In a time when division and conflict is impacting our country so severely, and the threat of world wars, pandemics, and social unrest destabilizes one’s sense of anything permanent, the 2019 Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi is most welcome. With its gorgeous time-lapse photography and spiritual conclusions, this film takes one on a truly mystical journey into the science and function of an organism that has been (and will likely be) a crucial part of the Earth’s existence and survival.
The documentary begins with a scientific look at the true immenseness and intelligence of the Fungi Kingdom. Following mycologist Paul Stamets, we learn that underneath every mushroom popping out from the ground is a vast web of mycelium which are fibers that function much like the human nervous system. Even trees apparently use these networks to communicate with one another and swap nutrients. Several scientists interviewed throughout the film highlight the “intelligent” nature of fungi, one even suggesting that humans are descendants of mycelium since the kingdom Animalia and Fungi both originated from a common ancestor 4.5 billion years ago. Or could this represent, as I believe, a common Creator? One who knows the importance of interconnectedness, and set up the planet to represent this and function in harmony with each part?
The uses of the humble fungi are truly staggering. The film highlights several, including yeast for fermentation of alcohol, cheese, yogurt, and the making of the world’s oldest staple – bread. Fungi can even be used to break down hydrocarbon (oil) spills and purify drinking water. Furthermore, it was fascinating to discover that soldiers in the Civil War used moldy bread on their wounds before penicillin was officially discovered to prevent infections! It is hypothesized in the film that the discovery of penicillin from mold was instrumental in the Allied forces winning World War II, since the Axis countries still did not have access to penicillin for wound treatment at the time. One scientist suggested that because old-growth forests house so many medicinal mushrooms, “saving old growth forests is a matter of National Defense.”
One interesting function of fungi that the film spent a significant amount of time on was the therapeutic use of micro-dosing psilocybin (magic mushrooms) to treat PTSD, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. Nine studies by John Hopkins University found that treating terminal cancer patients with psilocybin (using up to three doses total) produced a sense of oneness, spiritual healing, peace, and diminished fear of death that lasted for months. Paul Stamets credits a trip on psilocybin for curing his childhood stuttering problem. Although the Nixon era of the 1970’s banned psychedelic research in response to the war on drugs, in 1999, psilocybin was approved by the FDA for medicinal use in certain populations. Scientists involved in these studies felt that the sense of “oneness” produced by this fungi could be “critical for the evolution of our species.”
A few other medicinal mushrooms were highlighted in the film as well, including Lions Mane and Turkey Tail. Lions Mane mushroom has shown promise in stimulating neurogenesis (nerve growth) and could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Turkey Tail is a potent immune system stimulant and seems to improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy (as illustrated by Paul Stamets’ mother who used both chemo and 8 doses of Turkey Tail per day to cure herself of Stage IV breast cancer.)
Although not mentioned in the film, mushrooms are also well known for their culinary uses. My first exposure to mushrooms was in the delicious meals my mother made. As a vegetarian, I find that mushrooms are good substitutes for meat in recipes such as vegetarian burgers, Bolognese sauce, stir-frys, and chili. Even common mushrooms like button mushrooms, shitake, and cremini contain health benefits, as I discussed in my previous article on Eating With the Seasons: Winter. One of my favorite guides to the use of mushrooms for health is Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health by Four Sigmatic founder Tero Isokauppila. While this company also provides easy access to user-friendly formulations of medicinal mushrooms, the book is a great resource to learn more and try a few recipes.
It is hard not to become a mycologist yourself after watching this inspiring and beautiful documentary. One challenge put forth towards the end of the film is to educate each other and continue to study the healing and rejuvenating power of fungi, because, as Paul Stamets puts it, “We could be the community that heals the planet.” I invite you to watch this film, put on your hiking boots, and get friendly with the wise kingdom of Fungi that lies below our feet.
Mulled Mushroom Wine (from Healing Mushrooms, pg. 176)
2 cups apple juice
2 cups red wine (1/2 bottle)
1 tsp. chaga extract*
Zest and juice of 1 orange
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
4 allspice berries
Combine ingredients (except honey) in a saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes but do not boil. Strain and sweeten with honey.
*According to the author, chaga is used to prevent viral infections (boosts lymphocytes), improve skin and hair appearance, decrease inflammation, and prevent cancer.
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