The Medicine Woman’s Larder – Mushrooms – The Egyptians believed they granted immortality

Medicine Womans larder

According to the ancient Egyptians, over 4,000 years ago, eating mushrooms granted you immortality. The pharaohs even went as far as to ban commoners from eating these delicious fungi but it was probably more to guarantee that they received an ample supply. Mushrooms have played a large role in the diet of many cultures and there is evidence that 3,000 years ago certain varieties of mushrooms were used in Chinese medicine and they still play a huge role in Chinese cuisine today.

There are an estimated 20,000 varieties of mushrooms growing around the modern world, with around 2,000 being edible. Of these, over 250 types of mushroom have been recognised as being medically active or therapeutic.

More and more research is indicating that certain varieties have the overwhelming potential to cure cancer and AIDS and in Japan some of the extracts from mushrooms are already being used in mainstream medicine.

Apart from their medicinal properties, mushrooms are first and foremost an excellent food source. They are low in calories, high in B vitamins, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and zinc – and supply us with protein and fibre. They are versatile and they are easy to cook and blend with other ingredients on a daily basis. For vegetarians they provide not only protein but also the daily recommended amount of B12 a vitamin often lacking in a non-meat diet.


The most common mushrooms that you are likely to use in cookery are white button mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. They may not be as exotic as some of the oriental varieties but they still hold many health benefits. They are not only low in calories and fat, and therefore great if you are trying to lose weight, but they will also provide you with plenty of fibre. Even the little white mushrooms contain B vitamins, potassium and selenium and there are some interesting studies being conducted at the moment into some very important medicinal applications.

One area of research is into the phytochemical action that suppresses two enzymes, aromatase and steroid 5alpha-reductase. Aromatase converts the hormone androgen into oestrogen, an excess of which can promote the development of breast cancer. Steroid 5alpha-reductase has the same effect on testosterone, converting it to dihydrotestosterone, which has been shown to be involved in the development of prostate cancer. In the laboratory a team led by a Dr. Chen discovered that the mushroom extract suppressed the growth of both these cells.

Another property in mushrooms that is potentially very interesting is the amount of the antioxidant ergothioneine compared to the amounts in other foods such as wheatgerm and chicken livers. In fact, mushrooms can have up to 12 times as much – which means that a small serving of 5oz could provide excellent protection against oxidative damage throughout the body.

Until recently it was difficult to find some of the traditional medical mushrooms outside of specialist shops but supermarkets have begun to carry Shiitake and Maitake mushrooms. They can be a little more expensive but their benefits far outweigh the cost.



Shiitake mushrooms range in colour from tan to dark brown and they have broad, umbrella shaped, caps. They feel soft and spongy when raw but when cooked they are rich tasting and meaty in texture. They are ideal as an alternative to red meat in pasta dishes as you can chop them finely and cook with a little olive oil in exactly the same way.

Shiitake’s main benefit is the ability to lower LDL cholesterol. There is a specific amino acid in the mushroom, which helps speed up the processing of cholesterol in the liver resulting in lower levels in the blood and therefore reducing the risk of heart disease.

In 1969 Japanese scientists isolated a polysaccharide (sugar) compound from Shiitake they called Lentinan. It appears that this substance stimulates the immune system cells to rid the body of tumour cells resulting in either a reduction in size or complete removal of cancerous growths. In Japan the Federal Drug Agency has licensed Lentinan as an anti-cancer drug and there is on-going research into the effect of Shiitake mushrooms and AIDS.


The Maitake mushroom is found in clusters of dark fronds, which are firm but supple at the base. They have a distinctive aroma and taste rich and earthy. They are great in any dish where you use mushrooms but are wonderful in a homemade stroganoff sauce served with brown rice.

They are also known as the “hen of the woods” possibly because of their shape. As with the Shiitake this mushroom has a compound that inhibits the growth of cancer cells by stimulating the immune system and in addition they have been found to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels but this has not been proven in humans as yet.

Another area of research is diabetes and it is thought that Maitake mushrooms may have a blood sugar balancing action that may reduce the need for insulin.

Mushrooms, as with most fruit and vegetables, hold some interesting and potentially lifesaving properties as well as nutritional benefits.


Button mushrooms should be white, plump and clean. Shiitake and Maitake mushrooms tend to be brown and slightly wrinkled but they should not have any damp, slimy spots. Keep mushrooms in a loose paper bag in the refrigerator for about a week and store dried mushrooms in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer for six months.

Use a damp cloth to clean and then either slice or chop finely and add to your favourite recipes. They are great in stir-fry vegetable dishes, soups and stews and cooked gently in a little olive oil they make a great accompaniment for steak and poultry.

One word of warning: Naturally occurring Purine in mushrooms causes an increase in the amount of uric acid in the blood. This can lead to the formation of kidney stones and also the crystals that collect in joints in the toes that result in gout. If you suffer from kidney problems or gout I suggest that you limit your intake of mushrooms to once a week. If you still experience problems then you should avoid these and other Purine-rich foods altogether.

Candida: As a yeast overgrowth it was assumed that eating fungus such as mushrooms should be avoided. However, recent research has found that it is sugars that are the problem.


©Sally Cronin – Just Food for Health – 2009