“Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.”
– Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher, and essayist
Science is ever-changing. Scientists and physicians used to be sure that contagions and diseases were spread from person to person by smell. This was called the Miasma Theory, and it was replaced in the 19th century by the more finely tuned Germ Theory we use today. The scientific method is constantly refining itself, and through it, we also discover some magical remedies that had been there the entire time.
We at The Optimist Daily love writing about holistic solutions for health and society, and one thing we just cannot stop talking about are mushrooms.
These plucky fungi gained a reputation in the 1970s as a vehicle for psychedelic exploration, but they’re not just for hippies anymore. Mushrooms of all types are at the forefront of modern medical, environmental, and culinary movements as versatile wonder-plant. In 2019 we wrote an ode to these wonder spores, and we want to update our readers on all the magnificent new discoveries of mushrooms.
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 bioremediation that filter and break down toxic land from oil spills or agricultural run-off to expanding and healing one’s own mind, the lowly mushroom is a powerhouse of purpose. We just keep discovering more ways of how versatile fungi can be in and out of the kitchen!
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 weigh 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 are 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 that 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.
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.
Now, we as everyday individuals can tap into nature and grow our own mushrooms from the comfort of our homes. You may have never thought about mushrooms as a houseplant, but designer Caity Duffus designed a kit called the Mycelia House enabling you to grow mushrooms in a simple container in your home and feel a deeper connection to the natural world through one of its lesser-known unifiers.
Feasting on Fungi
Mushrooms 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 is an American scientist and mushroom evangelist who forwarded the medicinal and edible mushroom movement. He 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.
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.”
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 “Bacon Bits” at Baton Rouge farmer’s 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.
Many mushrooms can also be a boon for your immune system. Keep your eye out in grocery stores and farmer’s markets for maitake, shitake, reishi, and cordyceps mushrooms. These are rich in D-glucans and beta-glucosides which stimulate the immune system, and they also contain lots of selenium, magnesium, and zinc which have been proven to help stave off the flu.
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. In exploring their effects on the mind, researchers have realized the potential 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. Modern science has discovered the amazing overlap between spirituality and medicine in the case of mushrooms. Many extoll the therapeutic benefits of hallucinogenic mushrooms in native rituals in places such as Oaxaca, Mexico. Guided rituals had a lot to teach science, and now psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a far more accepted practice than most ever thought it would be.
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.
This didn’t stop researchers from taking a closer look at the hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms. 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 80 percent of patients with life-threatening cancer experienced reduced depression when undergoing therapeutic and guided psilocybin exposure.
Discoveries like these kept building on each other, growing mushrooms in the scientific and national mindset to one day have countries offer up funds to further research to help people. Only a few months ago, Johns Hopkins received a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further its research into how psilocybin-assisted therapy can help treat tobacco addiction. Our culture certainly has come a long way since the hard-lining war on drugs. It was good to ban certain harmful substances, of course, but we the scientific community wouldn’t dismiss the potential benefits of a substance just because of a bad association. And taken properly under the right supervision, psilocybin mushrooms have a wonderfully therapeutic benefit.
After the successful results of initial experiments, researchers at Imperial College London ran trials comparing psilocybin with a leading SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressant, escitalopram. Lead researcher Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris said, “[Psychedelics] have a revolutionary potential, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
The positive effects of psilocybin are thought to affect 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 is thought to be what produces profound changes in a mental state which produce a more long-lasting positive outlook in comparison with pharmaceutical treatments.
When researchers took a closer look at psilocybin in the brain, they found that it went way beyond just making the patient feel good. They discovered that it actually increased the density of dendritic spines — small protrusions found on neurons that aid the transmission of electric signals between nerve cells — and had a dramatic improvement on patients experiencing depression.
Scientific minds continue to race with treatment possibilities with these truly magical fungi. Researchers keep growing the field and now believe therapy can extend even to anorexia and opioid addiction recovery. It’s not just a part-time fix either. Findings show that the positive and restorative benefits of psilocybin in therapy can last for months afterward.
And if you think that psilocybin treatments are limited to those on earth, you may want to think again. Researchers have suggested that astronauts, who are at risk of feelings of loneliness and depression, being so far removed from society and earth, may benefit from the regulated use of psilocybin.
Even eating non-psychedelic mushrooms has been seen to be beneficial for brain function. Paul Stamets points out, “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.”
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.” As Stamets pointed out, the lion’s mane mushroom is particularly known for this ability.
As if it weren’t enough that they can improve our health, did you know that mushrooms also play an active role in healing the environment?
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 break down 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 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 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.
In addition to playing a hands-on role in tackling the environmental crisis, 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 these 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, 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.
“The world is a skyscraper! Don’t always stay on the same floor! Go upstairs, go downstairs; visit the lives of other tenants! Visit eagles; visit mushrooms!”
– Mehmet Murat ildan, Turkish playwright and novelist
And if you’re interested in growing your own mushrooms at home or want to see what mushroom products you might be interested in, check out the Fantastic Fungi Shop for non-GMO, organic fungi solutions.