Fungi are not plants. They don’t consume food the way animals do, and they do not use photosynthesis to manufacture their own nourishment. In fact, they have their own biological processes and categorical kingdom altogether. When animals or plants die, fungi help recycle their essential elements back to the earth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Fungi have long been academically overshadowed by the plant and animal kingdoms. From the towering Macrocybe titan mushrooms that can grow nearly three feet tall to the microscopic molds that dwell in our homes, fungi have an undeniable and prominent presence in our daily lives. But beyond their familiar forms, fungi possess an astounding array of medicinal properties that have been used for centuries in traditional medicine across many cultures.
From traditional herbal remedies to the development of modern pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, humans have captured and used the healing properties of fungus to save lives since the 1940s.
The History of Fungal Medicines
Evidence of the medicinal use of fungi dates back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese, recognized the therapeutic properties of certain fungi and incorporated them into their pharmacological practices. For example, the Chinese have long used the caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) for its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects.
In more recent times, the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 revolutionized the field of medicine. Penicillin, derived from a species of the Penicillium fungus, became the world’s first widely used antibiotic, saving countless lives. This groundbreaking discovery paved the way for the development of many other fungal-based drugs that combat bacterial infections.
Before we jump into additional behavioral and psychological health benefits, let’s look at how fungi have helped humans treat many physiological and bacterial infections.
Practical Uses of Fungal-Based Medicines
Fungi are used in traditional medicine practices around the world. Their medicinal properties have been studied and documented in numerous case studies, highlighting their potential in treating various ailments. Let’s explore some established examples of fungal medicines and their remarkable therapeutic effects.
One of the most well-known and groundbreaking discoveries in the field of fungal medicine is penicillin. As we mentioned above, Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of the fungus Penicillium notatum. His discovery played a crucial role in healing injured soldiers in WW2.
This fortuitous discovery led to the development of the first widely used antibiotic, penicillin, which revolutionized the treatment of bacterial infections. Penicillin and its derivatives continue to be essential tools in modern medicine. It’s estimated that penicillin has saved hundreds of millions of lives.
Taxol, also known as paclitaxel, is a potent chemotherapy drug used in the treatment of various cancers, including breast, lung, and ovarian cancer. This anticancer agent was isolated from the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia, in the 1960s. However, due to environmental concerns and the limited availability of the yew tree, researchers turned to fungi as an alternative source for taxol production.
They successfully discovered and engineered fungi, such as Taxomyces andreanae, that can produce Taxol in large quantities through fermentation processes. This approach not only addresses supply limitations but also reduces the environmental impact of the manufacturing process as fewer trees need to be cut down.
Cyclosporine is an immunosuppressive drug used to prevent organ rejection after transplantation. It was originally isolated from the fungus Tolypocladium inflatum in the 1970s. Cyclosporine works by inhibiting the immune system’s response to foreign tissue, reducing the chances of rejection. It has revolutionized the field of organ transplantation, significantly improving transplant success rates and patient outcomes.
Griseofulvin is ironically, an antifungal medication used to treat fungal infections of the skin, hair, and nails. It was first isolated from the fungus Penicillium griseofulvum in the late 1930s. Griseofulvin works by interfering with the formation of fungal cell walls, preventing their growth and proliferation. This medication has proven to be highly effective in treating dermatophyte infections and remains in use today.
Lovastatin is a cholesterol-lowering drug in the class of statins. Derived from the fungus Aspergillus terreus, it inhibits the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which plays a crucial role in cholesterol synthesis. Lovastatin has been widely prescribed to control high cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular diseases. It has contributed significantly to the management of hypercholesterolemia and improving patients’ overall health.
Ongoing Mycological Research
These case studies exemplify the immense potential of fungi as a source of diverse therapeutic compounds. They highlight the importance of ongoing research and exploration of fungal medicines, offering hope for the development of novel treatments for various diseases in the future. By delving deeper into the complex world of mycology, we can unlock the hidden treasures of nature and harness the healing powers of fungi for the benefit of human health.
Psilocybin in Mental Health Therapy
Despite the very common applications fungi have played in modern medicine, they have been popularized by their role in psychedelics. “Magic mushrooms” are a species of mushroom that contain (primarily) psilocybin — a compound that interacts with our 5-HT2A receptor. The resulting effects can impact our mood and mental cognition.
When ingested, psilocybin is converted into its active form, psilocin, which binds to these receptors and alters neural communication patterns in the brain. This disruption of normal cognitive functioning is believed to facilitate a state of heightened introspection, increased emotional openness, and a dissolution of ego boundaries. Not surprisingly, these are all key components of psychedelic experiences.
In the case of PTSD patients, the National Library of Medicine states,
Psychoactive drugs such as MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin have been shown to specifically target and decrease fear and anxiety pathways in the brain.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9214830/, Retrieved on November 28, 2023
By reducing anxiety and fear, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are more capable and receptive to therapy and confronting traumatic memories.
Challenges in Utilizing Fungi as Medicine
As we explore the potential of fungi in medicine, it is important to acknowledge the various challenges that researchers and healthcare professionals face in harnessing their medicinal properties. While fungi offer numerous therapeutic possibilities, they also present unique obstacles that need to be overcome.
Identification and Characterization of Medicinal Fungi
One of the primary challenges in utilizing fungi as medicine is accurately identifying and characterizing the specific species with therapeutic properties. The vast diversity of fungi, with over 1.5 million estimated species, poses a significant hurdle in this process. Proper identification is crucial to ensure the correct selection of fungi with therapeutic potential, as different species may have varying medicinal attributes.
Limited Knowledge and Research
Accurately characterizing the mechanisms of action and bioactive compounds within these fungi requires extensive research and experimentation. That said, despite the immense potential of fungi in medicine, our understanding of their medicinal properties is still relatively limited. This is in part because when psychedelic substances were classified as Schedule I drugs, most research and scientific studies came to a halt.
Many fungal species remain unexplored, and their potential therapeutic benefits are largely unknown. Conducting comprehensive research to uncover the medicinal properties of these species is an important step in expanding our knowledge of natural medicine.
Unfortunately, limited funding and resources allocated to mycological research often impede these efforts. Consequently, it is vital to start investing in studies that promote collaboration between researchers to accelerate the discovery of new medicinal fungi.
Standardization and Quality Control
As with cannabis, maintaining consistent quality and standardization of medicinal products is another significant challenge. The growth conditions, environmental factors, and extraction methods used can greatly influence the composition and potency of the bioactive compounds within medicinal fungi. And of course, we need rigorous testing as the field of medicinal mycology continues to gain interest and momentum.
Ensuring reliable and reproducible results is crucial for the development of safe and effective medicinal products. Implementing standardized cultivation methods, quality control measures, and regulatory guidelines are essential to guarantee the consistent quality and efficacy of fungal medicines.
Ethical and Sustainable Harvesting Practices
The sustainable harvesting of medicinal fungi presents ethical and ecological challenges. Many valuable medicinal fungi species are symbiotic with trees and play crucial roles in forest ecosystems. Overharvesting from nature or unsustainable collection practices can disrupt these ecosystems and lead to the decline of important fungal species.
Developing ethical harvesting guidelines and promoting sustainable commercial cultivation practices is necessary to ensure the preservation and long-term availability of medicinal fungi.
Commercialization and Accessibility
Bringing medicinal fungi to market and making them accessible to patients can be complex. The commercialization process involves:
- Navigating regulatory frameworks
- Overcoming financial barriers
- Addressing potential issues concerning intellectual property rights as medicinal drugs are developed from the same or similar fungal compounds
Ensuring affordable access to fungal medicines is also vital for their widespread adoption. Collaborations between researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and policymakers are necessary to address these challenges and make medicinal fungi more readily available and affordable for patients.
A Return to Natural Medicine
Our journey through mycology has allowed us to uncover the remarkable medicinal properties of fungi. Through extensive research and study, we have come to recognize that fungi have the potential to provide a wide range of therapeutic benefits. Species that possess powerful antimicrobial properties open up new possibilities for the development of novel antimicrobial drugs that can combat drug-resistant infections.
Although the field of mycology is experiencing a surge in interest, it is important to thoughtfully approach the study and use of medicinal, psychoactive fungi. While many fungi possess beneficial properties, many are toxic or harmful if not correctly identified or prepared. Proper identification, cultivation, and extraction methods are essential to ensure the development of safe, efficacious products.
We believe that through responsible scientific research, mycology has a strong future in a world where some of the best medicine comes directly from nature itself.