Mushrooms and Medicine

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by Andrew Weil, M.D.

I'm interested in the way cultural bias engulfs science, because scientists love to think of themselves as being free from bias. They like to think they're describing objective reality, yet they wear cultural lenses like the rest of us. In the areas of greatest emotional charge--food, sex, drugs--it's easy to see how pervasive cultural biases affect their thinking.

I like to use the example of Chinese medicinal mushrooms. In traditional Chinese medicine, drugs that have specific effects are considered the least interesting. Th most highly esteemed are those with wide-ranging effects. many mushrooms belong to this category; the Chinese believe that they strengthen the body's natural defenses and stimulate its haling mechanisms. Western medicine, on the other hand, is obsessed with finding "magic bullets," specific molecules that work on specific diseases in specific ways. If someone says a drug is good for many different conditions, Western medicine loses interest. Panaceas and tonics have the sound of snake oil.

Ginseng is a good example. For years, it was something that only the "crazy" Chinese (and then hippies) used. We didn't take it seriously because its reputed wide-ranging effects didn't fit our preconceptions of medicine. When we finally got around to looking at its chemistry, we discovered that ginseng is loaded with interesting compounds that resemble steroid hormones and can stimulate the body's pituitary-adrenal axis (which could explain its many effects).

We know that mushrooms are full of unique, biologically active compounds like psilocybin and amanitin. Other fungi have given us some of our most powerful drugs [antibiotics], and we have one half the world saying that mushrooms are the most desirable medicines available. Yet there is practically zero interest in them on the part of Western medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. This isn't just silly, it's completely irrational, and I believe it stems from two prejudices: one against panaceas and the other against mushrooms, a pervasive cultural belief that, beyond adding a little flavor to a dish, mushrooms are essentially worthless.

pp. 193 All That the Rain Promises and More... by David Arora (1991)

Image retrieved from Vitamins First on Sept. 30, 2014.

medicinal mushrooms, mushroom, capsule, Purica