Growing up in Iowa, the only associations I had with mushrooms were through Pizza Hut and the “magical” variety. Now, products and research are buzzing across the internet with pioneering companies like Four Sigmatic taking over Amazon and Whole Foods, numerous online blogs and podcasts describing their holistic and practical properties and local growers hosting educational workshops. Together, they are expanding our perceptions of mushrooms from a lifeless food-like substance to one of substantial importance.
Although an appreciation of mushrooms is newer in the West, Eastern medicine has been using mushrooms to treat disease in the body and mind for centuries. Luckily for us, the West is finally valuing larger holistic healing and preventative practices. This cultural shift is also highlighting mushrooms, with leading sources like NPR, New York Times and CBS News reporting that mushrooms show promising health benefits.
These potential benefits include fighting cancer, combating inflammation, reducing chronic disease and boosting mental functioning. With all of these medicinal properties, some questions start to arise. What’s the research behind mushrooms? What mushrooms are available? How do I incorporate them into my diet?
Andy Waltke, an Omaha-based mushroom farmer with a master’s in environmental science from Texas Christian University, says mushrooms are “the forgotten stepchild of agriculture, but shouldn’t be.”
“Mushrooms are one type of fungi that decomposes everything in nature from wood to soil to rock; producing fruiting bodies in the process,” Waltke explained.
It is in these fruiting bodies (part of the mushroom that grows above ground) that all of the healing properties are contained. The most common components are selenium, vitamin D, potassium, vitamin B and dozens more. All of these nutrients help fight inflammation, which has been related to diseases including arthritis, Crohn’s, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“Inflammation has long been a well-known symptom of many infectious diseases,” wrote Philip Hunter in a report for the research organization Embo, “but molecular and epidemiological research increasingly suggests that it is also intimately linked with a broad range of non-infectious diseases, perhaps even all of them.”
“Mushrooms are one type of fungi that decomposes everything in nature from wood to soil to rock; producing fruiting bodies in the process.”
There are over 2,000 types of edible mushrooms known at this time and this list continues to grow.
And as it turns out, all edible mushrooms are magical and have magical properties. Some of the most common are lion’s mane, shiitake, reishi, oyster, cordyceps and button. For instance, shiitake mushrooms can kill certain viruses and improve immune systems and lion’s mane is known for inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and regeneration of nerves.
Waltke recommends starting by incorporating mushrooms a few times a week into your staple meals. This will make it easier to explore more varieties of mushrooms — especially if they are new to your diet — finding ones that resonate with you the most. It is easy to start with the more common button, portobello and oyster mushrooms, eventually building into the more intricate flavor profiles of shiitake and lion’s mane.
“Mushrooms are packed with pure protein, have the ability to lower cholesterol, combat bad cholesterol, support heart health, and have a few if any calories,” Waltke said. “You can easily mix mushrooms into any meal or make it the showcase by using them as a replacement for beef or chicken — a cheap and effective way to eat mushrooms without spending more money and with substantially more health benefits.”
For those who are hesitant about sautéing or having to chew them, Waltke’s partner (and my sister) Hunter Hiffernan recommends buying mushrooms as teas or a tincture and using them as a quick boost for your immune system. Personally, I have tried Four Sigmatic’s mushroom elixirs and coffee alternative and was amazed at how good they taste and their sustaining effects. I also take cordyceps in capsule form that I purchased from my local health store.
We live in an age of access — access to the internet for online purchasing and to expert advice. Holistic medicine and the power of mushrooms may seem new to the West, but they are quickly becoming more and more accessible. So whether you attend a local workshop, explore your local market or search the internet, get out there to discover what’s going on in the wild world of mushrooms.
Alexander Hiffernan is a Council Bluffs-based yoga instructor. Off the mat, he finds fulfillment in creative and entrepreneurial projects, mastering different movement styles, studying anatomy and learning to question everything. Learn more at soulcasemovement.com. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Spring 2018 issue.