Finding, and Thanking, Your Inner Mushroom

Let’s begin with a little housekeeping. Rigorous genetic exploration has brought us to a mildly uncomfortable pass. It seems when the animal and plant kingdoms went their separate microbial ways some 1.1 billion years ago, the single-celled plant-thing went one way and the single-celled fungus/animal thing went another. It would take 9 million more years for this unicellular life-form to fork yet again into two separate kingdoms; Animalia and Fungi. 

You heard right. Go back far enough and you were sharing a cell with fungus, so to speak. Thus; not only are those mushrooms popping out of the dank forest floor more animal than plant— you and they have the same Grandpappy. Or...make that Great Grandpappy. Is it any wonder, then, that certain mushrooms act with such catalytic fervor on our earnest animal bodies? It’s like a homecoming.


Twenty Centuries

Take for example the Red Reishi Mushroom, or Ganoderma lucidum (to use the taxonomist’s parade of syllables). The Red Reishi mushroom has a 2,000 year-old reputation in Asian culture as a 5-star natural healing agent. So it was that the Chinese Academy of Medical Science chose the ancient fungal miracle worker for the equivalent of a grand genetic shampoo-and-set; that is, a complete chromosome-level analysis of its genome. Ganoderma lucidum is one of the few mushrooms to have been completely sequenced this way. Why?

The Chinese scientific establishment (along with its project partners in the U.S. and France) looked at Red Reishi’s long, long, [long] record of success in the realm of traditional medicine, and wondered— how the bleep does this thing work? Not to mention the more pointed question—can we plumb the Ganoderma lucidum genome sufficiently, map and understand it so completely, that we may synthesize powerful medicines based on its chemistry?


What’s the Fuss?

The late 16th century Ming Dynasty saw publication of what is now considered the first pharmacological encyclopedia (or pharmacopoeia, if you like). Called the Ben Cao Gang Mu (in English it’s known as the Compendium of Materia Medica), this far-reaching and historically influential tome contains some 1800 entries, 1100 illustrations and 11,000 specific natural healing prescriptions and recommendations. Painstakingly researched and assembled by early pharma genius, acupuncturist, scientist and herbalist Li Shin-Zhen, this traditional medicine encyclopedia was the first public and official documentation of Red Reishi’s medicinal properties. 

The Red Reishi mushroom was at that time noted for its therapeutic effects; it was known to increase one’s energy, strengthen the heart, slow down the ravages of aging (sorry to use the word ‘ravages’ here, but after a certain age, even an inexplicably stiff knee can inspire extreme annoyance) and boost mental focus and memory. Today, the State Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China recommends the mushroom for dizziness, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and many other symptoms; up to and including some of today’s most significant disorders. It’s all about this hard-working mushroom’s inherent free-radical taming properties.

Among many other somewhat jaw-dropping lab discoveries, contemporary scientific studies of Red Reishi have stunned cancer researchers on several fronts, as well. Two 2005 studies showed the mushroom’s polysaccharides and triterpenes to have measurable “chemopreventive and/or tumoricidal effects” in animal and human studies, for instance.  

The potent antioxidant properties of Red Reishi have been well-known for a couple millennia. Interestingly, besides mitigating cellular oxidative stress, as mentioned elsewhere in these pages, Ganoderma lucidum’s free-radical-battling mojo also goes to antibacterial and antiviral activity. This somewhat creepy-looking former animal has it all.


A Wink Across the Eons

A billion years ago—that’s a thousand million years, if you really want to get daydreamy about it—animals and fungi parted cellular ways with (as I imagine it) a handshake and a stiff little nod. As relationships go, this one ended in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Today we’re reuniting, reconnecting, and rejuvenating. Having been cellular bunkmates with these ‘shrooms through the biosphere’s earliest chapters, we know the mushroom like the back of our lanella, and it shows. Our fungal alter-egos are here to help. Hey, they’ve always been here to help.

Now the smock-and-beaker set is excitedly codifying Red Reishi’s health effects in lengthy, heavily footnoted white papers and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Picture an old lady in burlap using Red Reishi in the year 5 B.C. We just caught up with her. The West is finally taking notice of this “Mushroom of Immortality”.

Better late than never.


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