Fungi Used as Medicines throughout History

In 3,300 B.C., a tribal elder from Val Venosta, Italy, trekked across an Alpine glacier in an attempted getaway from enemies. But his foes got the better of him and with a well-aimed arrow pierced his subclavian artery, leaving him to bleed to death in a glacial cave where his mummified remains were discovered in’91. Among the belongings of Oetzi the Iceman were two medicinal mushrooms, the earliest evidence in existence of mushrooms used as remedies.

One of the mushrooms was Birch polypore – Piptoporus betulinus – which it is believed he used as a remedy against intestinal parasites. Eggs of the whipworm parasite (Trichuris trichiura) were found in his intestines. The other mushroom in the possession of Oetzi was Tinder fungus – Fomes fomentarius – which has been traditionally used in Europe to cauterize wounds and stop bleeding.

Both species belong to the group of mushrooms known as polypores, so named because of the many pores underneath. They often grow on trees, and to date no species is known to be poisonous to humans.

Polypores are usually considered inedible due to the fact that they are hard and wood-like. But for ancient peoples all across the globe – from China and India to Europe and the Americas – polypore teas and poultices have none-the-less been indispensible allies to human health at least for as long as written and oral traditions can recount.

In North America, some Indian tribes used polypore extracts as remedies against smallpox and other illnesses that arrived with the Europeans. Birch polypore was among these. Other polypores used were Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Reishi (Ganoderma resinaceum), Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), and the now threatened species Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis).

Although nearly extinct today, Agarikon was once common in the old-growth forests of ancient Europe. Greek physician Dioscorides referred to Agarikon as a remedy for tuberculosis in Materia Medica, 65 B.C. It’s the earliest record of a medicinal mushroom in European literature. Two millennia later, the historic use of Agarikon in Poland was put down in writing in the article Medicinal mushrooms in Polish Folk Medicine by K. Grzywnowics. Again, it included lung conditions, as well as rheumatoid arthritis and infected wounds.

While mushrooms have been utilized medicinally in the West, it pales in comparison to the adulation they have received in the Orient. Next follows three species of medicinal mushrooms from Asia, which simply have to be included in any article on medicinal mushrooms.

First in this list has to be Reishi, a mushroom so revered throughout Asian history that it’s found in numerous ancient wood-carvings and temple engravings. It also owns the distinction as the oldest medicinal mushroom in Chinese literature, first encountered in Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic, 2,000 B.C. Often referred to as a “panacea, its acclaimed properties are too numerous to list.

Next is a mushroom from Tibet known as Cordyceps, a small fungus growing out of the bodies of silk caterpillars. Its first mention was in The Classic Herbal of the Divine Plowman, 200 A.D. Traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, today it’s popular with athletes to improve strength and stamina.

Finally there is Shiitake, the number one gourmet mushroom of the Orient. Shiitake has been cultured in China for approximately 1,000 years as a food. What is less known is that it is also one of the most researched medicinal mushrooms in the world. A polysaccharide extracted from Shiitake is approved in Japan as an anti-cancer drug. Other qualities hinted at by research include antibiotic and immune enhancer.

Scientific research on medicinal mushrooms began in Japan in the late’60’s. A ground-breaking study by Dr. Ikekawa found that mushroom growers and their families had lower cancer rates then the communities in which they lived. Today, medicinal research into mushrooms has expanded exponentially around the world and is still increasing. Medicinal mushrooms are still making history.

Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. Mushrooms have not been aproved for medicinal use by the FDA. Always consult a licensed medical practitioner about the treatment of any medical condition.

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