By Amelia Buckley

August 14th marked the first day of the sold-out 39th annual Telluride Mushroom Festival in Aspen, Colorado, which sold more tickets this year than ever. Mushrooms gained a reputation in the 1970s as a vehicle for psychedelic exploration, but these fungi friends are not just for hippies anymore. Mushrooms of all types are coming to the forefront of modern medical, environmental, and culinary movements as a versatile wonder-plant. Through a series of talks, forays, tastings, and special events, the festival explored the intricate world of mushrooms and expanded upon this year’s theme: Healing the mind, healing the planet

In the Telluride Festival’s raison d’etre is to educate the public by celebrating all the surprising and wide-ranging uses of mushrooms, fungi and all things mycelia.   From breaking down wood and decaying plant cellulose in nature to repurpose those minerals for new growth, to medicinal and nutritional uses that promote human health, to serving as bioremediators that filter and break down toxic land from oil spills or agricultural run-off, the lowly mushroom is a powerhouse of purpose. We are only just discovering how versatile fungi can be in and out of the kitchen!

The humble mushroom grows in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Additionally, it holds as much variety in terms of uses and beneficial properties as it does in physical appearance. Mushrooms are emerging as the superfood of the 21st century for their astounding dietary, medical, and environmental applications. In this week’s Ode to Mushrooms, we explore the many roles of marvelous mushrooms, in nature and our own lives, and how they can improve the health of our habitats, bodies, and minds.

Nature’s Neural Network 

Fungi have played an essential role on our planet since long before humans roamed the Earth. Mushrooms evolved around 500 million years ago as a quiet but critical source of decomposition and rejuvenation in our planet’s ecosystems. These unassuming fungi dwell in the “litter” of forests, the base of organic matter which covers the forest floor and feed on the fallen leaves, plants, bark, and other fallen material. This litter can weight up to 1.5 tonnes per hectare in a pine forest and is decomposed at different speeds by fungi depending on the material. Leaves and other light or moist matter is quickly processed while bark and pine needles can take up to seven years to fully decompose. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an entire network of fungi which stretch across ecosystems and, in conjunction with other decomposers such as beetles, worms, and bacteria, they devour waste so that the nutrients can be recycled into the environment.

mycelium round
Round White Mycelium Fiber Plexus – Ring Filament Wad

Furthermore, fungi even help facilitate communication within plant networks in forests. Fungi bodies are composed of masses of thin strands called mycelium which connect the root systems of different plants and help them communicate. Through this interaction, plants are able to share information about nutrients and even weed out unwanted organisms by spreading toxins along these communication lines. This invisible role of fungi is critical for maintaining symbiosis in habitats. These lines of communication have even been used to allow larger trees to support smaller trees in their early years of growth.

Feasting on Fungi 

Mushroom PizzaMushrooms are commonplace in the diet of many cultures including Chinese, American, and Italian cuisines. As the second most popular pizza topping, they are undoubtedly delicious. This simple garnish packs quite a punch as a flavorful and highly nutritious ingredient. Mushrooms are excellent sources of fiber and protein and contain four important nutrients: selenium, vitamin D, glutathione and ergothioneine. Ergothioneine, also known as ergo, an antioxidant amino acid, serves as a building block for proteins and helps give mushrooms their protein power. 

Paul Stamets, the American scientist, and mushroom evangelist is at the forefront of the medicinal and edible mushroom movement. His company, Fungi Perfect, has been growing high-quality gourmet and medicinal mushrooms since the 1980s and in the current moment, he’s become such a cultural figure that he’s even got a Star Trek character named after him. Stamets promotes the consumption of mushrooms for personal wellness and also the conservation of rare mushroom varieties and research into mushrooms for wellness, medicinal, and environmental uses. Check out this interview with Paul Stamets with CNN Health, where he delves into the way oxidative stress is considered the main culprit in causing the diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and dementia, and how mushrooms can work to repair our immune systems.

Paul Stamets
American Mycologist, Paul Stamets

He says, Our close evolutionary relationship to fungi can be the basis for novel pairings in the microbiome that lead to greater sustainability and immune enhancement.”

Stamets has written six books on his mushroom discoveries and is currently working with the University of Washington researching how mushrooms can be applied to treat a “wide panel of viruses pathogenic to humans, animals, and bees.”  

Mushrooms can also play a critical role in supplying vitamins to the malnourished. Due to dietary deficits and limited access to medical care, ensuring adequate vitamin consumption in developing countries can be a challenge. Fortunately, research at the University of Hohenheim has found that, like humans, mushrooms produce high amounts of vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and incorporating sun-soaked mushrooms into one’s diet can help supplement necessary vitamins. This is especially important because vitamin D is essential to preventing tuberculosis (TB) in countries where citizens have limited access to medical treatment or antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease have emerged. In the study, 146 micrograms of mushroom-derived vitamin D were given to a group of 32 TB patients every morning for four months and after the trial period, 97 percent of participants registered at the lowest possible risk rating for TB.

The sustainable and versatile nature of mushrooms makes them perfect for creating planet-friendly meat alternatives. Mushrooms are easily and quickly cultivated and require minimal water, making them an ideal sustainable diet addition. They also have an adaptable texture and flavor which makes them a common addition to meat substitutes such as vegetarian hamburgers. In a happy accident involving some overcooked mushrooms, Richard and Kate Hanley, creators of Hanley Foods, discovered that mushrooms can serve as an excellent alternative to bacon bits. Hanley Foods has been selling their “Bacom Bits” at Baton Rouge farmers markets. In addition to being more sustainable, these bits also have a shelf life of two years and have no cholesterol compared to bacon’s 10 mg per serving. This is just one anecdotal example of how versatile mushrooms can be.  According to some, mushrooms and fungi may be an even more foundational food in the future. 

Mushrooms and the Mind

When we talk about mushrooms, it’s difficult to not associate these wonder plants with the hallucinogenic counterculture of the 1960s. However, recent research has reignited the potential for medicinal uses for hallucinogenic mushrooms, especially for treating mental health issues such as depression and PTSD.

Hallucinogens have been an important part of many indigenous cultures for a long time as a tool to connect with forces beyond the boundaries of reality. After Albert Hoffman discovered the compound lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in the 1950s, there was extensive research into the medical properties of hallucinogens and how they could be used to treat a variety of illnesses including alcoholism, depression, obsession, and fear of death. However, after the 1960s popularized the use of hallucinogens, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed in 1970 which significantly limited hallucinogenic research. 

Mushroom Mind

In the mid-2000s, researchers at Johns Hopkins University began to re-explore the effects of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of mushrooms via trials with terminally ill cancer patients. The goal was not to treat cancer, but rather to ameliorate patients’ outlook on mortality. They discovered that reduced 80% of patients with life-threatening cancer experienced reduced depression when undergoing therapeutic and guided psilocybin exposure.

After the successful results of initial experiments, researchers at Imperial College London now plan to run trials comparing psilocybin with a leading SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressant, escitalopram. Lead researcher Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris says, “[Psychedelics] have a revolutionary potential, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

The positive effects of psilocybin are thought to be because it affects two areas of the brain: The amygdala and the default-mode network. The amygdala is responsible for how we process emotions, such as fear, and the default-mode network alters how our brains function subconsciously. The collaboration of hallucinogenic effects on these two areas are thought to be what produces profound changes in a mental state which produce a more long-lasting positive outlook in comparison with pharmaceutical treatments. 

Even eating non-psychedelic mushrooms has been seen to be beneficial for brain function. Paul Stamets points out that, “Lion’s mane may be our first ‘smart’ mushroom. It is a safe, edible fungus that appears to confer cognitive benefits on our aging population.”

Lion's Mane
A lion’s mane mushroom in nature

Researchers have found that consuming a variety of mushrooms regularly can reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which slightly inhibits mental function and has been linked to other cognitive diseases such as dementia. MCI affects 37 percent of people aged 85 or older. The study, which involved 600 participants over 6 years, found that “When a group that consumed more than two standard portions of mushrooms per day was analyzed, the odds of their having MCI were found to be 50 percent lower than those of a control group.”

Environmental Endeavors

Mushrooms and moss

Just as we eat mushrooms, mushrooms are busy eating too, and even helping the planet while they’re at it. Research at Yale University has found that certain varieties of mushrooms are capable of consuming plastic. One specific type of mushroom, Pestalotiopsis microspora, which is found in the Amazon rainforest, consumes polyurethane, the predominant component of plastic, and is able to breakdown and consume plastic in as little as a few months. Oyster mushrooms may also have this ability.  This astounding discovery opens up new possibilities in terms of reducing single-use plastic pollution. With the help of our fungi friends, mushroom-filled recycling centers could be established to process plastic waste. This discovery is critical at a time when we are facing a plastic pollution crisis and plastics in nature take over 400 years to decompose on their own. 

Another way that fungi might help solve the world’s plastic problem is by providing alternative packaging and building materials that are sustainable and biodegradable.   Eben Bayer, co-founder, and CEO of Ecovative, has fathered of a whole new industry around myco-materials.  His company, located in New York, grows packaging materials, alternative leather, and other sustainable materials out of mycelium.  These materials are designed to replace plastic, tree pulp, animal hides and more with something that’s less harmful, more sustainable and even more durable than the conventional products.  Now product designers from the Netherlands to Canada are coming up with new techniques to replace everything from rubber to plastic to leather to cardboard by using fungi.   

Inspiring Change

In addition to playing a hands-on role in tackling the environmental crisis, new research suggests that mushrooms could help ameliorate an even larger challenge: changing public opinions about the environmental crisis. While three out of four Americans report a desire to personally help the environment, only one in five actually takes daily actions to limit their impact on the Earth. The use of psychedelic mushrooms, which has been historically associated with the outdoors and a close connection to nature, does in fact appear to be linked with increased environmental consciousness. This is believed to be because the use of psychedelics results in “ego dissolution” and increases feelings of cohesion with the natural world around us.

In 1949, Ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

In a 2017 study, Matthias Forstmann, a social psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at Yale University surveyed nearly 1,500 people about drug experiences, nature-relatedness, and pro-environmental behaviors, like recycling or saving water. When controlling for various factors, he found that psychedelic use does seem to be linked to an increased understanding of one’s role in nature and therefore a heightened sense of environmental responsibility. Gul Dolen, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, also found that psychedelics are linked to “synaptic plasticity,” meaning susceptibility to change synaptic connections between neurons which allows beliefs and ideologies to be molded more easily when exposed to psychedelics. This is likely what facilitates the “epiphanies” many people experience when tripping.

Widespread psychedelic use in the 1960s and 1970s did coincide with the upheaval of environmental movements but the greater message behind using psychedelics to save the planet is connectedness and awareness. With or without mushrooms, exposure to nature and a deeper understanding of its importance to our species and the entire world is the ultimate source of environmental consciousness and social responsibility which can be achieved through increased time outdoors and education about our natural spaces. 

The multitude of uses for this resilient and versatile fungi leave no doubt as to why they are taking center stage as a modern superfood. Their powerful properties allow them to support our ecosystems, heal the body, meld the mind, and process plastic waste and perhaps build the future. While their quiet growth is often understated, the benefits of mushrooms, fungi, and all things mycelium is nothing short of marvelous.

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