We’re big fans of mushrooms here at Wooden Spoon Herbs. They’re an essential part of the ecosystem, both within us and around us. They help the plants we rely on communicate, remediate toxins in our environment, provide a myriad of benefits to our bodies and so much more.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the powerful impact mushrooms have on our planet (and beyond!?). Mushrooms have been used medicinally for a very long time, the over 5000 year old Otzi knew a thing or two about the magic of mushrooms long before modern science could confirm their properties.
Exploring the world of mushrooms is a whole new adventure, stepping outside the plant realm, since technically, mushrooms aren't plants! Many medicinal mushrooms can be found in the forests around us, and while we won’t be taking about how to ID them, it’s worth looking into for your bio region. Luckily for those less inclined to go scour the woods for elusive fungi, there are ways to get their medicine with ease. From local farmers markets to small scale growers and herbalists, mushrooms are becoming more widely available both as medicine and for culinary exploration.
Before we discuss some medicinal mushrooms we use (and love) here at WSH, let’s get scientific and talk about some of the constituents that give them their medicine.
Polysaccharides are water-soluble sugar molecules bound together in a long chain. This structure binds water, fat, sugar, dissolved minerals and creates a “reservoir” for slower absorption and interaction within the digestive tract.
Because of this we can consider them demulcent herbs (just think ooey gooey mucilaginous quality). Demulcent herbs aid in slow sugar absorption (hypoglycemia), assist in bowel movement (aperiant) and provide absorbable sugars for our friendly gut bacteria (prebiotic). Polysaccharides are most well known for their support of the immune system. One immune system mechanism of action happens first in our gastrointestinal tract by means of trickery! Polysaccharides'- structure is similar to that of bacteria, so when they interface with our gut lining (specifically at our peyer’s patches in the small intestine) they elicit a non specific immune response. This non-specific action falls into the category of immunomodulators in herbal medicine. Immunomodulators essentially modulate the immune system into balance by either upregulation or downregulation of immune activity. They can be very beneficial in conditions such as chronic infections (when upregulation is needed) and autoimmunity or allergies (downregulation). Some other benefits of Polysaccharides worth mentioning: they have been shown to assist in apoptosis of cancer cells (self induced explosion), support the production of SOD (our bodies own super powerful intrinsic antioxidant), and have a wide range of anti-inflammatory compounds. Types of polysaccharides commonly found in mushrooms include beta-glucans, proteoglycans, cellulose, chitin, glucose and fructose.
Triterpenes are a broad category of specific structured compounds found in plants. They are volatile in structure and quite small, some so small they can pass blood to brain barrier which is very crucial in providing herbal treatment for certain conditions. Their volatility makes them alcohol soluble and classifies them as lipid substance which interfaces in the liver where fats are processed. Triterpenes have a similar structure to cholesterol, allowing them to fill receptors and prevent overproduction of cholesterol. (Fun fact: Cholesterol is a natural antioxidant produced by liver. It’s our bodies natural response to injury and inflammation of capillary structures.) Triterpenes have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, regulate histamine response, hypotensive and sedative.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids that essentially provide the building blocks for our bodies. Along with providing dietary nutrients, proteins found in mushrooms provide the raw materials our immune system needs to build protector cells like T cells and monocytes.
Mushrooms also contain phenols (antioxidants), sterols (hormone structure compounds and vitamin D production), enzymes (catalyze metabolic function to produce nutrients for the body to use), a wide range of minerals and so much more!
There’s a lot to love about our fungi friends, and soon we’ll be back to talk about some of our favorite medicinal mushrooms! Stay tuned.