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How mushrooms can be your medicine

The popularity of mushrooms has exploded in recent decades and today the white mushroom is one of the most common vegetables found on household shopping lists. Recently, some more exotic varieties of mushrooms have arrived on our fresh produce shelves, including shiitake, oyster and shimeji, to name just a few.

Mushrooms were highly prized by many ancient civilisations for their intense flavour and medicinal properties. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt valued mushrooms so highly that subjects of non-royal blood were forbidden to eat them, thereby securing the entire kingdom’s supply for themselves. There is evidence of mushrooms being eaten in China more than 2000 years ago and even earlier in Chile. The oldest European human mummy, the “Iceman”, dated to about 5000 years ago, was carrying two types of dried mushrooms with him when he perished, one of which has since been found to have antibacterial properties.

There is evidence of the ritual and spiritual significance of mushrooms throughout many civilisations, from North Africa to North and South America, Russia, Europe and China. Hallucinogenic mushrooms were often part of shamanic rituals or initiations and were used to try to open a person’s connection with their spirit guides. As well as having hallucinogenic properties, several types of mushrooms are poisonous and have been implicated in the murder of numerous powerful people in history, including a Roman emperor and a pope.

Most mushrooms were once harvested from forests and other damp areas after periods of heavy rain in the autumn, but these days most are cultivated in large-scale mushroom farms. Mushroom cultivation began in the 17th century in limestone caves in France and soon spread to England. By the end of the 19th century, the growing of mushrooms for domestic use spread to the United States and exploded as innovations were developed in maintaining ideal growing conditions. The US is now the world’s largest producer of mushrooms.

Nutritional powerhouses

As mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi and not technically a plant at all, they have a very different nutritional profile from that of most vegetables. They contain high amounts of B vitamins, including biotin, as well as potassium, copper, selenium and moderate amounts of vitamin C, fibre, protein, folate, iron, zinc and ergothioneine, an antioxidant unique to mushrooms. Being predominantly made up of water and fibre, mushrooms add very few calories, which means that in energy-to-nutrients ratio it’s hard to find a superior food.

Surprisingly, mushrooms also contain moderate amounts of vitamin D, which is not found in any other non-animal food; this may be one of the reasons why mushrooms are often referred to as “meat for vegetarians”. As recent research has linked vitamin D deficiency with everything from cancer to diabetes and dementia, there is even more reason to add some mushrooms to your diet.

It’s a common misconception that mushrooms are a good source of vitamin B12, however only ultra-trace amounts of B12 have been found in mushrooms and this is most likely due to B12 being present in the composting material used to grow the mushrooms on. There are, however, large amounts of the other B group vitamins in mushrooms, which are responsible for their energy-boosting effect. As these vitamins are damaged by heat, it’s important to not overcook mushrooms if you want to gain the most B vitamins from them.

Healing on your plate

The volume of evidence of the health benefits of mushrooms continues to grow rapidly as more researchers are examining fungi for unique compounds that may be able to help in the development of treatments to fight cancer and other major diseases. Many of the mushrooms under investigation are exotic, rare species that are not currently being cultivated for human consumption, but most of the varieties of mushrooms available at your local fruit and vegetable market have been shown to have positive health benefits.

The common white mushroom has been found to have an inhibiting effect on the production of oestrogen in the body, which can lead to a reduction in the risk of breast cancer. A study of 2000 women in China in 2009 found that those women who ate mushrooms daily were 64 per cent less likely than women who did not eat mushrooms to develop breast cancer, and if they drank green tea as well they were 89 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer.

Other recent research has shown that the common mushroom can boost your immune response against cancer cells and viruses, and also kill cancer cells and cause them to stop dividing. The fibre contained in the common white mushroom, which is the same as that found in oats, has the ability to reduce cholesterol levels.

Shiitake mushrooms are among the most popular culinary mushrooms in Chinese cuisine, being prized for their strong, earthy taste. These mushrooms have been included in medicinal soups and teas in China for centuries and modern research has confirmed that this mushroom has potent immune-stimulating properties as well as being anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Concentrated extracts of the shiitake mushroom are used as a cancer therapy in Japan and some other Asian countries.

Eating your mushrooms

Mushrooms should be eaten fresh as they don’t last more than a few days in the fridge and should be stored in a dry paper bag. You should never wash mushrooms as they will absorb the water and become slimy. Simply wipe them with a damp or dry cloth. Mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked and can be used in a whole range of dishes from stirfries, soups, stews and curries to pasta sauces and salads or roasted on the BBQ. Never eat a mushroom that has been collected in the wild unless you are certain it is safe to eat, as there are many types of poisonous mushrooms growing in Australia.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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