The Secret life of Mushrooms & Fungi
by Madison Cavallaro
Wait a minute, aren't those the same thing? Oddly enough, no. All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. Mushrooms are actually reproductive structures produced by fungi, almost comparatively to seeds of a fruit. These "seeds" are referred to as spores and form under mushroom caps. Wind allows them to spread far distances and form new microscopic fungi networks.
Fungi differ from plants and animals, and because of this, they are categorized in their own kingdom. To briefly describe it, fungi do not internally digest food or use photosynthesis. They grow around food sources and contain special enzymes that digest externally to absorb nutrients. This may seem like a simple life, but they are more than your Fun guy-fungi. They are the carpenter of all plants (and they aren't even plants). By the end of this article, you'll know exactly what I mean.
It's true. Mushrooms are not plants. They are a part of a group of fungi that contain ergosterol. This substance is similar to cholesterol in structure and can be transformed into vitamin D.
Most edible mushrooms also contain B vitamins, phosphorus, vitamin D, selenium, copper, and potassium. Mushrooms pose an excellent way for plant-based eaters to get essential vitamins and minerals that many think can only come from animal meat products. But don't just judge mushrooms from their vitamin and mineral components. They are a multifaceted tool that we should all get to know in more detail. They may come in handy one day.
Mushrooms as Vitamin D
Typically, people don't run to their nearest grove of mushrooms for the sunshine vitamin, but they actually have the potential to provide significant amounts of vitamin D depending on how they are grown. Unfortunately, buying mushrooms at the supermarket doesn't offer much vitamin D because most commercial mushroom growing happens indoors, without UV light. UV light increases the content of vitamin D2 (a form of ergocalciferol only found in plants), and I wouldn't be writing for Westside Compost if I didn't say growing your own mushrooms may be the best way to reap all the potential benefits from mushrooms.
Mushrooms as Medicine
Historically, mushrooms have been used as medicine circa 450 BC. In more recent history, indigenous groups native to the Americas used mushrooms to heal wounds and noted them as powerful medicines. Many indigenous cultures have used mushrooms as an aliment for many illnesses. Still, in modern medicine, they remain a mystery. Recent research is exploring the medical benefits of mushrooms. Studies have found that mushrooms may play a role in cognition. One specific study found that high mushroom intake had protective effects on older adults' brains. Other research has looked into mushrooms and gut health. Studies show that mushrooms support good bacterial growth in the gut and survival of those strains, acting as a prebiotic. The components of mushrooms can have antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory effects, which may catalyze these findings. Still, more research is needed to understand the full medical potential of mushrooms. Although, there may be enough evidence to convince you to add them to your diet.
Mushrooms as Climate Warriors
Fungi, by just existing, are fighting climate change. I personally wish I had that power. How so? Well, there are many ways, and that is why I call them the plant carpenter- they can fix many things. Fungi that grow in soil are ecosystem regulators, biological controllers and help in the decomposition of organic matter. Meaning they help in soil formation and modifying the soil environment. They also help plant growth through mutualism and increasing nutrient availability for the plants. Lastly, related to soil, they can aid against root pathogens and protect against drought conditions. Many researchers of this topic call fungi the "2nd green revolution" as it is one of the most promising concepts for improving soil quality, plant productivity, and alternatives to pesticides, fertilizers, and even genetic manipulation. This is only the start.
So far, I've been talking about Fungi like the ones you eat or you may see walking through the forest. There are also fungi growing underground symbiotically with tree roots, helping forests absorb more CO2. This is huge for climate change. In fact, researchers suggest these fungi are hard at work doing as much as possible to delay the effects of global warming. How exactly does this happen? It's not entirely understood, but scientists have learned that these fungi (ectomycorrhizal) form partnerships with tree roots to absorb CO2, which slows down decomposition that returns carbon from the soil back into the atmosphere. These particular fungi are susceptible to nitrogen pollution, and it is wiping out the fungi on a massive scale. This can cause landscape-level changes detectable across the entire continent. As we move away from fossil fuels, nitrogen pollution will continue to decrease, and the ectomycorrhizal forests will have a chance to be restored.
The topic of how health and climate change are intersectional encompasses all of my articles. So, no surprise here that the more mushrooms in our diet, our soil, and the roots of trees, the better our health and the planet's health. When we eat mushrooms, we are gaining incredible nutrients, promoting gut health, and supporting cognition. When we use fungi in our soil, we are getting healthier produce for us and more sustainable, and now we are learning how fungi are essential for our planet. Our harmful practices have done decent damage, but even mushrooms can help us with that. Scientists have discovered certain fungi (oyster mushrooms being one of them) can digest and break down plastic by converting it into organic matter. A world where I can decompose my own plastic using mushrooms and then throw them on a skillet and sauté them is a world I want to live in. If it wasn't already evident, we must protect fungi at all costs.