Hippocrates, the great Greek physician and founder of modern medicine, once said that nature itself is the best physician. He could very well have been referring to mushrooms, as their mysterious powers of healing were written about extensively by the Greeks. Our earliest records about the use of medicinal mushrooms comes from cave art dated 40,000 years ago. The symbiosis between various fungal species and humans has existed for thousands of years – from ancient Spain to China, South America to Siberia and even right here in South Africa. This ancient relationship has been lost in Western society for the last 500 years. However, we are now seeing a revival in interest in the unique combination benefits of medicinal mushrooms.
The magic of mushrooms starts with mycelium, a fibrous root-like structure that grows in vast mats below our feet, sporting buttons that bloom into mushrooms. These mycelium mats can grow to be so vast that 16 cubic centimetres of soil can contain 1.6 kilometres of mycelium. A 2000-year-old 10 square kilometre mycelium network in Oregon, USA, is the world’s largest living organism. They breathe oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide and, weirdly, 30 per cent of their DNA is very similar to ours.
These vast mycelium networks have chemical filing systems that pass on information about the presence of pathogens and how to combat potential harmful bacterial and viral attacks. Nature’s internet is driven by myco-chemicals that contain polysaccharides and triterpenes, each of which has thousands of different variations depending on the mushroom species, and equally as many medicinal benefits.
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Cullen Taylor Clark, founder of Aether Herbalis & Apothecary, which produces local medicinal mushroom extracts, explains the relevance of mushrooms in our current times. “Species like Reishi, Turkey Tail, Meshima and more are being looked at as possible solutions to combating viral outbreaks. Due to COVID-19 being a novel virus, we don’t quite have enough research yet to say for certain that the triterpenoids found in various mushrooms can destroy this infection.” He does, however, say that they can “significantly increase white blood cell count and dramatically upgrade our immune response, particularly the process of phagocytosis, the mechanism by which killer cells roam the body, picking up debris and consuming toxins and harmful organisms”.
Aether Herbalis & Apothecary is three years old and based in the Eastern Cape, where it harvests organic and naturally grown mushrooms and extracts myriad beneficial tinctures. Reishi is perhaps the best-known medicinal mushroom, with an arsenal of benefits including detoxing the liver, improving lung capacity, combating anxiety and even helping with sleep. “It is the most-researched herbal medicine in the world and has shown tremendous antiviral capabilities against various viral infections, including influenza type A, a form of HIV-1 in vitro, and even hepatitis B,” explains Clark.
The ancient medicinal magic of mushrooms is once again being unearthed as the world turns to nature’s viral combatants for assistance. Their benefits are being rediscovered and harnessed by local health entrepreneurs and embraced by a market ready to accept that nature may indeed be our best physician.