Today's blog is about the adventures of a Nutritional Therapist. In our quest to bring you the most up to date advice and products that nature has to offer, our latest training was on Mycology. Mycology is the study of mushrooms that have been used therapeutically for centuries for medicinal purposes. As a science, Mycology is now bringing ancient wisdom together with up to date scientific clinical studies to look at efficacy and how this can be applied for optimal health.
The training was held at the simply stunning Hifas Da Terra headquarters based in North West Spain. I couldn't quite believe my luck when I first saw this earlier in the year when looking for courses in Mycology. This was a chance to see natural forest mushroom farming, see a world leading research facility and learn direct from the masters in this field (and quite literally in a field). The perfect training course in a country that I hold dear due to fond memories of studying part of my university degree on the North coast there, not to mention the outstanding food. I am a Nutritional Therapist after all!
When we think of mushrooms here in the West, we have always been taught to stay away from these poisonous growths popping up along our woodland walks. Despite the fact that some mushrooms can be dangerous, and we definitely don't recommend foraging for them unless you know what you are doing, there are many beneficial properties of certain species of mushrooms that have such valuable properties for our health and wellbeing.
Fungi is a unique kingdom which, contrary to what it may seem, bears a closer resemblance to us than the plant kingdom with no photosynthesis or chlorophyll present! There is huge diversity within this kingdom from unicellular species such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae right through to complex mushroom species such as shitake. The tiny S. cerevisiae is also known as bakers yeast, used for many applications in fermentation and renowned for its health giving properties with studies looking into its natural antimicrobial properties, immunomodulatory effects, support for the intestinal barrier function and general digestive microbiome health[i]. At this point, a slight side note but I should point out that this is an ingredient in Dr Schultz's Superfood which is one of the many reasons why this is one of my favourite power 'greens' drinks.
Then we get to the complex mushrooms themselves, which isn't quite the right terminology as mushrooms are actually only one tiny part of the whole organism, so more correctly, the fruiting body. This is only the last part of the lifecycle as the mushroom releases its spores for reproduction. The organism is actually a much bigger and more complex structure of a huge silk web-like network under the surface which is known as the mycelium. The mushroom to the mycelium is like the apple to the tree, only a small part of a much larger being which only comes once per year assuming that all the perfect conditions are in place. It is from the complex root system that penicillin was first developed when Fleming noticed that the mycelium killed off surrounding bacteria. It is this very defence system against pathogens that allow them to thrive in the harshest of soils.
Fungi have relationships with other organisms and may be saprotrophs, whereby they live on dead or decaying matter or may be parasites such as cordyceps which are generally parasitic on insects. They may also be symbionts which mutually work together for a joint benefit such as a mushroom growing next to a tree: it's mycelium produces enzymes to break down materials and allow tree roots to take in nutrients and protect the tree from pathogens, whilst the tree brings water to the mycelium, working together to keep each other healthy. This later relationship can also greatly increase the health of the soil.
There are lots of very interesting projects that Hifas Da Terra are currently working on in relation to soil quality and restoration following toxicity to the soil such as pesticide use. The fungi are like sponges cleaning up the mess for a healthier environment. It is for this very reason that it is important to choose organic mushrooms due to their pesticide uptake.
Standard mushrooms that we regularly consume are great but if a mushroom has a higher level of 10-15% beta glucans then it is considered a medicinal mushroom with special health giving properties. Some mushrooms can actually have up to 40% beta glucans alongside other compounds, such as triterpenoids, lectins and hemolysins, and it is these special polysaccharides that are broken down by our gut flora and allow their immune system effects.
So now we know a little more on mushrooms, let's look at a few specific species and potential applications on our health.
Resihi, also known as lingzhi, is revered in the far east as the 'immortality fungus'. The name lingzhi, in Chinese, respresents a combination of spiritual potency and essence of immortality, symbolising success, well-being, divine power and longevity. Among cultivated mushrooms, Reishi has been researched more for its pharmaceutical rather than nutritional value. I personally love the look and appearance of this mushroom for its shiny velvety red crown like rings.
Cancer is one of the areas for which Reishi has been widely researched, in which it has proved a popular supplement along with conventional therapies and also taken by healthy individuals to boost the immune system. Two major bioactive compounds of the mushroom, polysaccharides and triterpenes, have been looked at for their chemopreventive and tumoridal effects, as proved by numerous studies[ii]. Other studies have also shown inhibitory effects on angiogenesis and metastasis. However, evidence from human trials is still limited.
Other areas heavily researched in relation to Reishi are for its antibacterial and antiviral properties and it has also shown to have therapeutic use for Diabetes. It has also demonstrated benefit for the health of the liver and the digestive system, with particular note of studies looking at its peptic ulcer healing properties[iii]. It is widely used in anti-inflammatory formulations designed for joint pain and this anti-inflammatory effect has also shown promise in digestive inflammation, specifically in the case of Crohn's disease by showing a significant reduction in pro-inflammatory cytokines[iv].
Another beautiful and unusual looking mushroom with its name coming from its look of a huge white mane. With very differing and unique properties to many other mushrooms, this is one which has huge nutritional therapeutic value in Mycology. I use this specific species quite regularly in clinic with its most researched application in nervous system disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Dementia. It also has fantastic medicinal value for the health of the digestive system.
Its bioactive compounds include hericenones and erinacines which can induce NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) synthesis in cells[v]. It is for this reason that it is included in Dr Bredesen's multi-modality approach and research into reversal of mild cognitive decline[vi], someone who I was lucky enough to study directly under at the Anti-Aging Institute in California last year.
In an unknown and different mechanism of action to Nerve Growth Factor, Lions Mane, also seems to have a significantly beneficial effect on depression and anxiety, even after just four weeks of use[vii].
Cordyceps is perhaps the strangest growing of all of the mushrooms being parasitic to an insect larval host. It effectively mummifies its host and consumes more than 90% of the infected insect... I'm really selling this one! This all sounds not too pleasant for our consumption but this has been used medicinally for centuries for multiple maladies. As this only grows in nature in certain high-altitude regions such as Tibet and is not too pleasant to the think about consuming the mushroom itself, most cordyceps products on the market are actually the mycelium. That is the root systems which are grown for example at the Hifas da Terra headquarters without the need for the actual mushroom which only comes at the end of the life cycle as previously mentioned.
Cordyceps is most well researched for its application in fertility, renal function, sports performance and generally increasing energy levels. In relation to fertility, it is thought to enhance libido and fertility in both sexes. There has been close attention to cordyceps, especially for use as an adjunct for assisted reproduction treatment. It has been shown to increase production of a specific type of oestrogen and protein which have a direct effect on oocyte (egg) maturity hence its potential application for IVF[viii].
In relation to sports performance, there are many studies that confirm enhanced physical performance with its intake and one recent study, looked at it in combination with Rhodiola which showed an improved aerobic performance in training at high altitude[ix]. And finally, it has been shown to be an anti-fatigue functional food hence its use for boosting energy levels[x].
This article has been powered by Hifas da Terra Cordyceps powder. I love this as an evening time drink, mix one teaspoon with some warm almond milk and it makes a beautiful drink which is surprisingly reminiscent of hot chocolate!!!
We hope you enjoyed this article in which we discuss a few of the many medicinal mushroom products available on the market. To see our own in-house selection of products, click here. If you want more advice of which medicinal mushrooms would be right for your own specific health needs then you can book in with one of our team of Registered Nutritional Therapists and find out more information here.
Jackie Coldwell is co-Director of Therapy Organics, and leads the Nutrtional Therapy Team.See more Articles by Jackie
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