The Healing Power of Mushrooms

Shiitakes, matsutakes, maitakes, and other friendly fungi could fight cancer, cholesterol, and HIV


| March-April 1999



Dawn in Telluride, Colorado, is chilly, even in the dog days of August. But the cold doesn't matter. I'm up to go mushroom hunting, and my excitement is more than the morning can cool.

It's my first time heading into the woods to gather wild mushrooms, especially ones I plan to eat. But I'm not here to set off on a vision quest or become a kidney transplant candidate. It's the 18th annual Telluride Mushroom Festival, and guiding my initiation into the world of mycology are a couple hundred biologists, nature photographers, and amateur mushroom fans from around the country. They've come for the weekend to see old friends, swap mushroom news, and enjoy Rocky Mountain earth flavors packaged in the bright orange folds of chanterelles and the musky aroma of matsutakes.

The festival is more than foraging through mountain meadows for fungal delights. It hosts a series of workshops on the interplay between mushrooms and human beings. One of the most popular is on medicinal mushrooms, the bridge between natural healing and gourmet cooking.

“The line between gourmet and medicinal mushrooms has blurred,” says Paul Stamets, author of several books on mushroom cultivation and one of the pillars of the festival. “All gourmet mushrooms have medicinal benefits.”

In Asian cuisine, mushrooms are prized as much for their medicinal benefits as for their taste or texture. This contrasts with the American or Western approach to food; only recently has science confirmed that eating vegetables indeed prevents disease. The fact is that many wild mushrooms from around the world, including North America, contain potent compounds for treating cancer, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even HIV.

Likewise, the biological niche occupied by mushrooms puts them in competition with bacteria, resulting in strong antibiotic defenses that have yet to be fully understood. According to Stamets, pharmaceutical companies have largely ignored these compounds, perceiving mushrooms as foods, and have left the research to scientists in Asia and Europe. The result is a paucity of American studies but an abundance of reports from scientific communities overseas.