There’s an invisible kingdom running under our feet and we don’t even notice. It’s usually associated with mold, decomposition, decay, and even death, but actually, we should be grateful this species exists. Indigenous peoples have been using mushrooms for food and medicine for centuries. Now is our turn to start paying attention to the numerous advantages fungi have to offer to humankind.
Fungi are neither plants nor animals. They are almost infinite, they have more than a million and a half different types, equivalent to six times more than plants. Although they have bad press, we owe them everything: fungi are responsible for both ends of the entire life chain. Luckily, in recent years scientists have been investigating further and have discovered a number of benefits this species can contribute to human diet and mental and physical health.
We are used to thinking of mushrooms as these cute little red hats with white polka dots spread on the ground of moist woods. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge part of them that we don’t see, the mycelium, a rich underground network that weaves links with plants in a virtuous bond of mutual help and decomposition. The mycelia are vital because they regulate the communication between the soil, its nutrients, and the forests; they feed and sustain nature.
The universe of the Funga is very varied, there are edible, medicinal, hallucinogenic mushrooms and they are even used as raw material to generate industrial products.
A Cure for the Mind
The first mention of hallucinating mushrooms in mass media was in 1957 when American author and ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson published an article in Life magazine about “mushrooms that cause strange visions”.
Other mycologists, like Paul Stamets, continued studying various kinds of psychotropic mushrooms, but later on, the so-called “war on drugs” Richard Nixon declared in the 1970s, put a stop to almost all research in this regard.
Psychedelic mushrooms are those that contain psilocybin, a chemical compound that, when digested and transformed into psilocin, generates psychedelic experiences. In recent years, investigations have been focusing on the benefits these mushrooms have on our imagination and creativity. Furthermore, scientists have discovered that, if consumed in small doses, they are very effective in treating conditions related to our nervous systems like depression, trauma, stress, anxiety, epilepsy, Alzheimer's, autism spectrum disorders, and even addictions and eating disorders.
There is scientific evidence that indicates that following a microdose protocol produces an elongation of neurons that helps with neuronal recovery. It’s just a matter of time before this kind of treatment becomes common practice for doctors worldwide. In his latest book, This is your mind on plants, writer and journalist Michael Pollan writes: “As I write, psychedelics seem to be undergoing a change of identity. Since researchers have demonstrated that psilocybin can be useful in treating mental health, some psychedelics will probably soon become FDA-approved medicines: that is, recognized as more helpful than threatening to the functioning of society.”
Food for Thought
Mushrooms don’t need to be psychoactive to have effects on our health. Edible and medicinal mushrooms such as oyster mushrooms, lion's mane, and shiitake, among others, not only have great gastronomic value, they also have medicinal properties that strengthen the immune system. Every type of mushroom has its own characteristics, but all of them share the potential of being antiviral, antibacterial, and tumor attenuating.
After the pandemic, people have been more aware of our unsustainable food production system. We now know that, in order to mitigate the effects of global warming, we need to eat fewer animal products. In that sense, mushrooms might be the answer to overcome our need for protein with a greener carbon footprint. They are the perfect option to replace red meat since they are full of vitamins and minerals and have no cholesterol. There are even studies that indicate that mushrooms are a source of vitamin B12, a very important resource for vegan and vegetarian diets.
Building From the Ground Up
Beyond the food and psychedelic uses of mushrooms, the underground world of fungi is full of potential. They can also be used for architecture, furniture objects, and fashion materials.
For example, researchers from the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research and the University of Rosario in Argentina created an ecological leather developed from fungi. The material is biodegradable and is obtained from the reuse of waste from the agricultural industry. It can be used to make clothes, shoes, and accessories, replacing the traditional and contaminating animal leather.
Mycelium is also a thermal, sound, and fire-retardant insulating material. In 2014 New York studio The Living presented a tower built from mushrooms and corn stalks bricks at Moma PS1. Since then, construction companies have been paying attention and have been trying to develop materials that could replace concrete for building houses in a more nature-friendly way.
Psychotropic, edible mushrooms, and mycomaterials are the key to start dreaming for a better future. Their application in everyday life is not yet democratized for mass use, but we can hope they will soon become the answer for a significant change.