Mushrooms are nature’s biological communicators, forming vast invisible networks that connect individual plants, and transfer water and nutrients. As mushrooms grow, they enrich the forest floor and plants in a symbiotic relationship, a form of communication which some have coined the Wood Wide Web. This ability to ‘speak to’ the plant kingdom at a deep cellular level is also what makes them so valuable to us. In humans, research shows they may be regarded as biological response modifiers (BRMs), acting on the immune system to restore balance where it is needed.
Although we might assume fungi to be part of the plant kingdom, they are more closely related to animals, and humans and fungi share a common ancestry in 30% of our DNA. To date approximately 700 species of mushroom have been identified as having therapeutic value and together they form some of the most potent medicines found in the natural world.
Potent natural medicines
Beyond their capacity to colonise, mushrooms have developed an innate hardiness over many millennia. This gives them a natural advantage in a range of habitats, from Chaga conk in Siberia—which can survive temperatures of -40C—to the high Tibetan plateaus which are home to a rare species of Cordyceps fungus. It also means they have evolved some unique defences against disease in a set of pharmacologically active compounds that can benefit humans.
The use of mushrooms in traditional medicine dates from ancient times and has a long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Both Reishi and Snow Fungus are mentioned in the Chinese herbal classic, the Shen Nong Ben Cao, where they were esteemed as ‘Superior’ herbs that could ‘lighten the body and confer longevity’ without side effects. Cordyceps was so highly regarded it was once exclusively consumed by the Chinese royal family.
In Japan both Maitake and Shiitake mushroom extracts are routinely used alongside conventional medicine. Others such as Lion’s Mane have excited the neurological community for their ability to enhance cognitive function, coining the term nootropics. Research has identified a wide variety of medicinal properties in mushrooms such as Reishi, including a group of bioactive triterpenes called ganoderic acids.
Just as they provide balance in ecosystems, some mushrooms are adaptogens, meaning they help the body to adapt to both internal and external stressors. Cordyceps and Reishi are two excellent adaptogenic mushrooms which help to balance the body, supporting hormonal health, energy levels, and immunity. Others such as Shiitake have been shown to possess potent antimicrobial and antifungal properties, making them an ideal defence for gut healing.