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How to Make Medicine from Mushrooms: Part 1
Looking after your health can be expensive. So here are some easy ways to make your own remedies - from supermarket mushrooms for city dwellers or wild ones for country folk. Health without the hype!
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a table full of foraged mushrooms
This is Part 1 of a series on how to make your own medicines from mushrooms and today I’m tackling hot water extracts.
There’s been an explosion of interest in the medicinal properties of mushrooms over the last five years. There seem to be supplements everywhere. A lot of them are useless and I’ll explain why, and we’re encouraged to believe that each one has unique properties so we need to buy them all. I thought it would be useful to dispel some myths and give you the real facts about mushroom medicines, as they should be available to everyone, even on a tight budget. We also don’t need to use the rarer, slow-growing species for general health - especially mixed into our daily coffee - so we can be ecologically sensitive as well as healthy. Save them for the truly sick!
Mushrooms are the great alchemists of the natural world. They break down complex substances into their basic elements, splitting the strong cellulose of a fallen tree back into the carbon and nitrogen of soil. They can break down oil spills and even recycle plastic. As well as reducing chemical compounds into their elemental parts, they can also assemble molecules into some very sophisticated poisons and medicines.
So it’s hardly surprising that they are going to have an effect on our body’s chemistry. This can happen in a bad way, with some mushrooms causing death. Death caps (Amanita phalloides) by destroying the liver. Roll rims (Paxillus involutus) by causing fatal haemolytic anaemia (an abnormal breakdown of red blood cell) where we lose the red heme from our blood. They manufacture hallucinogens in magic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.) and the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). However, mushroom medicines can be profoundly helpful to us humans and this knowledge goes back at least 5000 years. So what are we looking for?
It helps to know that the medicine in mushrooms comes from two broad groups of chemicals. The beta-glucan polysaccharides and the secondary compounds, often triterpenes. Depending on how we want mushrooms to modify our health, we have to decide what type of compounds, and therefore what type of preparation, to take.
Beta-glucan polysaccharides (β-Glucans)
Polysaccharides in general are starches, carbohydrates, sugars and building blocks for a wide variety of structures from sucrose and fructose to cellulose. One type in particular - beta-glucan polysaccharides - are common to all mushrooms, from the lowly white button mushroom - bred in their millions for daily consumption - to the mighty reishi. You just can’t be a mushroom without having chitin made from these polysaccharides, as this is a vital part of the cell wall. As calcium is to bones, and cellulose is to plants, so beta-glucans are an intrinsic part of the cell wall of all mushrooms. (To be technical this is a long branched chain (1-3)(1-6)beta-D-glucans polysaccharide.) It is these beta-glucan polysaccharides that are so important as a medicine for our immune system.
Consumer alert: Look for brands that show high beta-glucans content. Alpha-glucans or ‘total polysaccharides’ are not relevant to medicinal strength.
β-Glucans help to strengthen our immune system whilst also keeping it in balance. Most increase TH1, support TH3 and downregulate TH2. This balance is crucial to prevent cytokine cascades, histamine reactions, angiogenesis and general immune system stress or overdrive. It is well-researched that mushrooms are great at immune modulation and positively affect stem cells that make red blood cells, and the cells of our immune system: lymphocytes, macrophages, T cells, dendritic cells (DCs), and natural killer (NK) cells. By potentiating our natural killer cells, the T-cells, they help to hunt down cancer cells and fight infection.
Remember Super Mario? When he jumped on a mushroom he got superpowers. This is how our immune system is when we take medicinal mushrooms - supercharged.
(Read more about the effect of mushrooms on the immune system in the Guggenheim (2014) paper quoted at the bottom of the page.)
Beta-glucans are water soluble
If you want to use mushrooms for your immune system then you need to know that beta-glucans is only bio-available to our bodies when it has been extracted in hot water. Our digestive system is not used to breaking down chitin and the tough cell walls of mushrooms tend to hang on to their beta-glucans. So it is not enough just to add powdered mushrooms to a smoothie unless the powder is a hot water extract of the mushroom, that has been extracted then redried.
Consumer alert: Some companies sell mushroom powders that seem cheap. They can only do this if the mushroom has not been extracted. It may taste nice but it’s not going to help your health much, as beta-glucans is hardly bioavailable at all in this form.
Only by heating or boiling the mushroom are you going to liberate those beta-glucans.
How to make a hot water extract
Very simply, a hot water extract is a soup, a stock, or a cup of tea! For the latter, it’s important to know you need a decoction and not an infusion.
An infusion is where you pour boiling water over something and let it soak for a while - the standard way of making a cup of tea. Flowers, leaves, leafy herbs and berries are all suitable for infusions.
A decoction is where you boil water with the substance you are decocting in the water. Roots, bark, seeds and mushrooms are all best decocted.
As long as a mushroom is edible you can use the methods below to get beta-glucans, including shop-bought mushrooms. Below is an example of two decoctions based on aiming at therapeutic amount (3 grams) of beta-glucans daily. (This is the strength that most clinical trials are conducted at.)
Turkey Tail Decoction
Turkey tails contain an average of 50% beta-glucans. So use 6 grams of dried turkey tails. Ideally I would powder them, as this exposes more of the mushroom to the water and you get the most out of them. But it will work regardless and the exact strength is not critical.
Put the turkey tails into a saucepan with six cups of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down, cover the pan, and simmer gently for at least an hour. (I use a slow cooker and leave them in for 24 hours, for a really deep decoction). Remove from the heat and leave it to infuse while it cools, then strain it off. (Don’t throw away the pulp as you can use this to make a tincture.)
You can then return the liquid to the pan and reheat it to evaporate off some of the water until you have around 3 cupfuls left.
Divide this remaining liquid into three parts. These are your three doses for the day and each one should contain 1 gram of beta-glucans, thereabouts.
Remember that if you’re not used to consuming mushrooms, you may need to start with a a dessert spoonful and build up the dose gradually. This should stop your gut microbiome from rebelling!
Organic Button Mushroom Decoction
To make a strong immune boosting decoction from button mushrooms (or the portabello type) we need to do a little maths first as their average beta-glucans content is around 7% (dry weight). We also have to allow for the moisture. You get around 30 grams of dried mushrooms from a 300 gram punnet of organic mushrooms as they are around 90% water. 7% of 30 g will give us a yield of around 2.1 grams of beta-glucans. Note: You do not need to dry the mushrooms.
Chop up a whole 300 gram punnet of organic white or brown mushrooms. Put the pieces into a saucepan with 2 litres of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down, cover the pan, and simmer gently for half an hour.
Then take the pan off the heat. Use a colander to strain the mushrooms out of the liquid, keeping the liquid and returning it to the pan. Use a potato masher to press as much liquid out of the mushrooms as you can.
Now reheat the liquid and evaporate off the water to half the original quantity. Divide into three parts or less (around 3 large cups) to get your daily dose. Each portion should contain around 700 milligrams of beta-glucans - being about 1/3 less the strength of the turkey tails.
These two versions above will give you the basics. In my advanced classes I can take you through the beta-glucans content of a wide variety of species. However, what’s important to remember is that to get an immune boosting effect you must use a hot water extract, and let it simmer for a good length of time.
You can also be less specific about the dose strength and just add a handful of mushrooms to a soup, stew or stock. Like bay leaves, turkey tails or slices of birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) can be scooped out at the end of cooking and left to one side.
Some mushrooms can be reused several times. Dark coloured reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) that I buy from Mushroom Table, artists bracket (Ganoderma applanatum) that I forage, and chaga* (Inonotus obliquus) can all be reboiled in fresh water for a few hours until they are no longer able to turn the water a deep dark brown. So experiment!
I will cover other ways of using medicinal mushrooms to extract their secondary metabolites (for example; betulinic acid from birch polypore that is helpful for arthritis) in future posts.
*A note re chaga: This is not a mushroom (i.e. a fruiting body) but the food storage organ of a fungus that only reproduces at the very end of its life cycle. It is very slow growing - taking at least 10 years to produce a harvest-sized lump - and there is not an inexhaustible supply, especially in Scotland. I have been studying mushrooms for decades and it is not as abundant here as it used to be, and birch forests (its host) have not been replanted over the past 50 years at a speed that produces enough to keep up with market demand. I know it has become trendy to add it to your coffee, and a lot of people are selling ‘Scottish chaga’ on Amazon but please don’t support this practice. Use it when you or your loved ones are really ill and for general health use fast growing species like birch polypore or turkey tails. After all, if you did ever urgently need it, to fight off cancer or suppress excruciating psoriasis, it would be such a shame to find out that the world and his dog had consumed the lot in a trendy chaga cocktail!
Guggenheim, A. G., Wright, K. M., & Zwickey, H. L. (2014). Immune modulation from five major mushrooms: application to integrative oncology. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 13(1), 32–44.
McCleary, B. V., & Draga, A. (2016). Measurement of β-glucan in mushrooms and mycelial products. Journal of AOAC International, 99(2), 364–373.