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Mushrooms as medicine

Courtesy Sarah Naciri

Truro herbalist Sarah Naciri says she’s always been interested in plant medicine. As a kid in Pennsylvania she sought out books and worked on farms, in her teens she traveled to India to study ayurvedic medicine, and in her twenties she lived in Western Massachusetts and studied biology, ethnobotany, and sustainable agriculture.

"And at the time I was living with a monk a spiritual teacher and we were serving lots of people with chronic illness," Sarah explained.

"I had these books. I was out in the wild. I was picking, I was eating and just studying and studying while spending a lot of time with people who were suffering with M.S. and schizophrenia and autoimmune conditions and cancers, you name it."

Through this work, Sarah got to know a mushroom called reishi that grows all over the world.

"Reishi is a polypore mushroom that grows on dead or decaying trees. So often it's grown on the Eastern Hemlock. Around here, I find it on dying or decaying oaks. And it's so powerful. It's been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine, Japanese and Korean medicine. It’s been given the honorable name of the mushroom of immortality. So it’s really like the king of medicinal mushrooms."

Reishi has a number of different impacts on our bodies, but one of the major ways it works as a medicine is by influencing our gut microbiota. In recent years Western science has caught up with traditional medicinal knowledge from around the world in understanding that the tiny microbiotic organisms inside our digestive system actually play a critical role in maintaining our health and immune systems. An unbalanced microbial gut community is connected with a daunting list of chronic diseases including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and auto-immune diseases. Sarah learned that reishi acts as what’s called a prebiotic—it has compounds that we can’t digest but that feed the good bacteria in our guts and shape the reactions of our immune system. This makes it a powerful food that’s also medicine.

Courtesy Sarah Naciri

"Reishi is often used alongside conventional cancer treatments and also after to help with the effects of radiation, but also as a daily tonic for preventative measures. So I love it as a tea, I put it in my syrups, because it’s quite bitter, so you have to be ready for its bitterness. It has a sweetness, it has a meatiness, there’s a lot of flavor to explore, but there’s a powerful bitter component."

When Sarah moved to North Truro from Western Mass in 2015, she was happy to find reishi growing here too. Now she works on the Cape as a community herbalist and says reishi is one of her favorite local medicinal mushrooms. Summer is the best time of year to look for these kidney shaped polypores.

"When it first starts it's really knobby with white and yellow along the edge and as it develops there’s more orange and red and the underside, the underside is really crucial for harvesting, you want to look under the mushroom and make sure it’s pure white."

This is a sign that the mushroom has already released its spores, which is important in keeping local reishi populations abundant. Sarah dries reishi that she harvests near her home in Truro and uses it all year long to make an immune syrup with local honey, elderberries, rosehips, and several other local roots and mushrooms, and to create tinctures and soup broths. And she says that in the U.S., we often separate food and medicine, but in many traditional cultures they’re one and the same.

"We’ve come a long way away from just simple, healing, plant-based foods, and the food is our medicine, the food is our nourishment. You know, I love to think about people using the plants and using the mushroom for millennia. We've had such a deep connection with the plants that it is it feels like a healthy responsibility to continue that relationship."

Learn more about reishi foraging.

Click herefor a resource from Sarah’s website to learn more about reishi.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.