The Fungus Kingdom contains a very wide variety of lifeforms just as diverse as plants, animals, or bacteria. We typically group fungi into three groups- invisible microscopic single-celled yeast, mold with invisible spores but obvious large colonies, and the species that produce the large fruiting bodies known as mushrooms. But in addition to these, there are also fungi that grow as visible mats or slimes, tiny wisps on the surface of a leaf, or a thousand other forms. All of these groups have species that produce airborne spores, and they all have combinations of beneficial, benign, and harmful fungi.
Harmful fungi might include household mold growth that causes asthma and allergies, a yeast infection, or just a poisonous mushroom. Beneficial fungi might be less obvious, but there are many fungal species that make great cooperative partners. When we talked with innovative Cannabis cultivators HAPA they told us how to harvest forest fungi for your garden, but let’s take a look at a few specific species and how they contribute.
Eating mold can be healthy and tasty
Edible mushrooms are common in many cultures, as is bread or alcohol made with yeast. But there are quite a few other varieties of good mold that are vital in producing many of the tastes we are familiar with.
Bleu cheese is made with Penicillium
Penicillium chrysogenum makes the life-saving antibiotic penicillin, but it has several cousins from Europe that are responsible for the distinct flavor of many cheeses. Penicillium roqueforti and Penicillium camemberti are used in their namesake cheeses and many others. Penicillium nalgiovense is used to make several different cheeses in addition to cured meats, where it fights off toxic molds and bacteria.
Sake, soy sauce, and miso are made with Aspergillus
The mold Aspergillus oryzae is known as kōji in Japanese cuisine, and is used to make a variety of fermented foods. Yeast and bacteria fermentation and other mold strains take part in breaking down the naturally occurring starches and flavor compounds in soy beans to make the kōji culture, which is then used in different ways to produce sake, soy sauce, miso, jiang, douchi, and many others. Not all fermented soy foods are made with Aspergillus, tempeh is a traditional Indonesian fermented soy food that uses strains of Rhizopus.
Mold saves lives
The fungal world is notorious for creating unique substances. But one of the most notable benefits of mold is that we have figured out which species have chemicals we might be able to use as medicines. There are thousands of fungal chemicals being researched, but here are a few with FDA approval.
Penicillium, pictured above, produces the most famous mold-derived medicine, penicillin. It was discovered by mistake in 1928 when Scottish physician Alexander Fleming found an area of dead bacteria around a mold colony. It went on to save untold lives during World War 2 and was widely available to the public shortly thereafter. While bacteria have begun to evolve resistance to penicillin, it is still one of the most widely-used antibiotics. Some strains have even shown promise fighting cancer.
Acremonium molds, formerly known as Cephalosporium, produce the class of antibiotics known as cephalosporin. This medicine has been effective in fighting off strep and staph infections, and research continues on new ways to deploy them against pathogens.
Lovastatin, the common cholesterol drug, was first found in Aspergillus terreus. Later, researchers found that many mushroom fungi from the Pleurotus species produced lovastatin, which includes several large forest dwellers in addition to edible oyster mushrooms, pictured above. Only one small study has ever been done on the medicinal impact of oyster mushrooms, and it found promising results in diabetic patients for control not just of cholesterol but also blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides. However, your doctor can tell you about the entire class of drugs effective for cholesterol control that are derived from lovastatin called statins.
Ciclosporins are a class of drugs used in transplant surgeries to control rejection of organs and are produced by a small and rather unassuming white smudge called Tolypocladium inflatum. Like all fungi this species is complex and has several different life stages, capable of being either a beetle-hunting predator or the self-spreading mold seen above. It uses ciclosporins to fight insects and other fungi.
We need close fungal friends
All of the fungi living in and on your body make up your mycobiome, which has to be protected or disease can result. Healthy fungi will not only refrain from infecting you, they also communicate regulatory signals to the immune system and keep the local bacteria in line. The members of the gut mycobiome are a little different than those that live on your skin due to the different moisture and pH conditions, but are closely related and often trade places.
If your mycobiome is stripped by harsh soaps or antifungal medicines, random fungi can move in before the helpful fungi can reestablish themselves. These passersby may cause an infection and do little to keep the immune system regulated, which can lead to many issues, including psychological diseases.
How to restore your personal fungi
Avoid harsh soaps and cleansers to maintain your skin mycobiome, and feed your gut mycobiome well with mostly unprocessed foods and a steady intake of fiber throughout the day to improve the establishment of healthy fungi.
If your mycobiome has been depleted in some way, new beneficial volunteers can be found in natural settings like forests where they will populate both your skin and gut.
Some fungal substances affect us not by curing disease or making delicious flavors, but by changing our consciousness. The American legal system has long associated any type of psychoactive substance that is not endorsed by the FDA to be illegal, which led to the costly and ineffective War on Drugs from the early ‘70s through 2011. This included labeling psilocybin and psilocin, the active substances in the Psilocybe species of mushrooms, as schedule 1 drugs or substances with no medical use and a high possibility for abuse.
Over the past decade, science has been contradicting the ideas that psilocybin and psilocin have a high possibility for abuse and no medical use. A report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in 2019 found that Psilocybe mushrooms had the lowest potential of abuse of any tracked substances, as you can see in this graph from the Economist.
Most illegal drugs and several legal ones cause many times the amount of harm as Psilocybe mushrooms. The primary danger from using them or any hallucinogen is the possibility of inducing schizophrenia in individuals that have a family history of schizophrenia. Many states and municipalities in America and elsewhere have begun to decriminalize Psilocybe mushrooms and related therapies even though they remain federally illegal. If you live in Washington D.C., Washington state, Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, or Massachusetts, you might be able to find a practitioner who offers psychedelic therapy. Keep in mind that there is no way for a psychedelic therapist to be regulated or certified, so their methods will not be approved by the FDA or any other medical body.
There is a growing body of science supporting this approach. More studies are coming out showing the potential benefits of Psilocybe, for example how Psilocybe mushrooms can help with anxiety and treatment-resistant depression. In addition, studies on healthy individuals have been finding no major side effects or negative long-term effects from using these mushrooms. A trend of “microdosing” mushrooms has even begun, wherein a very small dose of Psilocybe that results in no hallucinations is taken daily and purported to increase well-being, creativity, and thinking. Unfortunately, a study on microdosing found that only participants who knew they had taken an active dose found benefits, suggesting that expectation or excitement was responsible for the positive impacts.
As you can see there’s a lot more to fungi than just mushrooms and mildew, and a lot of what they do we can’t see, including spreading spores throughout every surface on the planet. While some types of mold can be helpful, others can cause adverse health reactions. If you’re sensitive to mold spores, air purifiers like Molekule Air Pro can remove them from your primary living spaces and Molekule Air Mini+ can remove them from your bedroom as you sleep.