The Magic of Mushrooms

Nicola Burkinshaw investigates the uses of mushrooms from ancient times to the present day.

The Magic of Mushrooms

Since the earliest civilisations, mushrooms have been considered not only a delicacy but an elixir of good health. They were considered so valuable that the Ancient Egyptians reserved them for the Pharaohs. In Japan and China doctors have long used the mushroom in their medicines and as part of a healthy diet. Mushrooms were held in such esteem that Kuan Yin the Chinese Goddess of Healing is often depicted as a Reishi mushroom.

Some mushrooms are relatively easy to cultivate but the rarest (and, therefore, often the most expensive) have to be hunted down as they grow in unpredictable patches in conditions that can be difficult to replicate.

These days, for many of us, mushrooms are little more than a delicate addition to a risotto or a useful ingredient for beefing up a meatless meal. But we underestimate the power of these little fungi. Increasingly scientists are turning to mushrooms to help with a variety of ailments; their anti-oxidant properties have long been known but their true potential is only just being realised.

Here are nine of the best mushrooms for maintaining good health and fighting illness:

1 - Lion's Mane Mushroom

Named for its mop-like tendrils, the Lion’s Mane is more than just a pretty fungus. Research suggests that ingesting these can support memory functions and could be used to treat depression. Scientists are currently investigating the possibility that this mushroom could be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

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2 - The Maitake Mushroom

This juicy mushroom is sometimes known as the Dancing Mushroom because of joy experienced by people who found them, and sometimes referred to as the Hen of the Woods. The Maitake appears to stimulate the immune system and may even encourage the growth of proteins which attack cancer cells.

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3 - Cordyceps (Sinensis)

Actually a genus covering a number of mushrooms, the Cordyceps is generally recognised by their spines which make them resemble sea anemone more than anything you might expect to find on dry land. Chinese athletes have used these since the 1990s and believe their recent successes are at least partially owed to the increased energy provided by the Cordyceps Sinensis. On top of this, evidence suggests that they are useful for male fertility as they improve sperm quality and mobility. There is also anecdotal evidence that they can raise libido in women.

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4 - Chaga Mushroom

This rather unattractive black mushroom is found growing on trees in Russia and the Slavic nations where it has been used in the treatment of cancer patients. On top of this, numerous psoriasis sufferers have claimed that ingesting Chaga completely cured their condition.

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5 - Agaricus Blazei

Often confused with Agaricus subrufescens which originally shared its name, this is an unassuming and classic looking fungi which hails from Brazil. It has been used to treat hepatitis, diabetes and cancer.

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6 - Tremella

The Tremella genus is classed as a “jelly fungi” and is recognisable from its rather unappetising appearance which some compare to rubbery folds of brain tissue. Eastern European Folklore suggested that finding this on your gate post was the mark of a witch and meant that you had been cursed. Tremella is used in some cosmetics as it can aid water retention in the skin as well as having all the immunity supporting characteristics of many other mushrooms.

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7 - Shiitake Mushroom

Often bought dried as an umami flavouring that particularly enhances miso soup, the Shiitake is not simply a delicious addition to a meal. It is mentioned in ancient literature for its capacity to ward off colds and other ailments. It also contains lentinan which is used to help treat stomach cancer in Japan.

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8 - Turky Tail Mushroom

This wonderfully floral mushroom can be found all over the world and has been used in medicinal tea since the days of the Ming Dynasty. It has been discovered to contain natural “killer cells” which can attack cancer-causing viral cells. In the US it is sometimes taken as a support to other cancer therapies.

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9 - The Reishi Mushroom

These have been reserved for royalty through much of history as their health benefits were obvious even before they were fully understood. Scientists now know them to be high in anti-oxidants and to have anti-inflammatory properties. This, along with the recent discovery that they are able to inhibit the growth of viruses, puts this mushroom at the top of the league for health-giving properties.

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It is not advisable to attempt to source these mushrooms in nature without expert guidance but all of the ones listed are available either dried for cooking and tea infusions, or as extracts. So whether you’re trying to maintain good health or cure an illness, follow the example of the Ancients and add a mushroom to your diet.

 

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