As a city dweller, taking a walk through the rich biosphere of an old growth forest can feel like being transported to another world. The abundance of life in these ecosystems are evident. The embrace of mother nature seems to cancel out the noise and demands of modern life, recharging us from everyday stressors.
Through these experiences it becomes apparent that ecosystems rich in biodiversity are invaluable to not only the health of the planet, but also to our wellbeing. Of all the intricacies and relationships that exist in nature, I have become most fascinated by the powerful role which fungi play in shaping our environment. For example, the growth and expansion of forests is dependent upon the ability of fungi to decompose organic matter through formation of underground mycelium. This intricate hyphal network works by sequestering nutrients captured from the breakdown of organic matter and then transporting these essential nutrients via expansion of mycelial webbing and establishment of symbiosis with neighboring plant roots.
As my awareness and interest towards the reliance of forest ecosystems on fungi evolved, I started to wonder whether a symbiosis between humans and fungi existed, which led me to read more about their medicinal benefits for combating chronic health and pollution.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used for millennia in healing spiritual and physical ailments. Widely used throughout Traditional Chinese medicine, mushrooms have been well studied and cultivated for their healing compounds. For instance, research on Hercium erinaceus, also known as Lion’s Mane or “Yamibushitake”, has shown that consumption can help combat neurodegenerative diseases. H. Erinaceus is a medicinal mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine for increasing cognition function and for cancer prevention. Not only is this mushroom incredibly beneficial to one’s health but it is also revered for its taste, being compared to that of lobster.
Lion’s Mane can be found growing on rotting hardwood trees in deciduous forests across North America, Europe, and Japan. Chemically, several beneficial compounds have been isolated from Lions Mane. While significantly more research is needed to understand the therapeutic potential of this species for treating neurodegenerative diseases, it has been observed that in the presence of these isolated compounds the health, growth, and number of neuronal projections and connections can be improved. Interestingly, benefits incurred from these compounds are most notable when taken together, which in turn suggests a possible synergy between biologically active chemicals. In other words, consumption of whole Lions Mane mushroom is likely more therapeutic then individual chemical isolates.
Given the above notion, Lion’s Mane mushroom is gaining popularity for mitigating the cognitive effects caused from ageing. One clinical trial performed in Japan found that neurocognition improved significantly over a 16-week timeframe in participants while taking pure dried and condensed Lion’s Mane (~1 gram twice a day, everyday). Not only did this trial show that pure Lion’s Mane can significantly improve neurocognition, but the amount of Lion’s Mane required to obtain observed benefits is feasible. Additional results from this trial showed that one week following termination of mushroom consumption, cognition ceased to improve, and gradually declined. To date, no one has discovered any negative consequences to terminating consumption, only that the neuronal benefits of the mushroom will decline. Thus, Lion’s Mane should be consumed daily and consistently among all individuals, particularly those in the elderly population.
Lion’s Mane can be grown easily on recycled biomass. To learn about cultivation methods for Lion’s Mane, I recently I had the opportunity to meet with Erika Whitney from the company Fungi Perfecti. Lion’s Mane can be cultivated through propagating a culture gathered from spores or live tissue of a pure strain. After a pure strain is selected mycelial mass can be increased on a petri dish in enriched agar media, which in turn allows the cultivator to observe if any contaminants develop. Contaminant-free mycelium can then be transferred to sterilized saw dust. It is at this point where the mycelium overtakes the substrate. Ideal substrate for Lion’s mane inoculation is either hardwood sawdust or organic brown rice, the latter is considered more effective due to its ability to form more beneficial compounds in the mushroom.
It is also important to note that in some European countries the Lion’s mane has been Red Listed as its natural habitats are being destroyed leading to depleted populations in the wild. As commercial interest towards this species grows, it is important to ensure that materials can be sourced sustainably. Companies such as Fungi Perfecti are working to lessen the burden of wild harvesting by marketing mushroom grow kits to easily cultivate mushrooms in your garden and sourcing materials sustainably.
Presently, the biggest limitations to commercial cultivation of Lion’s mane are economical and include the size of the grow-area, and impact of contaminants on yield (i.e. fruit flies and mites). Thus, further research should be done to see how to maximize the yield of Lion’s Mane through varying methods of cultivation and to develop cost-effective growing methods.
Overall, current research on Lion’s Mane mushroom, and all fungi alike, is remarkably promising. As an undergraduate biology student at the University of Guelph, I hope to share my passion for the Kingdom fungi by not only raising awareness for the medicinal benefits of mushroom, but also the sustainable use of these important species as they are imperative to the ecology of forests.
As showcased by the plurality of life teeming in old growth forests, it seems that plants are well aware of who to best join forces with in order to thrive. As humans who have come out of the same planet as our fellow eukaryotic species, perhaps it may be worth researching further to see how utilizing this underlying kingdom could benefit us during our time of need.