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Fungi Used as Medicines throughout History

Posted Apr 08 2010 10:11pm
During the European “Copper Age” five thousand years ago, a man of high ranking status fled his home valley of Val Venosta, Italy, across an Alpine glacier. But his enemies caught up with him. An arrow penetrated his subclavian artery, which soon bled him to death. In 1991, two unsuspecting tourists came upon his mummified remains. On the body of “Oetzi the Iceman” were found pouches with two medicinal mushroom species, the oldest known example of mushrooms used medicinally.

There is good reason to believe he carried both of these mushrooms along as natural remedies. Whipworm parasite eggs were found in Oetzi’s intestines. Birch polypore mushroom Piptoporus betulinus is a traditional de-worming remedy. The other mushroom in his possession, Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), may have been used to cauterize the wound on his right hand.

Birch polypore and Tinder fungus are both polypores, which have pores on their undersides, hence the name. Most polypores grow on trees and none is known to be poisonous.

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.

Native American traditions tell of using different kinds of polypore extracts to combat smallpox and other diseases introduced with the arrival of Europeans. This includes Reishi (Ganoderma resinaceum), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Birch polypore, and Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), as well as the now rare and endangered species Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis).

As it so happens, Agarikon is also the oldest mushroom referenced in European medical literature. It was listed by Dioscorides in the Materia Medica of 65 B.C. as a treatment for tuberculosis. In confirmation of this, Polish researcher K. Grzywnowics published an article in 2001 titled Medicinal mushrooms in Polish Folk Medicine where he states that Agarikon tea was historically used in his country as a remedy for lung conditions, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, open bleeding 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 is the polypore Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), which has been used in China and Japan as a health bestowing mushroom of immortality for at least two millennia. It was first mentioned in the 2,000 year old book Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic. Many ancient wood-carvings and temple engravings in the Orient bear testament to the homage paid to this acclaimed cure-all mushroom.

Next is Cordyceps, a minute fungus from the Tibetan plateau, parasitising on silk caterpillars. Cordyceps sinensis was first mentioned as a medicinal mushroom in The Classic Herbal of the Divine Plowman from 200 A.D. It is popular with athletes to improve physical stamina. Historically, it’s been used as an aphrodiciac.

Finally there is the Shiitake mushroom, which today is a common household name even in the West. In Asia, however, it is known to have been cultivated as a gourmet mushroom for at least a thousand years. What may surprise is that Shiitake is also one of the most researched medicinal mushrooms in the world. Its potential uses range from energizing tonic to immune-booster and antibiotic with anti-tumor properties.

Modern research into medicinal use of mushrooms began in earnest in the late 1960’s Japan. One pioneer, Dr. Ikekawa, discovered that families of mushroom growers had significantly lower cancer rates than their surrounding communities. Scientific research into medicinal mushrooms has expanded exponentially since that time and continues to increase and intensify until this day. Medicinal mushrooms are still in the process of 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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