Since the beginning of time, mushrooms have been widely used in traditional herbal medicine to cure physical illnesses as well as alter consciousness in order to treat mental disorders and facilitate psychological growth. It is estimated that there are approximately 150,000 mushroom species, most of which remain unknown. But more important, mushrooms are incredibly resilient members of the fungi kingdom, with outstanding medicinal uses, capable of revolutionizing the field of medicine. The scientific community is confident that mushroom extracts can prove highly efficient in the treatment of the most devastating diseases of the century: cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Mushrooms are possibly the most famous members of the fungi kingdom. Although innocent looking, some varieties may prove hazardous to human health which is why it is best to choose them carefully. Most mushroom species look very much alike: a strong stem or foot, supporting a cap with elongated gills or pores underneath it. They vary in color from white, beige and brown to bright green, blue and red. As a general rule, brightly colored caps and gills are indicative of either toxic or psychoactive species. The taste of edible mushrooms varies from bland to nutty with often delicate earthy notes and a range of faint flavors (e.g. chanterelle mushrooms boast peppery notes and a sweet, apricot-like aroma). Some species are more flavorful, such as truffles which are renowned for being stronger-tasting with a more pregnant nutty aroma and peppery, but also bitter, cocoa-like or even garlic flavors.
Mushrooms have been the foundation of some of the greatest medical discoveries in the world. Penicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline have all been discovered thanks to fungal extracts. Penicillin, for instance, is a potent antibiotic which Alexander Fleming accidentally derived from the Penicillium fungi. Since its discovery, penicillin has been used for the treatment of a great variety of potentially dangerous infectious agents. However, mushrooms have proven quite useful against a myriad of other less hazardous medical conditions.
For instance, some species can treat burns, bed sores caused by prolonged bed confinement or inflammation of the digestive tract caused by Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. In addition to this, some mushroom species are currently being studied for their anti-diabetic and anticarcinogenic properties, while others may help treat cardiovascular disease.
What are mushrooms good for?
There are real benefits to mushroom consumption. Here are the top 4 reasons to eat them:
1) They help you lose weight: most supermarket mushroom varieties are low in calories. By replacing your lunch-time favorite meal with a raw mushroom salad, grilled, sauteed or stuffed mushrooms, you can treat yourself to something delicious and lose weight at the same time.
2) Great source of protein: this means that you can replace meat-based dishes with your favorite mushroom recipes and still get a good protein intake. Most species of edible mushrooms provide decent amounts of protein, not to mention it’s good protein, complete with all essential amino acids. Other great sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy.
3) Rich in vitamin D: mushrooms are some of the few plant foods that are sources of vitamin D and regular consumption can be highly beneficial for human health. In addition to optimizing calcium absorption and regulating phosphorus metabolism for stronger bones and teeth, eating vitamin D-rich mushrooms and other vitamin D-rich foods can play a part in the prevention of rickets and possibly also osteoporosis. Vitamin D has been found to hold benefits for type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance and help prevent hypertension, heart failure and stroke.
4) Mushrooms boost the immune system: thanks to specific natural compounds with strong antibacterial and antiviral properties, including vitamin D, mushrooms have beneficial effects for the immune system, enhancing the immune system response and making it respond better to infections.
Mushroom consumption is highly appreciated as well as highly beneficial for human health. However, not all mushroom species are edible. The most common, edible mushroom varieties are portobello, white mushrooms or cremini (Agaricus bisporus), the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa), oyster (of the Pleurotus genus), porcini (Boletus edulis) and truffles (belonging to the Tuber species). See what are the benefits of chanterelles and the benefits of porcini mushrooms.
More and more mushroom varieties are now present in supermarkets worldwide. However, many people still prefer to go gather their own mushrooms, on account of knowing which species are edible and which are not. However, there are so many varieties which look very much alike and the risks of ingesting poisonous mushrooms are relatively high. Although a handful of mushrooms can indeed cause fatalities, there are many species which can cause mild to severe allergic reactions and other truly upsetting digestive problems.
The risks are real and although mushrooming is a fun activity (I myself have went mushrooming on several occasions), your safety and the well-being of your dear ones should not be taken lightly: unless you are a certified expert, it would be wise to avoid eating mushrooms gathered in the wild. Remember: looks can be deceiving.
Inedible mushrooms: action
Very important: some wild mushroom species contain a substance called ‘amatoxin’. As you can deduce by its name, amatoxin is a toxin and can be found in the following mushrooms:
1) Amanita phalloides or the ‘death cap’;
2) Conocybe (thin, long, white stems, brown caps);
3) Galerina species;
4) Lepiota (freakishly white, small, thin mushrooms with a flat cap).
What are the symptoms of mushroom poisoning and how do amatoxins act?
1) In a period of 6-24 hours after ingestion, amatoxins slowly destroy the liver, seen that it is actively involved in the digestion process. When absorbed through the skin, amatoxins affect the kidneys and the heart as well (causing rashes and respiratory problems).
2) After about 24 hours (or much less, depending on the person, quantity ingested, and so on), any of the following symptoms may appear: nausea, violent vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, severe pain, dizziness, back pain, respiratory problems as well as liver and kidney damage.
3) If you experience any of the following symptoms shortly after consuming mushrooms gathered from the wild, it is imperative that you go to the hospital as soon as possible. It will probably save your life. Mushroom poisoning is a serious medical condition that can lead to death if left untreated.
Considering the potency of amatoxins found in thousands of mushroom varieties from the wild, it is wise to consume only the supermarket varieties, which have been grown especially for safe consumption. Aside from this, mushrooms can be a wonderful addition to any diet and provide incredible health benefits. They have a great nutritional value and can be cooked in ways that can appeal to the finest tastes. Baked, sauteed, stuffed, grilled or made into a deliciously creamy soup, mushrooms are simply delicious.