5,300 years ago, a man who we now call Ötzi died crossing the Alps of northern Italy. In a pouch found on his mummified remains, he carried the mushrooms amadou and a birch polypore to help him survive the crossing … not that they did him much good.
Mushrooms have long been recognized by a wide range of peoples and cultures, not only for their culinary properties, but also as powerful medicines. Indigenous peoples of North America have long used puffball mushrooms as wound healers. In ancient China, some mushrooms were so prized, particularly the reishi fungi, they were forbidden to commoners.
The 5th century alchemist Tao Hongjing described several medicinal mushrooms, including Ling Zhi and Zhu Ling. Ancient Greeks and Romans like Pliny, Seneca and Dioscorides have also left us numerous writings about medicinal uses and misuses of mushrooms. The Greek physician Hippocrates (of Hippocratic oath fame) wrote that the amadou mushroom was a potent anti-inflammatory agent and could be used to cauterize wounds. Vikings were reported to have eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms before battle, which might explain their ferocity in battle.
But, even with this long track record, medical science is only just beginning to understand how important mushrooms can be for human health. And so, here are three mushrooms that have been making a splash on the superfood scene.
The Chaga mushroom grows mainly on the bark of birch trees in cold climates, such as Northern Europe, Russia, Korea, Canada and Alaska. The fungus produces a woody growth, called a conk, which looks a bit like a lump of burnt charcoal. As a result it’s also known by such wonderfully descriptive names as black mass, birch canker and sterile conk trunk rot — yum!
On the inside, however, it is soft and orange and has been used as a traditional folk medicine in Russia and other Northern European countries for centuries to boost overall health and prevent disease. Modern-day animal and lab studies have found that Chaga extract may boost immunity, fight cancer, prevent chronic inflammation and reduce cholesterol.
Also known as Himalayan Gold, because of where it is often farmed, Cordyceps has long been used in ancient Chinese and Tibetan medicine for treating diarrhea, headache, cough, rheumatism, liver disease, kidney disease and more.
Recent scientific studies in mice have shown that Cordyceps may also fight muscle fatigue, combat the cell damage associated with aging and help manage type 2 diabetes. There have also been lab studies that suggest Cordyceps may boost immune function as well.
Beyond its medicinal benefits, Cordyceps is also famous for growing in the brains of insects and spiders. The fungus takes over its victims and forces them to permanently relocate to the trees and low-lying jungle plants where the conditions are ideal for the fungus to thrive. This is why Cordyceps is sometimes called zombie mushrooms.
Lion’s Mane is native to North America, Europe and Asia and grows on hardwoods. It’s easily identified by its single clump of long dangling spines which look a bit like hair (hence the fungus’ name). It also goes by the name of bearded tooth mushroom, satyr's beard, bearded hedgehog mushroom, pom pom mushroom and our personal favourite, the monkey head mushroom.
Scientific studies suggest that Lion’s Mane may have a positive effect on inflammation and oxidation, immune function, anxiety and depression, cognitive health, heart health, diabetes, wound healing, digestive health as well as nervous system recovery.
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These health benefits are on top of the vitamins, fibre and nutrients that we know mushrooms give us just by eating them. And scientists continue to find new and incredible medical uses for mushrooms. As always, if you are thinking about making a major change to your diet, please consult your family physician.