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Health Supporting Fungi through History

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Mycelium Running, by Paul Stamets
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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 health supporting fungi species, the oldest known example of fungi used for health.


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There is good reason to believe he carried both of these fungi 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 fungus in his possession, Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), may have been used to cauterize the wound on his right hand.

Both species belong to the group of fungi 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.

With a couple of notable exceptions, most polypores are inedible because they are woody and fibrous. But as natural remedies in the form of tea, extracts and poultices, they have been invaluable to people all across the globe for many millennia.

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).

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 health supporting fungus 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.

Up to this point, we've only covered the use of health supporting fungi in the West. However, their use has been far more widespread in Asia. There are at least three Asian species that would be criminal to leave out of any article on the history of health supporting fungi.

First out is Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), sometimes nicknamed the "Mushroom of Immortality" due to its wide range of healing properties. Reishi was mentioned in Shen Nong's Herbal Classic from around 2,000 years ago. Many ancient Oriental temples and wood-carvings include images of this highly revered "cure-all" fungus.

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.

Last but not least is the health supporting fungus Shiitake, better known as a culinary delight. However, Shiitake is also one of the most researched fungi for health promoting properties. Commercial cultivation of Shiitake began about a thousand years ago in China. Health uses include immune enhancement, antibiotic and more. Shiitake extracted Lentinan polysaccharide is approved as an anti-cancer drug in Japan.

Modern research into health use of fungi 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 health supporting fungi has expanded exponentially since that time and continues to increase and intensify until this day. Health supporting fungi are still in the process of making history.

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

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Copyright © 2008-2017 Cordyceps Reishi Extract, LLC - All written material on, including "Health Supporting Fungi through History."