Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Mushrooms as food and medicine

Published:Tuesday | June 4, 2013 | 12:00 AM

A MUSHROOM is the fleshy body part of some fungi. Over 14,000 different kinds of mushrooms are in existence, but some are poisonous and only 3,000 are considered edible.

Everyone knows about the great nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, but the less spectacular mushroom has been often overlooked. Oriental cultures have used mushrooms for a long time for their health benefits and as a source of powerful nutrition, and now modern scientists are nodding their heads in agreement.

A nutritious food

Mushrooms provide many of the nutritional benefits of the colourful vegetables combined with other ingredients like protein that is usually associated with beans, nuts, or meats. Mushrooms are low in calories, salt, and fat, free of cholesterol, yet provide important nutrients, including selenium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, the B vitamins, vitamin D, and copper.

Mushrooms supply hard-to-get nutrients. One medium Portobello mushroom supplies over 20 per cent of the recommended daily intake of selenium and over 30 per cent of your need of copper. Copper is a little mentioned but essential mineral that helps to protect the heart, circulation, and nervous system and build red blood cells.

The mushroom serving also has as much potassium as a medium-size banana. Potassium is an important mineral many people do not get enough of. It helps to maintain normal fluid and mineral balance and control blood pressure. It also assists in the normal function of nerves and muscles, including the heart.

Other varieties of mushrooms are just as rich in minerals, and fortunately, mushrooms retain their nutrients when stir-fried, grilled, or microwaved. Most edible mushrooms are available either raw, dried, or canned. The most popular commercially available varieties include the white button, Portobello, crimini (small Portobellos), oyster, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms.

A weight-loss food

When looking for nutritious weight-loss foods, mushrooms are a good option. The human metabolism is stimulated to burn excess fat by optimal quantities of protein, fibre, and B vitamins. Mushrooms supply all three of these metabolism-boosting nutrients.

Mushrooms are low in calories, carbohydrates, fat, and salt but have a very high water (over 80 per cent water) and fibre content that makes them a great weight-loss food.

Medicinal mushrooms

Traditional Chinese medicine has used mushrooms for thousands of years, and in China, over 200 species of mushrooms are used as medicine. However, three mushrooms - shiitake, reishi, and maitake - have been most researched for medical use.

Shiitake mushrooms - The shiitake mushroom is one of the most popular medicinal mushrooms that Asians use to stimulate and boost health, prevent strokes, and improve circulation. Shiitake mushrooms contain a substance called lentinan (beta-glucans) that has been shown to reduce the side effects of common anti-cancer treatments. In Japan, a purified form of lentinan has been approved for treating cancer and the effects of chemotherapy. Side effects associated with shiitake mushrooms, include skin irritation, diarrhoea, and blood-thinning effects.

Reishi mushrooms - Chinese medicine often utilises reishi mushrooms for their antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and immune-strengthening abilities. Reishi mushrooms are considered particularly beneficial for heart and prostate health and for fighting cancer.

Western medicine is now researching reishi mushrooms to treat hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, and prostate cancer. Reishi mushrooms also have a calming effect and promote restful sleep.

Maitake mushrooms - Maitake mushrooms are popularly used in the Orient to strengthen and improve general health and to manage emotional and physical stress. Modern research shows that the maitake mushroom enhances the immune system, helps stops tumour growth, can make some chemotherapy drugs more effective and reduces dosage.

Additionally, maitake mushrooms may help individuals with high blood pressure, prostate cancer, HIV infections, and diarrhoea.

Mushrooms and cancer

Research published in the International Journal of Cancer found that mushrooms have breast cancer-fighting properties. Researchers at the University of Western Australia in Perth discovered that women who ate at least 10 grams of button mushrooms per day were 64 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer.

This study also found that women who combined mushrooms with regular consumption of green tea had an even greater reduced risk of almost 90 per cent! Special substances in mushrooms like beta-glucans, germanium, polysaccharides, selenium, and linoleic acid may all contribute to their anti-cancer properties.

Beta-glucans, found in many mushroom species, have marked immunity-stimulating effects. The beta-glucans contained in oyster, shiitake, and split gill mushrooms seem most effective. Germanium boosts the body's oxygen use and helps counteract environmental toxins and increase resistance to disease.

Polysaccharides enable mushrooms to boost the immune system and fight the growth of tumours. The antioxidant selenium works to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Linoleic acid naturally works like the breast cancer drug Arimidex to protect against breast and other cancers.

In addition, mushroom extract has been linked to some treatments for both migraines and mental disorders.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms

Some mushrooms can affect the mental and emotional states of the individual. Such mushrooms with psychoactive properties have been used in various native medicine traditions in cultures all around the world. They have been used in rituals aimed at mental and physic healing and to facilitate visionary states.

Psilocybin mushrooms possess psychedelic properties and have been reported as facilitating profound and life-changing insights and mystical experiences. Recent scientific work has supported these claims as well as the long-lasting effects of such induced spiritual experiences.

Psilocybin is being researched for treating people suffering from psychological disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and small amounts have been used to stop cluster and migraine headaches.

The bottom line is that mushrooms are great food and can make great medicine.

You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at tonyvendryes@gmail.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.