Fungi are fascinating organisms that play an important role in human and environmental health. In this article, we review some of the most relevant aspects of fungi and their relationship with health, from a scientific perspective.
Fungi are part of the microbiota, the set of microorganisms that inhabit different parts of the human body, such as the skin, mouth or intestine. The microbiota is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system, digestion and metabolism. The fungi that are part of the microbiota are called mycobiota and are mainly yeasts of the genus Candida.
The mycobiota can be altered by various factors, such as the use of antibiotics, stress or diet, which can lead to an imbalance between beneficial microorganisms and pathogens. This imbalance is known as dysbiosis and can cause various diseases, such as fungal infections, allergies or intestinal inflammation.
Fungi also play a key role in food and drug production. Some fungi are edible and have high nutritional and medicinal value, such as mushrooms, mushrooms or truffles. Other mushrooms are used to ferment foods and beverages, such as bread, cheese, wine or beer. Mushrooms are also a source of bioactive substances with antibiotic, antitumor or immunomodulatory properties, such as penicillin, cyclosporine or PSK.
Fungi also play a fundamental role in environmental health, as they are responsible for the decomposition of organic matter and the recycling of nutrients in ecosystems. Fungi form symbiotic associations with plants, called mycorrhizae, which enhance their growth and resistance to pests and diseases. Fungi can also be used as biological control agents for insects harmful to agriculture.
Fungi and their relationship to health
Fungi are a group of heterotrophic organisms belonging to the kingdom Fungi. Although often classified as plants, fungi are actually a separate group of organisms characterized by their ability to break down organic matter and their role in the production of food, medicines and other products useful to humans.
Although some fungi are toxic and can cause serious diseases, many others have medicinal properties and can be beneficial to human health. In fact, some of the most important drugs in modern medicine are derived from natural compounds produced by fungi.
The relationship between fungi and human health is very complex and multifaceted. In this introduction, we will explore some of the ways in which fungi can affect our health and well-being.
Nutrition and mushrooms
One of the most basic ways mushrooms can affect human health is through their nutritional value. Mushrooms are a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals, and their consumption can be beneficial to a balanced diet.
In particular, mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, which is essential for bone health and the immune system. Some varieties of mushrooms also contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
However, it is important to note that not all mushrooms are edible, and some can be toxic or even deadly if consumed. Therefore, it is important to make sure you are consuming the correct variety of mushrooms.
Medicinal mushrooms and their use in traditional medicine
Since ancient times, mushrooms have been valued for their medicinal properties in many cultures around the world. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, mushrooms have been used for centuries to treat a wide variety of diseases and conditions.
Some common medicinal mushrooms include reishi, shiitake, maitake and cordyceps. These mushrooms contain bioactive compounds that are believed to have therapeutic effects on the human body.
For example, reishi is known for its ability to stimulate the immune system and reduce stress and anxiety. Cordyceps has been used to improve endurance and athletic ability, as well as to treat respiratory conditions.
Scientific Studies on the Therapeutic Effects of Mushrooms
In recent decades, there has been a growing interest in research on the therapeutic effects of mushrooms. Many studies have shown that bioactive compounds found in mushrooms have beneficial effects on the human body.
For example, some studies have shown that medicinal mushrooms can improve the body’s immune response, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and improve cardiovascular health.
A 2018 study in the United Kingdom found that regular mushroom consumption was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. Another study conducted in Japan in the same year found that antioxidant compounds present in mushrooms could reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In addition to their effect on physical health, some studies have shown that mushrooms can also have a positive effect on mental health. For example, a 2016 study in China found that reishi extract could improve symptoms of depression in patients with chronic kidney disease.
Bioactive compounds in mushrooms and their effects on the human body
Mushrooms are a rich source of bioactive compounds that can provide a variety of benefits to human health. These compounds are produced by mushrooms to protect against pathogens and predators, and can have positive effects on the human body when consumed as part of a balanced diet.
One of the best known compounds in mushrooms is ergothioneine, an antioxidant that has been shown to have a protective effect on DNA and cells. Ergothioneine is found in significant amounts in mushrooms such as mushroom, oyster and shiitake.
Another bioactive compound present in mushrooms is beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that has been shown to have beneficial effects on immune system health. Beta-glucans can help improve the body’s immune response to diseases and pathogens, and are found in mushrooms such as reishi, maitake and shiitake.
In addition to ergothioneine and beta-glucans, mushrooms also contain a variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. These compounds include polysaccharides, polyphenols and triterpenes, which are found in mushrooms such as reishi, chaga and cordyceps.
Regular consumption of mushrooms may also help improve brain and nervous system health. Some mushrooms contain neuroprotective compounds, such as hericenone and erinacin, which have been shown to help protect nerve cells and improve memory and cognition. These compounds are found in mushrooms such as lion’s mane and reishi.
Medicinal mushrooms and their use in traditional medicine
One of the best known medicinal mushrooms is reishi, also known as the “immortality mushroom”. Reishi has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years to treat a variety of conditions, including liver disease, asthma and sleep problems. Reishi contains triterpenes and polysaccharides, compounds that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in the human body.
Another widely used medicinal mushroom is shiitake, which has been used in traditional Japanese medicine for over a thousand years. Shiitake contains compounds such as lentinan and beta-glucans, which have been shown to have beneficial effects on the immune system and may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Cordyceps is another medicinal mushroom that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Cordyceps is believed to help improve physical endurance and lung capacity, and has been used to treat chronic fatigue and asthma. Cordyceps contains adenosine, a compound that helps improve blood flow and oxygenation of cells.
Lion’s mane is another medicinal mushroom that has been used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine for centuries. Lion’s mane is believed to help improve memory and cognition, and has been used to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Lion’s mane contains hericenones and erinacins, compounds that have been shown to have neuroprotective effects and stimulate the growth of new nerve cells.
Precautions when consuming mushrooms for your health
Mushrooms are an important source of nutrients and bioactive compounds that can have beneficial effects on human health. However, as with any food, it is important to take precautions when consuming mushrooms to ensure their safety and minimize the risk of unwanted side effects.
The main precaution to take into account when consuming mushrooms is to correctly identify the species to be consumed. Some mushroom species are edible and safe for human consumption, while others can be toxic and cause serious illness and even death. It is important to make sure that mushrooms are identified by an expert before consuming them, especially if they are collected in the wild.
Another important precaution is to cook mushrooms properly. Some mushroom species may contain toxic substances that degrade during cooking. Cooking mushrooms at an appropriate temperature and for sufficient time can destroy these substances and make them safe for consumption.
In addition, it is important to consider the dosage when consuming mushrooms. Some mushrooms may contain bioactive compounds that can have side effects if consumed in large quantities. It is important to follow the dosage recommendations on any mushroom supplement and not exceed the recommended dosage.
It is also important to note that some people may be allergic to mushrooms. Allergic reactions can range from mild to life-threatening, and it is important to pay attention to symptoms and seek medical attention if severe symptoms are experienced.
Finally, it is important to purchase mushrooms from safe and reliable sources. Wild mushrooms collected in the wild may contain contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides. It is important to purchase mushrooms from reliable suppliers who have followed food safety regulations.
How to safely identify and collect edible and medicinal mushrooms
Mushrooms are a delicious and healthy ingredient in cooking, as well as a potential source of medicinal bioactive compounds. However, collecting and consuming mushrooms can be dangerous if not properly identified. Here are some guidelines for safely identifying and collecting edible and medicinal mushrooms:
Education: The first thing you should do before picking mushrooms is to educate yourself about the common species in your area and the risks associated with picking. Look online for information, check out books and local library resources, and consider joining a local mushroom picking group for help and guidance.
Inspection: Before collecting any mushroom, it is important to examine it carefully. Check for color, texture, shape, and any lamellae or spores under the cap. Pay special attention to any signs of poisonousness, such as bad odor, slimy texture or abnormal spots.
Location: It is important to know the habitat and location of the mushrooms you plan to collect. Some species grow best in certain types of soil or in specific areas, such as forests, meadows or near specific trees. You should also avoid collecting mushrooms near roads, urban areas, or areas with known contamination.
Safety: Always carry a basket or mesh bag with you to collect mushrooms, as this helps spread the spores and allows the mushrooms to continue to reproduce. Wear gloves and carry a bottle of water to wash mushrooms before taking them home. Do not pick mushrooms that are too small or appear to be in poor condition.
Identification: Once you have mushrooms at home, consult identification guides and online resources to verify their species and make sure they are edible and medicinal. If you are unsure about identification, seek help from an expert in your area or avoid consuming the mushrooms.
Preparation: Edible mushrooms should be cooked before consumption to kill any bacteria or parasites they may contain. Cook mushrooms over low heat and make sure they are thoroughly cooked before eating.
Phoneia.com (May 12, 2023). Mushrooms: the miracle food for a healthier life. Recovered from https://phoneia.com/en/mushrooms-the-miracle-food-for-a-healthier-life/