When thinking about foods that act as medicine, mushrooms are one of the most prominent throughout history. Mushrooms have been used to treat many kinds of diseases and ailments, and are still being used today in many modern medicines. Today, they are being studied to isolate specific chemicals produced in certain species that help with certain illnesses. For example, penicillin is a chemical compound found in Penicillium molds, and is now used widely as an antibiotic. Use of mushrooms as medicine precede modern science, and in many ways, modern science is actually trying to catch up with traditional knowledge of the different healing effects of mushrooms.
Mushrooms have been used as a medicine throughout ancient cultures all over the world. The Otzi man, found frozen in Austria for over 5,000 years, was discovered carrying a few different types of mushrooms. One being Birch Polypore which we now know has chemicals that help fight infections. (1) (2)
Another mushroom used in traditional medicine that science is now finding has beneficial use is chaga. Chaga is a fungus found across North America and Russia and was used for inflammation and to help treat arthritis. Studies are now finding that the high amounts of melanin and and antioxidants in chaga also might have uses in slowing the spread of certain cancers. (3)
However not all mushrooms used were to aid in physical ailments. Some were used to treat ailments of the mind. In places like India and Central America, psychedelic mushrooms had a place in treating things like seizures, migraines, depression and many other neurological disorders. They also would have been used in religious rituals and ceremonies in order to commune with their gods. (4)
Current uses of mushrooms seem to be split between culinary use and medicinal use. Modern medicine is studying the effects that different chemicals derived from mushrooms have in treating many diseases. These include cancer, malaria and diabetes. Culinarily, mushrooms are used purely for flavor. I think this split between food and medicine is actually a detriment to it’s use, especially since many of the mushrooms we use in cooking have health benefits. For example, if you have an inflammation issue where you would normally take an anti-inflammatory medication, why not just add chaga to your diet and use the anti-inflammatory drug for flare ups? Many anti-inflammatory drugs, if taken too frequently, have negative effects on your stomach and gut health, so the less you have to take these medications the better. (5) Why, then, isn’t food used as a preventative measure to, if not avoid, reduce the number of medical treatments one has? Relying on medicine to keep you healthy has many flaws, as does relying only on “natural” ways of staying healthy. I believe that we achieve true health when we combine the knowledge we have of food and medicine and don’t rely too much on one or the other. When speaking of psychedelic mushrooms too, I think it is a shame that they were blacklisted for as long as they were so that no research could be done to find potential benefits. Now we are seeing states ease up on laws regarding psychedelic mushrooms, opening the door for research on the effects these chemicals may have on mental health and other neurological issues.
- Medicinal-Mushrooms.pdf (vtherbcenter.org)
- The Discovery of Otzi the Iceman and Its Significance (thoughtco.com)
- Chaga Mushroom: Benefits, Side Effects, and Preparations (verywellhealth.com)
- Drugs in Early Americas Included ‘Magic’ Mushrooms and Toad Skins | Live Science
- NSAIDs for Rheumatoid Arthritis: Anti-inflammatory Drugs (webmd.com)