Eastern medicine has been around for thousands of years, and traditionally consists of practices like meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, Tai Chi, and herbal medicines. In the United States we generally consider it to be complementary to what we consider traditional forms of medication. With that said, more and more people are embracing functional food. Functional food is a form of dietary “medicine” that focuses on eating foods that go beyond cravings and indulgent eating, and instead focuses on eating foods that are proven to have nutritional and therapeutic impact on our systems. We’ve also embraced using nutritional supplements to boost the efficacy of our diets. A current trend that encompasses both traditional eastern medicine and modern nutritional supplements is to take mushroom supplements. For the best overall understanding of this trend, we need to understand the benefit of mushrooms to our diets, how our body uses the supplements, and what to look for when purchasing a supplement to take.
Mushrooms have been used in eastern medicine for thousands of years. It has not been used quite as commonly in the west, but this is due in part to the difficulty in obtaining certain types of mushrooms in the United States, as well as a lack of understanding of the value of mushrooms to our overall health. Here are some mushroom facts:
- There are estimated to be over 140,000 species of mushroom on the planet, but only 22,000 have been identified. Scientists estimate that at least 700 of those could have medicinal benefit.
- Non-edible mushrooms also offer up health benefits.
- Mushrooms are linked to lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Mushrooms are high in antioxidants and contain selenium, two properties that are linked to reducing your risk of cancer.
- Killer T-cells help the body’s immune response, and mushrooms help trigger their production.
- Mushrooms are the only vegan form of vitamin D that you can get from a dietary source.
These are just a few of the facts surrounding mushrooms, and are enough to justify considering adding mushrooms as a dietary staple or supplement. With just these few facts surrounding mushrooms, imagine how many other nutritional benefits may be present.
Mushrooms can be found around the world, but China is the largest exporter of mushrooms worldwide. The climate there is prime for the growth and development of mushrooms, and with such a rich and varied history surrounding their use of medicinal mushrooms, it makes sense that they would lead the development of mushroom supplements. While most mushrooms can be eaten to receive the medicinal properties, scientists have found several types that require processing in order to receive their benefits. These mushrooms require a “cracked cell wall.” What that means is that mushrooms lack the plant fibers cellulose that our bodies are used to digesting. Instead, their fibers are called chitin and are indigestible. Scientists use a process of flash steaming the mushrooms to break down the cell walls, and in doing so that allows the polysaccharides to be released. These are very potent and may be easily released and concentrated once the cell wall is cracked. This concentrated form is the only way that we can obtain the therapeutic values of these mushrooms polysaccharides. Ingesting these in a nutritional supplement is the best way to consume these mushrooms, and the best way to receive their nutritional value.
There is some debate as to what part of the mushroom provides optimum levels of nutrition. The fruiting body is what we call the traditional part of the mushroom. This is the stem, cap, spores that you see when walking through the woods. The mycelium is the “root” of the mushroom. It is the part that is attached to the host (be it a tree stump or a patch of dirt.) The mycelium is what absorbs all of it’s surrounding nutrients, which some argue make it the most valuable part of the mushroom. However, others argue that by not including the fruiting body there are many nutrients left out. The biggest controversy has to do with mycelium, or myceliated grain. Many supplements will claim to be made of mycelium, but what they actually are is mass produced mycelium (essentially the root of the mushroom without the easily identified top portion) grown on grain, a farming procedure that is common in the United States and makes it easy to mass produce mycelium. For products containing myceliated grain, there will be a significant amount of ground grain in the supplement. Sometimes the amount of grain is greater than the amount of mycelium in the product, which greatly dilutes the mushroom supplement and makes it less powerful. Consumers looking for a mushroom supplement should look for one made from the fruiting body of the mushroom, avoiding those made from myceliated grain or even a “full spectrum” as some of these are a misleading advertisement. If a product contains any amount of myceliated grain then it can no longer be considered full spectrum, meaning that it contains every major component of the mushroom.
The current research on mushrooms indicate that they can potentially significantly impact our over-all well-being. From reducing the risk of certain types of cancer, acting as an anti-inflammatory, lowering cholesterol, and slowing the aging process, it’s a supplement worth considering. With that understanding, there are some who should do so with caution. Anyone who has had an organ transplant should definitely discuss this with their doctor, as killer T-cells may increase the bodies reaction to the implant and cause the body to reject it. Even with these considerations in mind, mushrooms provide a plethora of nutritional benefits and mushroom supplements are considered to be a valuable asset to most diets.