Why medicinal mushrooms are the next big wellness trend.
BY TIANA CLINE
MYCELIUM is a vital part of the natural world and lately, it would appear that certain types of functional fungi, namely medicinal mushrooms, are the next big wellness trend. In reality, the use of medicinal mushrooms goes back to the neolithic period. In fact, they’ve been a part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and are still used today by indigenous tribes throughout Africa.
Why mushrooms, why now?
Craig Fourie, the Managing Director of Mushroom Guru, believes that people are losing faith in big pharma. “People are starting to look for alternative medicines and they’re finding medicinal mushrooms,” he says. Fourie, who once worked as a mechanical engineer, is now a medium-sized producer in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
He trains anyone looking to grow gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. “While it is easy enough for anyone to grow mushrooms, there is a steep learning curve. Unlike agriculture where you put a seed in the soil (geoponics) or when you put a seed in water (hydroponics), growing mushrooms is the treatment of air, or aeroponics,” explains Fourie.
Africa is currently undergoing what scientists call a mycelium revolution. In Kenya, mushroom farming is expanding at an alarming rate because the fungus mushrooms are made of can produce everything from plastics to plant-based meat.
“Many people are becoming more concerned about what they eat and are going for healthier alternatives,” says Roussoss Demisse, the Founder of Mushrooms Kenya. “The market has greatly grown and as per our estimations, is at 150 tonnes per month.” Since opening Mushrooms Kenya six years ago, Demisse has trained more than 450 farmers in both Kenya and its neighboring countries.
He is also seeing the boom in medicinal mushroom use as different types become more well-known. “This undoes the myth that most Africans had that mushrooms are deadly,” he says. “As the medicinal research work grows in Africa, the relevant organizations are coming to appreciate these mushrooms and the possibility of using these mushrooms to come up with solutions to some of the dire challenges such as medication for certain types of diseases.”
There are many different types of medicinal mushrooms which grow in Africa. According to Demisse, the most popular type in Kenya are reishi ganoderma, sometimes known as linghzi, and is available in the market mostly as coffee, tablets or powder. Fourie’s specialty is also reishi and through extraction, he has managed to create a unique extract that is 12 times stronger than the wild red reishi grown in the Knysna forest.
“We sent our extract to the University of Louisville Pathology in Kentucky. Working with Professor Vaclav Vetvicka, he did a preclinical trial on mice and found that the extract is non-toxic and improved the immune function of the mice by 43 percent within 48 hours,” says Fourie. “It is actually unheard of. We are currently sitting with a disruptive technology that is about to take the world by storm.”
ANCIENT REMEDIES MEET MODERN SCIENCE
From reishi to cordyceps, chaga, lion’s mane and turkey tail, mushroom extracts (as opposed to tinctures, pills and powders) are considered the most potent form of ingesting the benefits medicinal mushrooms offer because liquid is easier absorbed. It’s about making the active pharmaceutical bio available so a person’s gut flora can take up nutrients at a faster pace. “The cell wall of the mushroom contains a compound called chitin. Chitin is mostly non-digestible and it also locks in the nutrients within the cell wall,” explains Fourie. “It’s like taking the chocolate out of a Smartie. By taking the goodness out of the cell, you break that cell wall and you retrieve the nutrients and then the efficacy goes up…” The healing properties of reishi are well-researched with many scientific studies going far beyond ancient tales of folklore. There are clinical trials investigating reishi as a treatment for cancer, type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, chronic hepatitis B, anxiety and neurasthenia.
Cullen Taylor Clark, the co-founder of Aether Herbalist and Apothecary and a member of
the Mycological Societies of Southern Africa (MSSA), is certain that medicinal mushrooms, as an industry, could soon surpass cannabis in popularity.
“There’s so much more scope than cannabis with mushrooms,” says Clark, who currently has two mushroom farms in the Eastern Cape where he has invested in high-tech extraction and growing facilities. “We use what’s called subcritical extraction – we utilize vessels that change the atmospheric pressure from one atmosphere to three, and then we’re able to break apart cell walls and we can extract all
of the chemicals out of it. We then isolate these chemicals and concentrate them in a liquid form,” explains Clark. Through his work with MSSA, Clark has seen how the Zimbabwean government has been quick to fund mushroom farming. “They see it as an opportunity because fungi grows incredibly quickly. It’s happening in Kenya too.”
As someone who has pretty much dedicated his life to mushroom awareness, one of Clark’s biggest drivers is combatting mycophobia – the fear of using or eating mushrooms. “Because of colonization, we have this in-built fear of mushrooms so we need to rebuild the trust of eating fungi,” he says. “The mushrooms that we see growing all around us are non-toxic.”
Working alongside various academics, Clark is in the process of setting up Africa’s fungal industry with extraction protocols, standards and regulations to ensure that when the industry does gain traction, it is ready to take off. He is also writing a book about the use of fungi within Africa, traveling to various countries and speaking to hundreds of traditional healers to uncover what he believes is the backbone of fungal use: “I’m documenting the indigenous use of fungi for medicinal use, for entheogenic spiritual use… to try and shine a light on the subject,” he says. “I requested access to the University of the Witwatersrand rock art digital archive and I’ve sifted through 200,000 images. In the rock art depictions, they’ll blatantly say ‘sangoma holding unidentified object’. Time and time again – it always says unidentified object but if you look at it, it’s blatantly a mushroom. So perhaps we’ve been eating mushrooms since the dawn of mankind?”
Clark is ultimately hoping to solidify southern Africa as a mushroom hotspot, uncovering history that predates the Chinese use of medicinal mushrooms. “Last December, I walked 80kms through the mountains of Lesotho, hiking up mountains in the highlands to speak to traditional healers about their use of fungi. This book marries traditional medicinal mushroom use with university resources so the information can be verified with modern scientific use.”