The Surprising Health Benefits Of Foraging (And How To Get Started)

Photo: Stocksy

Mushrooms are an incredible food to forage, both because they help promote a healthy body and because simply interacting with the fungi can be extremely healing.

Here are a few mental and physical benefits of foraging that I've noticed during my time gathering my own food and helping others do the same.

What makes mushrooms so healthy?

1. Beta-glucans

Nearly 90 percent of a mushroom's cell wall is made of these fungal sugars. Structurally unique and much heavier than plant sugars, beta-glucans are largely known to help to support overall immune function. They are also water-soluble and therefore can be found in mushroom teas and foods such as soup.

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2. Terpenoids

Terpenoids are lipids that can be found in all living things, and they have anti-inflammatory properties that help to calm an overactive immune system without suppressing it. As lipids, these medicines are hydrophobic, meaning they do not extract in water and are therefore best ingested as a whole food (i.e., mushrooms in your morning omelet).

Which mushrooms should you look for?

Here are a few mushrooms you can start integrating into your regular health routine:

1. Lion’s Mane Mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus)

Lion's Mane stimulate the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) — a specialized protein that promotes growth of sensory neurons and helps with nerve signaling. There are many studies looking into its use as a treatment for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other degenerative neurological conditions.

How to prepare them: Lions' Mane are delicious cooked in stir-fries with butter or coconut oil. They also make good tinctures and can be made into capsule supplements when dried.

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2. Reishi Mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum)

Revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), these powerhouse mushrooms are packed with adaptogenic properties. Traditionally known as the king of all mushrooms, they have picked up nicknames like "mushroom of immortality" and the "10,000-year" mushroom over time. Modern research has classified the reishi as a general medicinal agent that promotes harmony in the body and improves stress response.

How to prepare them: Reishi mushrooms are too woody to cut and eat, but they make for an excellent base for hot teas, alcohol tinctures, or dried capsule supplements.

Powdered Reishi Mushrooms Photo: Mara Fae Penfil

3. Shiitake Mushrooms (Lentinula edodes)

Shiitakes are packed with vitamin D, amino acids, and polysaccharide proteins known as LEM and LAP, which have shown significant anti-tumor activity. They also stimulate good microflora growth and can lower cholesterol.

How to prepare them: A choice edible that is delicious in stir-fries and soups, shiitakes can also be made into teas and tinctures.

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4. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey tail mushrooms, which contain polysaccharides PSK and PSP, are used around the world alongside other cancer treatments to reduce the negative effects of chemotherapy and radiation. In Japan, PSK is an approved drug that is funded by the national health care system.

How to prepare them: Like reishis, these mushrooms are not edible. However, they make for a lovely mild tea, tincture, or dried capsule supplement.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms Photo: Mara Fae Penfil

What are the other benefits of foraging?

Now that you know which mushrooms boast certain health benefits, here's a bit of information about why the physical act of foraging can be healing.

1. Foraging puts you in contact with the outdoors.

Spending time outside means sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. And multiple studies have found that physically interacting with soil can work as an antidepressant, and you do plenty of that when collecting wild foods.

2. It helps you connect with community.

Foraging is a great activity to do in groups. I encourage novice mushroom foragers to connect with their local Mycological Societies so they can learn from seasoned foragers. It's also a great activity for parents to do with their kids!

3. It builds confidence.

The act of learning is in itself a medicine. As we become proficient in a subject matter or skill set, our self-confidence increases and we learn how to reach beyond our comfort zones and into areas of growth.

4. It connects us with our cultural roots.

The first documentation of humans using mushrooms dates back nearly 19,000 years. Since then, we have evolved and grown alongside these fungi, and learning how to successfully pick them is an ode to our ancestors.

For more information about how to forage your own mushrooms, click here. Happy picking!

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