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Health Supporting Mushrooms History

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Mycelium Running
by Paul Stamets!

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 promoting mushroom species, the oldest known example of mushrooms used for health.

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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 of these are polypores, so named because they have pores instead of gills underneath. No species of polypore is known to be poisonous. They usually grow on trees, dead or alive.

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).

And as though by no coincidence, Agarikon also holds the distinction as the oldest health supporting mushroom in historic European literature. In 65 B.C., Greek physician Dioscorides recorded it in Materia Medica as a remedy for tuberculosis. More recently, K. Grzywnowics in a 2001 article titled Medicinal Mushrooms in Polish Folk Medicine said Agarikon tea was traditionally considered an elixir for long life and listed historical uses to include lung conditions (coughing, asthma) and rheumatoid arthritis, but also infected wounds and open bleeding.

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

Another Chinese health supporting mushroom known as Cordyceps was first described in the 200 A.D. book The Classic Herbal of the Divine Plowman. Cordyceps was, and still is, largely used as an aphrodisiac and to improve physical prowess in athletes, although modern research also indicates many other areas of potential usefulness.

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 health supporting mushrooms in the world. Its potential uses range from energizing tonic to immune-booster and antibiotic with anti-tumor properties.

Health research on mushrooms appears to have begun in the late 1960's in Japan. It gained attention in the West through the research by Dr. Ikekawa, who found that families growing mushrooms had lower cancer-rates than other people in their communities. Since those early days, health research into mushrooms as grown exponentially and is still increasing. Health supporting mushrooms are continuing to make history.

Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. Mushrooms 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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