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The Magic of Mushrooms: The Unexpected Benefits of Fungi

Mushrooms are more than just a pizza topping. A part of the fungal kingdom, mushrooms have almost 50% of the same DNA as humans and share a common history of battling microbes. This is part of the reason why mushrooms can be so useful in treating certain human illnesses. But mushrooms are also beneficial for the planet. In mycoremediation, which is the use of mushrooms to clean up environments, the fungi can help remove contaminants from land and water. Read on to take a closer look at the magic of mushrooms.

Mushrooms Can Help Treat Human Illnesses

Reishi or lingzhi mushroom and powder, and pills on natural background.
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Using mushrooms to treat illnesses and medical conditions has been a common practice for centuries. Around 450 BCE, Hippocrates prescribed mushrooms as an anti-inflammatory and for cauterizing wounds. Indigenous tribes in early North America turned to puffball mushrooms to treat wounds, and in Asia, reishi mushrooms have been treating infections for more than 4,000 years.

Today, healthcare practitioners in Japan and China often use mushrooms in conjunction with cancer treatments. For example, Japanese physicians may prescribe shiitake mushrooms to stomach cancer patients while they undergo chemotherapy, and a compound from turkey tail mushrooms may also be given to cancer patients. Doctors in China continue to believe in the power of reishi mushrooms and may prescribe them to cancer patients as part of a treatment plan.

The Western world has not traditionally appreciated mushrooms’ ability to fight diseases, but this part of the globe is starting to catch up. A 2011 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health gave breast cancer patients a product derived from turkey tail mushrooms and discovered that the patients who received this treatment had more cancer-fighting cells. A mushroom called agarikon has also demonstrated promising signs of being able to treat a type of drug-resistant tuberculosis as well as different flu strains.

Western medicine continues to research the medical benefits of mushrooms. In the meantime, there are a few medications that have already been derived from mushrooms, including the antibiotic ganomycin and the chemotherapy medicine calvacin.

Mushrooms May Benefit Mental Health

A scientist cutting a Psilocybin mushroom over a glass plate.
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In addition to keeping people's bodies healthy, mushrooms may also have a positive impact on mental health. Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic substance found in several types of mushrooms. This drug is illegal to possess in the United States, but institutions like Johns Hopkins University have received permission to evaluate it.

One study by the university found that psilocybin was more effective than traditional antidepressants at reducing the symptoms of depression in adults. Researchers believe psilocybin may also aid in the treatment of addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and smoking.

Mushrooms Can Remove Pollution From Land and Water

White Oyster Mushrooms growing on a decaying log in a forest
Credit: Lost_in_the_Midwest/ Shutterstock

Mushrooms have microscopic threads called hyphae that form a large, usually underground body known as the mycelium. A mushroom's mycelium breaks down food sources using digestive enzymes, then transports them via a mycelial network. That same process can clean contaminated environments by breaking down things like pesticides, oil, dioxins, and plastics and making them less toxic. For elements that can't be broken down, like cadmium or mercury, being carried along this mycelial network will lessen their concentration in a specific location.

Oyster mushroom mycelia cleans soils with oil and gas pollution, as well as rids water of coliform bacteria. In 2017, these mushrooms helped restore soil that was affected by California wildfires.

Mycoremediation isn't a perfect solution. It takes time for mycelia to process pollutants, so immediate results aren't possible. Dangerous elements may also end up in the fruiting bodies of a mushroom (the spores that reproduce cells), which would make them unsafe to eat. However, these could be removed so there would be no risk of consumption.

Mushrooms Can Replace Non-Recyclable Items

Three different sizes of Greensulate, biomaterial made from mushrooms.
Credit: John B. Carnett/ Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

Though mushrooms can clean and purify, the best way to protect the environment is to avoid polluting it in the first place. And yes, mushrooms can assist with this as well.

Mushrooms have been transformed into packaging materials that are less toxic to the environment. They can also be used for insulation, paneling, and flooring. Adidas and other brands have made mycelium shoes and clothing.

Yet all these wonderful uses for mushrooms won't be possible if these macrofungi disappear. Mushrooms are being affected by climate change, pollution, and fungicides, and are losing their habitats. Hopefully, different mushrooms won't disappear before we learn what other magic they have to offer.