When we hear about medicinal mushrooms, it is often wrongly assumed that we are referring to "shrooms," the psychedelic ones. However, the realm of medicinal mushrooms encompasses a much broader spectrum of fungi, including the ones responsible for producing antibiotics like penicillin, as well as culinary mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, oyster, and lion's mane.
These fungi possess secondary metabolites, which are compounds that are not necessarily essential for the organism's growth and reproduction but rather aid in its survival. Secondary metabolites produce biological activity in the organism that consumes them, and can help ward off predators. Menthol is a prime example of a secondary metabolite; it is present in the mint family and is commonly used in traditional medicine to relieve throat irritation, nausea, and sunburn. Additionally, menthol is an antimicrobial agent that discourages large herbivores from consuming mint plants, thereby promoting their survival.
Another example of a secondary metabolite is penicillin, derived from the Penicillium fungi, which is effective in preventing bacteria from overrunning the fungi. Apart from the creation of a revolutionary antibiotic, the fungi also naturally produce bioactive compounds such as anti-fungal griseofulvin, the immunosuppressant mycophenolic acid, and the cholesterol-lowering drug compactin/Mevastatin.
It is worth noting that many of the life-saving medicines we have are derived from the secondary metabolites of plants and fungi. Our coexistence with nature is the foundation of our remarkable ability to heal ourselves. Given that fungi are more closely related to humans than plants, it is believed that the medicinal properties of fungi-derived drugs are a better fit for us than those derived from plants. It is essential to recognize that plants and fungi did not evolve to create medicines for us, but rather developed the mechanisms (secondary metabolites) to survive their own predators, and these mechanisms happen to have health benefits for us.
Our relationship with the environment has evolved over time, and we have been using plants and fungi as medicines long before the advent of synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals. We have receptors in our bodies that bind to non-human molecules such as carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and glucans from fungi, plants, and bacteria. The affinity of our innate receptors to foreign compounds allows the defense mechanisms of other organisms to have health-enhancing effects in our bodies.
So, what makes mushrooms medicinal? Most medicinal mushrooms are immunomodulating, meaning that when included in our diets, they enhance our immune system. Mushrooms can either down-regulate or up-regulate our immune response, depending on our bodies' requirements. Additionally, they can support other areas such as gut health, stress management, and brain and nerve health. Triterpenoids and beta-glucans are the two primary active compounds found in medicinal mushrooms, offering a wide range of biological activity such as anti-oxidative properties.
In conclusion, the universe of medicinal mushrooms is more expansive than just psychedelic fungi, comprising various fungi that produce antibiotics, culinary mushrooms, and a plethora of fungi with secondary metabolites that provide health benefits to us. With our co-evolution with nature, we have been using plants and fungi as medicines since time immemorial, and it is no surprise that our bodies have receptors that allow us to take advantage of their health-enhancing effects. Incorporating medicinal mushrooms into our diets can improve our immune systems, as well as other areas such as gut health and stress management.