A Fungus Fair expert explains which mushrooms have medicinal properties, and why.
As mycologists converged on the Louden Nelson Community Center last weekend for Santa Cruz’s 41st annual Fungus Fair, I joined the shroom-curious masses, in search of some specific answers into the alleged medicinal properties of mushrooms. Thanks to recent rains, the displays overflowed with hundreds of locally foraged specimens of all shapes and sizes, from the fatal death cap to the delicate, petal-like oyster and delicious candy cap.
But it was the table of Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D, that held the Holy Grail—dozens of potently medicinal mushrooms nestled into a bed of dried leaves. A mycologist, herbalist, botanist, and scientific researcher, Hobbs had just returned from an afternoon scavenge near Harvey West, and a tiny piece of moss still clung to a strand of his hair as we talked.
“Turkey tail grows everywhere. Those big logs of turkey tail, I just picked those up out of the woods today,” says Hobbs, referring to a mushroom he often chews like gum as he walks in the woods. Clinically proven to improve the immune system, the fungus looks a lot like it sounds, growing in leathery fans striped in browns and grays. “What I recommend for people who want to use it frequently is to just go out, learn what it looks like—there’s no real toxic look-alike—harvest it and boil it down and make an extract of it, and take half a teaspoon to a teaspoon every day.”
Mushroom tea extract—a powder made from the concentrated and dried tea—is the traditional way that mushrooms have been used as medicines for thousands of years. Hobbs details how to make it in his most recent book, “Grow It, Heal It.” But taking it frequently is key, says Hobbs, since the compounds are short-acting, usually lasting between four to six hours.
Studies have shown that cancer patients who took turkey tail mushroom extract in conjunction with chemotherapy resulted in a one-third higher five-year survival rate than chemotherapy alone, and they are now an accepted adjunct to cancer treatments based on their immune-fortifying properties. Meanwhile, chaga, which grows primarily on the East Coast as well as in Eastern Europe and Russia, is used as a remedy for all kinds of cancers; shiitake extract is used to treat cancers, as well as HIV/AIDS; oyster mushrooms lower cholesterol and have anti-tumor properties; and reishi have been used as an anti-allergic, anti-tumor and antiviral remedy in China for some 4,000 years, among other uses.
But how does fungi act as an immunostimulant? All mushrooms contain beta-glucans. “They are basically highly branched, complex, very large sugar molecules,” says Hobbs. “Our gut has receptor sites that we’ve learned to recognize fungi over probably millions of years.” Absorbed by the gut, beta-glucans bind to gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT) and macrophages associated with the gut barrier, triggering a group of immune cells, natural killer cells, and phagocytosis—the engulfment of pathogens and foreign substances to break them down. This immune response extends to all edible mushrooms—which are perhaps one of the most overlooked of superfoods—in varying degrees.
“They’re loaded with iron, copper, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, and other trace minerals like zinc,” says Hobbs. “And they are high in fiber, which helps with elimination of toxins, reducing our absorption of fats, and stabilizing blood sugar and blood lipids.”
The most commonly cultivated mushroom in America is the button mushroom, which grow into crimini and then portobellos.
“But the problem with those is they’re cultivated in compost, so there’s a lot of fly larvae, so that means they have to spray them with malathion, which is an insecticide,” says Hobbs. “So, unless you buy organic then they could have residue.” And a lot of experts believe buttons are the least nutritious.
The most nutritious of edibles are shiitakes, oysters—the most digestible of all mushrooms, says Hobbs—maitakes, and of course wild foraged mushrooms. But cooking them is imperative, otherwise our bodies cannot break down and digest their nutrients.
He recommends going to Shopper’s Corner, which always has a wide variety of mushrooms on hand. “For maintenance and for health benefits you can still just eat a few shiitake, or whatever, three times a week, and that’s going to give you some immune benefits,” says Hobbs.
PHOTO: Mycologist and herbalist Christopher Hobbs with a red reishi mushroom—used to treat a number of ailments—at Santa Cruz’s 41st annual Fungus Fair. KEANA PARKER