Magic mushrooms or perhaps just medicinal - by Ricardo Adamo
in Blogs

Fungus is a biological kingdom unto itself. For example, the largest living organism on earth is actually a fungus known as the Honey mushroom. Another mushroom, Cordyceps sinensis, which is known for producing insect zombies, increases our aerobic capacity when regularly consumed.

On a cellular level, Cordyceps mushrooms are more like humans than plants: they have a hyperconnected brain, they inhale oxygen, produce Vitamin D₃, and most importantly, they’re not vegetables! Mushrooms follow their own tune on their own time.

Mushrooms are considered functional foods; namely, foods that positively effect our metabolism beyond their nutritive value, plus enhance our wellbeing, and possibly reduce the risk of disease.

In this blog post, I will provide some insight as to why fungi, some of which are edible such as the popular Shiitake and Oyster mushroom varieties (Figure 1), carry medicinal properties. While other medicinal species, such as Turkey tail, Cordyceps and Reishi are considered unpalatable, they have a plethora of compounds that are extracted into capsule or alcohol-based solutions.


Figure 1: Left - Shiitake, also known as Lentinula edodes. Right - Oyster, also known as Pleurotus ostreatus

How exactly do fungi provide medical benefits?

Mushrooms are composed of a compound called chitin (pronounced Ky-tin). What makes chitin intriguing is that is contains a compound called beta-glucans. Beta-glucans have the ability to influence our immunity on an epigenetic level, meaning that our genes can adapt favourably to environmental stimuli. The human body has a family of receptors that recognise beta-glucans from fungi, which in turn influences our immune system - for example, by activating our white blood cells.

If you would like to buy mushroom products so that you can benefit from their immune supporting properties, it is very important that you distinguish between mushroom powders and mushroom extractions - it is the extracted mushrooms that include beta-glucans plus other active compounds that are recognised as positive by our immune system.

In terms of food preparation, beta-glucans and nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin D₂, minerals, essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids and branch-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) can be accessed by the human gut once the cellular walls of the fungi are broken down. Due to chitin being heat sensitive, cooking has and always will be our cost-effective extraction method. Thus, whether you are boiling, baking or frying mushrooms in the kitchen, you are chemically extracting nutrients, allowing for more readily absorption. Contrary to popular belief, it is therefore not always advisable to eat raw mushrooms. 

So, the key message here is that there are different compounds in mushrooms that provide potential health benefits. Additionally, from a taste perspective, these compounds also unlock a culinary element known as a‘umami’ flavour - a pleasant savoury taste.