. (I can say that since I used to be one of them.)

Maitake – Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japan. It’s also known as “hen of the woods.” You won’t find maitake roaming wild in the San Juans, but it shows up in grocery stores here from time to time. The scientific name is Grifola frondosa (“frondosa” means “leafy.”) I’ve seen three different meanings ascribed to “grifola” but won’t dive into that.

This delicious and strong-flavored mushroom has a wide range of traditional uses. One of the better-known uses in the world of herbalism is for promoting healthy blood sugar and insulin regulation. Preclinical studies point to a multitude of ways maitake may do this. A related finding suggests maitake may help in cases of infertility associated with insulin resistance, specifically, in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). A commercial maitake extract may have improved ovulation rates in women with PCOS, even those who failed the standard treatment with clomiphene citrate (Clomid). I say “may have” because the study had some flaws. But the results are, nevertheless, encouraging.

A note on cooking mushrooms: If you say “yuck” to eating mushrooms, you may not have experienced dry sauteed mushrooms. Dry sauteeing is a way of removing the water from mushrooms during cooking, without them becoming rubbery. Cut your mushrooms into slices about ¼-inch thick and place a single layer in a pre-heated pan on medium. Sprinkle with a little salt. As they shrink, flip them once. As they start to brown, push them to the side of the pan and repeat the process to cook all the mushrooms. Once they’ve all been dry sauteed, add your favorite fat (butter, ghee, olive oil …), some pepper and whatever else floats your boat.

Note that mushrooms in the diet are generally fine for folks on prescription medications, but check with your doctor or pharmacist before combining concentrated mushroom teas or other types of extract with medications.

Anna Marija Helt, PhD, is a local herbalist and microbiologist. The information here is not intended to treat or cure any disease, or to supplant the advice of a licensed health-care provider.

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