History of Mushrooms as Medicine!

Functional mushrooms have been used by humans for thousands of years all across the world. Fungi have existed for much longer than the animal kingdom, and humanity is still far from learning all its secrets to thriving under the most adverse conditions. Many of the chemicals that fungi produce to flourish in the wild are also active in humans, but humans have yet to uncover all their power. 


In ancient China and Greece, alchemists and physicians accessed some of mushrooms’ healing, nutritional, and psychoactive uses. However, the use of mushrooms to maintain health dates back to the earliest humans. In 1991, a group of hikers discovered a man from the stone age who had been naturally mummified in the mountains of Italy for over 5,300 years. Preserved with the man were functional mushrooms that he carried to maintain strength and endurance in the high elevation. 


Today, mushrooms are used internationally as medicine for a wide array of purposes, and international research on the medicinal power of functional mushrooms is growing rapidly. Researchers are currently uncovering proteins in mushrooms that have the potential to treat Alzheimer’s and other neurological health conditions. The power of medicinal mushrooms is largely undiscovered and full of healing potential. 


Early Mushrooms Uses in Asia


During the 5th century, Buddhist and Taoist alchemists recorded and described several medical, spiritual, and nutritional uses for mushrooms. In ancient China, the Reishi mushroom was valued as a tonic herb and forbidden to the common people. In China, the healing power of mushrooms was accessed by both humans and animals. When the snow melted in the mountains in the spring, the yaks would head uphill to feed on the cordyceps mushroom. The animals became frenzied and hyper-energized upon consuming, as cordyceps has an anti-aging effect and is especially useful as a post-recovery food. The people of eastern Asia were uncovering medical uses for mushrooms that are still widely used today. 


Mushrooms in Ancient Greece and Europe – A Storied History


Around the same time that alchemists in eastern Asia were delving into the healing powers of mushrooms, ancient Greek physicians were classifying mushrooms for their potent anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to help cauterize wounds. Socrates, Plato, and other elites of ancient Greece used the psychoactive properties in mushrooms to make hallucinogenic drinks for spring festivals. And further north, in Scandinavia, the Vikings were said to have eaten mushrooms before battle so they could fight more ferociously. People all across the world were simultaneously beginning to unlock the healing potential of functional mushrooms. 


Modern Research on Functional Mushrooms 


Currently, the world is engaging in a scientific revolution surrounding medicinal mushrooms. We have classified about 850 medicinal mushroom species, but only a small percentage has ever been tested. We also have yet to discover all the fungi species on earth. Scientists estimate there are over 3.5 million species, the majority undiscovered. Penicillin, a revolutionary antibiotic discovered less than a century ago, is derived from fungi. And scientists are just now discovering the potential of lion’s mane mushrooms to help treat depression. 


Modern research on medical mushrooms resurfaced around the mid 20th century and focused primarily on the use of mushroom components to treat cancer. In the 1980s, research began to diversify and with the onset of the AIDS epidemic, scientists began searching for antiviral cures in fungi. In eastern Asia, the varietal of mushroom we call turkey tail is a part of both traditional and modern medical treatments for cancer. 


Most research has been done in the far east and through international collaboration, and the majority of medical mushroom studies still come from China and Japan. As global society pushes international collaboration, over 600 clinical studies and over 50,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published in medical and scientific journals. Researchers estimate that by the current rate of scientific exploration of healing mushrooms, it may take another 4,000 years to uncover the extent of their power.