Mushrooms are springing up in every woodland in Britain right now, and they’re also being promoted as the latest ‘superfood’.
This is not news to traditional Chinese medicine, where they’ve been jewels in the crown for thousands of years, but they hardly feature in the Western pharmacopoeia. Perhaps it’s because in Britain, at least, fungi are usually viewed with deep suspicion. It’s a shame, because we have many species that are just as good as those used in the East.
All fungi are chiefly composed of complex polysaccharides, which break down slowly in the body to give a sustained release of sugars. This can be very useful in the management of diabetes or low blood sugar, but the Chinese understanding goes deeper than that. The fungi that are most highly prized in TCM all share a basic ‘tonic’ quality, helping to feed the patient’s vitality and so help them to deal with all sorts of health issues that may not be directly influenced by the tonic itself. Thus, they are often prescribed for people recovering from a prolonged or serious illness, or for the elderly who may need to eke out their vital energy to enjoy a healthy old age. And to bring this use right up to date, there have been a lot of studies showing that some mushrooms, particularly Grifola frondosa and Coriolus versicolor, can be a very valuable part of cancer treatment, both as background support, and for their direct anti-tumour action.
Beyond that, specific mushrooms are prescribed for specific problems.
Ganoderma lucidum (Ling Zhi), for example, is used to alleviate or ward off altitude sickness. Lentinula edodes lowers blood cholesterol by a different route than statins. Cordyceps sinensis enhances lung function, and is used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive airways disease. The list goes on: no doubt if the spotlight were turned on some of the neglected fungi growing in the West, similar properties would be revealed there too.
And the ‘superfood’ claim? That’s because they are rich in certain antioxidants which are thought to help prevent not just cancers and diabetes, but other age-related problems like Alzheimers and heart disease as well. Ordinary button and white mushrooms are good, but the ones that really score highly are less popular here. In particular, ceps or porcini are getting a lot of attention, and there is research going on into whether their popularity in France and Italy is linked with a relatively low incidence of neurodegenerative diseases when compared with the US.