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The Misunderstood Species: How Fungi Is Changing Human Health. | Kadam Ali Ali Bakhsh

Traditionally, when the average person thinks of fungi, they tend to imagine portobello caps in the grocery aisle or the toadstools under trees and bushes. However, fungi are much more than garnishes for omelets, or packets of yeast. Fungi are considered some of the most complex, intelligent single-celled organisms on the planet. Most people can’t believe that such a simple life-form can be so smart, but in many ways, mushrooms may offer better solutions to consumers than any person, or generic pharmaceutical can.  

In the 1950s, Swiss chemists found that the psilocybin in ‘magic mushrooms’ had therapeutic potential, but public backlash prevented further research for decades to come. Today, we have landmark studies published by the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research showing that the mystical experiences people have during trips are mentally healing. The study also aimed to find out why these mystical experiences might be so life-changing. 

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria Red and white Sprouting / Photo Credit: Giphy.com

The earliest signs of mushrooms being used were for ritualistic practices were found in a cave in Villar Del Humo, Spain, and are thought to be about six thousand years old. Brian Akers and his team from the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha hypothesize that the fungus might have been a Psilocybe strain due to its characteristics in relation to the shamanist depictions on the walls of the cave.

Fungi digest their food externally, like plant roots that get their food from the soil and water. They are known as nature’s recyclers because they can break down organic matter. Fungi can produce and form a network of fibers called mycelium—a white weblike structure that grows around substrates and is mainly found underground where the roots of trees and other plants can connect to the fungi. Think colonies of the same fungi, like bacteria—a single cell has the ability to form a mycelium network. Fungi are also known to produce mold, a byproduct of the degradation and breakdown of their food. Mushrooms eat organic carbon and breathe oxygen like humans, but on a more microscopic level and without organs.

One of the most profound medical discoveries, Penicillin, was accidentally derived from a type of fungus called Penicillium. However, a few hundred years ago, Egyptians used moldy bread on wounds to prevent infections. It wasn’t until later, in 1928, Scottish ​​scientist Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday to find penicillin fungi growing in a petri dish. Penicillin is an antibiotic drug that is now used in a broad range of antibacterial treatments. This compound was found in the Penicillium mold, which is a type of fungus. This implies that mushrooms might contain varieties that may hold new compounds to advance medicine for human beings.

Photo Credit: 60 Second Docs, Giphy.com

Research from the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine finds that certain mushrooms like lion’s mane, turkey tail, and Cordyceps may be used to increase immune response, aid digestion, and boost cognition. Lion’s mane has recently been introduced to the West as brain food but has already been known within Asian cultures to help with cognitive function and memory. Research shows a link between lion’s mane consumption and nerve growth, which enables the brain’s myelin to be strengthened. 

While research on lion’s mane effects on depression is limited, scientists led by Puei-Lene Lai, from the University of Malaysia, hypothesize that certain compounds in the mushroom that pass through the blood-brain barrier also pass through receptor sites linked to depression, specifically the 5-H2A receptor. These receptor sites produce chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. When something goes wrong in one of these sites, depression, and anxiety are soon to follow. 

Depression affects over three hundred million people in the United States. Doctors prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) to treat it. These medications carry side effects like decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction, headaches, nausea, and more. Patients often stop taking the medications due to their intense side effects. Instead of treating depression with medicine with adverse effects, we should look into researching mushrooms for alternative solutions.

Dr. Barbara Nicholson, professor and head of the Biology Department at Central Connecticut State University, doesn’t focus on the biochemical aspects of mushrooms. She studies taxonomy and has heard of the many health benefits of mushrooms. “Claviceps purpurea is a mushroom that is known to help with depression more so than lion’s mane” Dr. Nicholson bought a vial of lion’s mane extract for memory and cognitive improvement as well. 

“I think a more common use of lion’s mane is actually for memory improvements. And so I thought I’d try it, I saw some in CVS or something. . . I could use some improvements to my memory these days.”

An article published by Cheng Yu-Wei, from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, describes a double-blind study in which dementia patients from ages fifty to eighty years old were given lion’s mane extract to improve mild cognitive impairment. More research on isolating compounds is needed in order to better help the aging population. Unlike the immediate strength of Western medicine, supplementation with mushrooms isn’t noticed right away as improvements occur gradually.

Despite their benefits, mushrooms have been stigmatized due to the recreational use of hallucinogenic varieties. The 1970s saw a war on drugs resulting in the ban of many substances, including psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), a derivative of ergot fungi found in moldy rye. However, mushrooms don’t have to be scary; they can be beneficial to our health.

Photo Credit: KQUEDScience, Giphy.com, PBS

Not all mushrooms are hallucinogenic or dangerous, though some can be, so it’s best to go mushroom foraging with someone experienced, such as a mycologist. Although you don’t have to have a mycology degree to forage, go with a foraging class so that an expert can check your specimens. 

Elizabeth Manning lives in Montana and goes foraging every year. Manning is a naturalist who lives by a set of rules when it comes to hunting and gathering. She is eco-friendly and tries to teach her kids about living off the land and being humble in life. “I’ve been mushroom foraging every year with my family since I was four,” she told me.

I asked her to share with me some general rules to go by when foraging. “As a rule of thumb, never pick a mushroom to the root. For morel mushrooms, it’s mostly knowing your land, knowing where you have been and where they have been, and the seed in similar areas. This means that when the mushroom blooms or opens its spores, it seeds in similar areas to where it’s been.”

Elizabeth, who has been around forests her entire life, knows the lay of the land in Montana and can find several spots for mushrooms easily. It is important to do research and have a book such as The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff on identifying mushrooms should you scour the grounds. “A big thing where I’m from is respecting the land. Just because you can pick five gallons of mushrooms doesn’t mean that you should. Wildlife lives off of it too. Take what you think you’ll need and leave the rest.”

Photo Credit: Valeria Boltenova

Mushroom foraging is trending. Local meetup groups on sites like meetup hold regular mushroom foraging events where an instructor leads the class and examines specimens after the foraging is done. 

Unlike penicillin, the next big breakthrough will not be an accident, researchers from around the world are racing to find healthier pharmaceuticals for the aging population. Universities and drug companies like Atai Life Sciences are pooling money into studies spanning up to six years; the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease conducted a study from 2011 to 2017 on more than six hundred Chinese seniors aged sixty and older. The study found that those who ate more than two portions of mushrooms a week had reduced mild cognitive impairment. Mushrooms have been around us for thousands of years, but real research has only developed within the last decade. Perhaps the future of humanity is to be guided by nature instead of machines and industry. Perhaps one of the smartest single-celled organisms can save one of the most complex organisms, us.

Kadam Ali Ali Bakhsh is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine

Header Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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