Of Mycelium and Men: Health Benefits of the Humble Fungi
The humble mushroom – you enjoy it on a pizza, packed in a sandwich or loaded into a stew. But have you ever stopped to consider this unassuming fungus as something more than a delicious accompaniment?
Mushrooms are an incredibly biodiverse group of organisms. Experts estimate that the Kingdom Fungi has between roughly two and four million species, each distinct in its flavour, appearance and beneficial properties. Fungal mycelium – the branching, interconnected networks that give rise to mushrooms – can be vast, stretching over three and a half square miles in some cases. In other words: fungi are diverse, sprawling, and their connection to humans can’t be understated.
Don’t discount the humble mushroom. Some mushrooms have been used in East Asian cultures for centuries, prized for their health and wellness benefits. Others, which make their way onto the dinner table, also have surprising health benefits. In this article, let’s highlight both ends of the fungal spectrum – from superfood adaptogen mushrooms to the everyday button mushroom.
Sipping on Superfoods
Long before people coined the term “superfood,” cultures across the world – especially in East Asia – used certain mushrooms in herbal medicine practice. Harvested locally and often ground to a powder to make a beverage, people used these mushrooms to improve immune response, boost mental clarity, stimulate digestion, improve mood and more.
Recently, modern science has taken a renewed interest in these ancient uses for fungi, supporting their health benefits through rigorous research. An evidence-based Healthline article on the Reishi mushroom, for instance, expounds such benefits as immune-system-boosting, fatigue-fighting and even anti-cancer properties. Other adaptogen mushrooms, like Chaga and Lion’s Mane, have received similar scientific backing.
Where does that leave you, though? You can’t really strike off into a remote forest looking for these superfoods. Luckily, companies like Rritual Superfoods offer powdered forms of these healthy fungi that are mixed with herbal spices like cinnamon and ginger. Make them into a warm winter beverage by adding hot water or tip a bit into your morning smoothie to reap the health benefits.
Cooking with Mushrooms
A mushroom doesn’t need to be a superfood to make an impact (though it certainly helps). Even the standard button, cremini and portobello mushrooms – all the same mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, in different states of maturity – have health benefits.
These everyday mushrooms are a great source of B vitamins, niacin, riboflavin and other basic nutrients. And this study in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that consuming Agaricus bisporus was associated with higher immune function and lower inflammation. Together, that's enough evidence to work more mushrooms into your daily diet. Just be sure to cook them first; raw button mushrooms contain mild toxins that die with heat exposure.
The bottom line: for your meals, try to work in more common mushrooms, and to supercharge the benefits of humble fungi, reach for superfoods like Reishi, Lion’s Mane and Chaga mushrooms. Whatever you do, don’t discount mushrooms. They’re plentiful, powerful and have a long history of helping humans.
- Written by James Hills
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