When many of us think of mushrooms, we may think of culinary delights such as Portobello and Shiitake, or we may think of those "magic mushrooms." But the implication of mushrooms is absolutely profound. They have the potential to dramatically improve our health and the health of the planet, according to mycologist Paul Stamets.
I was fortunate to meet up with Paul last week after he delivered his powerful talk at the TEDMED conference in San Diego, California. Paul was an audience favorite at TEDTalks 2008, and he has quickly become a TEDMED sensation.
PF: Hello, Paul. Thanks so much for meeting with me today. You have been a mycologist for over thirty years. Can you explain what that entails?
PS: A mycologist is a biologist who specializes in the study of fungi. There are 2-4 million estimated species of fungi in the 'kingdom,' and about 150,000 are thought to be mushroom-forming fungi, yet we have only identified around 14,000 species thus far. Mycologists are few and far between. We are under-funded, poorly represented in the context of other sciences -- ironic as the very foundation of our ecosystems are directly dependent upon fungi, which ultimately create the foundation of soils.
PF: Well, your talk today certainly stirred interest in this important yet overlooked field. Earlier, we were discussing some of the amazing medical breakthroughs we've witnessed here at the TEDMED conference. Yet the audience was just as blown away with your low-tech, ecologically-friendly solutions to health restoration as they were with many of the higher-tech solutions.
PS: As stated at TEDMED, the FDA is so adverse to the approval of new drugs (and scandal!) that the estimates are now that a new drug costs more than a billion dollars to get to market. Drugs are isolated constituents -- single molecules -- studied for their activity. Mushrooms are constellations of hundreds of thousands of constituents.
What single drug can benefit you by:
1) supporting and strengthening your immune system?
2) providing anti-inflammatory properties?
3) providing anti-oxidant properties?
4) restricting blood vessel growth feeding tumors ("anti-angiogenesis")?
5) causing programmed cell death of cancer cells ("apoptosis")?
6) providing antiviral effects?
7) restricting the growth of pathogenic bacteria?
8) assisting conventional anti-cancer drugs to work more effectively at lower doses?
Mushrooms provide all these benefits, and they are not drugs. These are 'functional foods' and/or 'dietary ingredients,' which help support the immune system on a fundamental, multi-factorial level. Nature is a numbers game. We need all the support we can get as our immune systems and health are under assault from pollution, stress, contaminated food and age-related diseases as our lifespans increase.
PF: Next time I'm enjoying some delicious sautéed shiitake mushrooms, I know I'll be extra grateful as I'm now more aware of their wide variety of health benefits!
Paul, as I'm sure you know, botanicals such as echinacea and ginseng are somewhat in the mainstream; however, the implications of medicinal mushrooms seem to be so promising yet not as well known. Can you give us some examples of medicinal mushrooms and their healing properties?
PS: Mushrooms are miniature pharmaceutical factories, and of the thousands of mushroom species in nature, our ancestors and modern scientists have identified several dozen that have a unique combination of talents that improve our health. Culinary mushrooms available in many grocery stores such as Shiitake, Maitake, Oyster, Enoki, Shimeji, and Pioppinos -- to name a few -- are not only delicious but are very low in fat, have no cholesterol, are rich in vitamins, and when exposed to sunlight, are one of the best sources of vitamin D (provitamin D2) on the planet.
Moreover, the mycelium -- the filamentous cobweb-like cells that give rise to the mushrooms (the mushrooms are the 'fruit' of the mycelium) -- have uniquely amplified properties, especially against viruses and bacteria. My team and I have discovered, over decades of study, that mushroom mycelium is a rich resource of new antimicrobial compounds, which work in concert, helping protecting the mushrooms -- and us -- from microbial pathogens.
PF: During your TEDMED talk, you referred to an NIH (National Institutes of Health)-funded study regarding mushrooms and breast cancer. That sounded very promising. Can you provide the details on that study and its implications?
PS: NIH funded a $ 2.1 million dollar breast cancer study that was recently completed. The study used the mycelium from Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). The study group was for non-ER (non-estrogen responsive) breast cancer patients who took Turkey Tail capsules in combination with conventional therapies, particularly radiotherapy (radiation). After radiation therapy, and often in response to chemo-drugs, the native immune population of NK (natural killer) cells plummets. On a dose dependent basis, the study showed that the population of NK cells increased compared at 3 and 6 grams per day (6-12) capsules, compared to none. Modern medicine has great drugs, but nothing for helping the immune system as mushrooms do.